That one hurt.
In a classic case of finding a unique way to lose, the Cleveland Browns lost to the San Diego Chargers, 30-27, on a game-winning field goal following an offsides penalty on Tramon Williams.
The field goal spoiled a dramatic, game-tying touchdown drive orchestrated by quarterback Josh McCown and Gary Barnidge.
With the loss, the Browns fall to 1-3 heading into Baltimore next Sunday.
Without dwelling anymore on the pain of another tough Browns loss, here are your seven takeaways from Sunday's road loss to the Chargers:
1. McCown Mania: The Browns' starting quarterback did his job, and more, outdueling San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers. Though not perfect, Josh McCown did enough to win.
The 36 year old ended the day with an impressive statline: 32-of-41 for 356 yards and two touchdowns. His counterpart, Philip Rivers, finished 23-of 38 for 358 yards and four touchdowns.
Statistically, the two were about even. However, lost in the stats are McCown's game-tying drive and endurance under pressure.
With the team trailing 27-19 midway through the fourth quarter, McCown steadily led the Browns' offense down the field for the game-tying touchdown, a one-yard toss to Gary Barnidge. McCown then threw a quick slant pass to Taylor Gabriel for the two-point conversion with just over two minutes remaining. Many Browns quarterbacks have tried and failed to lead the Browns offense down the field in similar fashion.
The Chargers also didn't make it easy on McCown by sending lots of blitzes. To the journeyman's credit, he did not throw any interceptions or make any ill-advised throws.
None of this is to say McCown had a perfect day. McCown made plenty of mistakes, fumbling early in the game and failing to diagnose blitz calls on several occasions. But all in all, McCown gave the Browns a chance to win.
Is McCown the quarterback of the future? Obviously not. Is he the quarterback of the present? Most definitely.
2. When in doubt, blitz: The Browns frequently dialed up blitzes to slow down the Chargers’ offense. Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil opted for a bold blitzing strategy, particularly early in the game. The tactic worked in the first quarter, but it burned the Browns the rest of the game.
The Browns blitzed on the first six defensive plays of the game, resulting in back-to-back three-and-outs for the Chargers. The blitz calls confused an injury-afflicted San Diego offensive line, as different Browns players blitzed on each play. For example, Donte Whitner blew through the guard-tackle hole on one running play, while a few plays later, two Browns linebackers exploded through the middle of the line on a passing play.
The Chargers soon adjusted, however. San Diego began to spread the field and use the short passing game to keep the Browns honest.
The Browns utilized a more conservative approach in the second quarter, allowing the Chargers to tack on two field goals. Then in the third quarter, O’Neil went back to the blitz. Rivers burned the Browns with five minutes left in the third, lofting a short pass to Danny Woodhead, who scampered 61 yards. The big gain set up a 19-yard Rivers touchdown pass to Ladarius Green, again in the face of a Browns blitz.
In one instance that the blitz worked, Xavier Cooper sacked Rivers on third down on the second-to-last play of the third quarter. Cooper's big play forced a San Diego punt, leading to a Browns field goal on the ensuing drive.
On the Chargers’ next drive, O’Neil went to the well again with a jailbreak blitz. Rivers made the Browns pay again, finding Dontrelle Inman on a short crossing route against a zone defense. Inman sped by the inside linebacker and hit the edge with speed, dashing 61 yards to the 1-yard line. Two plays later, Rivers added the Chargers lead on an easy touchdown pass to a wide open John Phillips for a 1-yard touchdown with 7:29 remaining.
3. Dirty laundry: Penalties pestered the Browns all day, as the team accumulated 12 over the course of the game, including eight in the first half alone. Yellow flags haunted the Browns today, especially on big plays.
The worst penalty of all occurred in the final moments on Sunday’s game. On 4th and 7 from the 22-yard line, the Chargers lined up for the game-winning field goal. Following a San Diego timeout, Josh Lambo missed the 39-yarder. Cleveland could barely let out a sigh of relief before a yellow flag ruined the moment. The referees called an offside penalty on Browns cornerback Tramon Williams. On the re-kick, Lambo connected on the 34-yard attempt, giving the Chargers a 30-27 win.
Williams’ penalty hurt the most, but many other players committed small crimes over the course of the game.
On a 3rd and 3 early in the second quarter, John Hughes III jumped across the line of scrimmage early, granting the Chargers a first down. The Chargers later ended the drive with a field goal.
Missing top cornerback Joe Haden, Pierre Desir and Johnson Bademosi drew several pass interference calls throughout the game. The two proved incapable of stopping Allen, as the third-year wideout hauled in four receptions for 72 yards and a touchdown.
If the Browns want to survive a treacherous schedule that includes the Ravens, Broncos, and Rams this month, Mike Pettine’s team has to be more disciplined.
4. New game, same story: The Browns' run defense failed to stop San Diego's ground game at critical points. The Chargers didn’t run the ball often, but when they did, it worked.
Philip Rivers generated most of the Chargers' offense through the air, but the ground game won the game for San Diego.
With just over a minute remaining, the Chargers lined up in shotgun formation at the Browns' 43-yard line. Rivers handed the ball off to Danny Woodhead, just the sixth San Diego run play of the second half. Woodhead burst through the heart of the Browns' defense for a 19-yard gain.
The big pickup put the Chargers in field goal range and in position to win the game.
The Browns’ linebackers again proved to be the culprit. Christian Kirksey and Paul Kruger often failed to flow to the ball, opening holes for Woodhead and Melvin Gordon.
The defensive line and secondary also deserve some of the blame. The Browns' defensive ends fell victim to seal blocks, while the safeties rarely rushed forward to prevent big gains.
Enough is enough: The Browns have to figure out a way to stop the run sooner or later.
5. Settling for less: Once again, the Browns failed to convert on important red zone opportunities, as the club settled for a field goal on three of its four trips. Does this sound familiar?
For the umpteenth time since 1999, the Browns' failure to score touchdowns from deep inside opponents' territory. For whatever reason, the Browns' offense goes into a shell inside the 20-yard line.
To be fair, two of the three unsuccessful trips were brief. The first doesn't quite count, as the Browns didn't sneak inside the 20 until fourth down. The second quick trip occurred with six seconds left in the first half, as Isaiah Crowell was tackled at the 10-yard line following a 14-yard gain. The third trip, however, shows lack of creativity.
Following a 53-yard completion to Crowell, McCown and the Browns had 1st and 10 at the San Diego 15-yard line early in the third quarter. The Browns called a run, which resulted in a six-yard gain by Shaun Draughn. The next playcall was a pass, which lost a yard on a McCown checkdown. Then on 3rd and 5 from the 10-yard line, the Browns called a screen. It might have worked, except for the fact that the Browns had already run several unsuccessful screen plays earlier in the game.
To the team's credit, the Browns did convert on the fourth trip, as McCown completed a 1-yard pass to Gary Barnidge for six.
According to Football Outsiders, the Browns entered the game with an NFL-worst 3.29 points per red zone trip. The trend continued today. The Browns need to improve inside the 20-yard line. Period.
6. The war in trenches: The Browns' offensive line did not protect McCown against a stiff Chargers' pass rush. For the second straight game, the offensive line looked overmatched.
Facing a solid, but not outstanding, San Diego defense, the Browns' offensive line allowed four sacks and nine quarterback hits.
The blame can be spread among numerous parties. John Greco and Mitchell Schwartz didn't have a great day on the right side, allowing the defensive end or outside linebacker to control the edge. Alex Mack didn't hold his blocks long enough, forcing McCown to checkdown too often. Even the typically outstanding Joel Bitonio got beat a couple times.
McCown did cause some of the problems himself, failing to call out blitzes at times. On one play, McCown failed to foresee a blitz on the outside, as Schwartz had responsibility inside. The unblocked Charger tackled McCown before he could take three steps.
For the amount of money the Browns have spent on building a sturdy offensive line, the high number of sacks and quarterback hits is unacceptable.
7. Duuuuke: Johnson served as a reliable running back and go-to wideout for McCown. Following three so-so games, Duke Johnson broke out in the first half on Sunday.
Johnson improved noticeably during his four runs, picking up 14 yards. If not for a streaky offensive line, Johnson might have gained more.
Johnson played a major role in the passing game for the first time this season. The rookie back led the Browns with eight receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown.
McCown relied heavily on Johnson in the passing game. Whenever McCown felt threatened in the pocket, he tossed a dumpoff pass to Johnson. The Florida native worked hard on his receptions, often fighting for extra yards and the first down. Johnson even hauled in an impressive 34-yard touchdown catch early in the second quarter, the first of his young NFL career.
The Miami product briefly exited the game with a left leg injury in the third quarter but returned a few minutes later after visiting with medical personnel on the sideline. Johnson did not receive as many reps after the injury, but still made a large impact on the game.
If Johnson can remain healthy, the Browns might finally have a reliable playmaker at running back.