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Browns vs. Steelers: 7 Talking Points

Johnny Manziel played excellently on Sunday, but a stout Steelers defense and an ineffective ground game doomed the Browns in Pittsburgh.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps it's time for team to retire the "Play Like a Brown" motto.

In a bizarre, mistake-filled afternoon, the Cleveland Browns fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 30-6, at Heinz Field on Sunday.

Nearly all the common characteristics of a typical Browns loss were present -- missed opportunities, lots of penalties, multiple turnovers, drops in the end zone, and an ineffective gameplan.

Quarterback Johnny Manziel excelled in his second straight start, but the rest of the team sputtered. The rushing game grounded to a halt and the defense fell apart against a resurgent Steelers team led by a hobbling Ben Roethlisberger.

The Browns now enter the bye week with a highly disappointing 2-8 record and a five-game losing streak. Following another loss to a division rival, owner Jimmy Haslam will have time to think. Is it time to start over?

Here are my takeaways from the loss:

1. New game, same refrain: Repeated mistakes sunk the Browns early on against the Steelers. The outcome of the game became perfectly clear within the first two minutes.

The Browns set the tone for the game on their very first offensive play. On a quick dropback, Johnny Manziel fumbled the ball as he attempted a short throw. CBS analyst Dan Fouts accused Manziel of having sweaty palms due to nervousness, but whatever the cause, the Steelers recovered at the Cleveland 12-yard line. The hosts promptly kicked a field goal a few plays later to take an easy 3-0 lead.

The mistakes continued as the first half dragged on, as the Browns committed seven penalties in the first half alone.

On 1st and 10 from the Cleveland 49-yard line, cornerback Charles Gaines cost the Browns 35 yards on a pass interference call. To the defense’s credit, the unit remained stout in the red zone, forcing a 4th and 5 from the 9-yard line and a Steelers' field goal attempt.

Instead of holding the Steelers to three points, the Browns committed another penalty. In trying to block the field goal, Armonty Bryant lept up and landed on a Steelers player, illegally jumping and costing the Browns five yards. Bryant’s initiative is admirable, but the execution is not.

On the next play, Roethlisberger completed a 4-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown, and hit Brown again for the two-point conversion to extend the Pittsburgh lead to 14-3.

On the Browns’ next offensive play, Andrew Hawkins fumbled following a 16-yard reception, handing the ball right back to the Steelers. Pittsburgh did not manage to score, as the Browns defense held on 4th and goal from the 1-yard line, but the Steelers scored on their next drive following a quick Browns' three-and-out.

Cleveland’s woes did not end in the second half. Pass interference penalties on Johnson Bademosi and Tramon Williams granted the Steelers 77 free yards and a 25-yard field goal.

Some of the most frustrating Browns’ mistakes occurred later in the third quarter. On 1st and goal from the 1-yard line following a near Manziel touchdown, Cameron Erving was called for holding on an Isaiah Crowell touchdown. The penalty pushed the Browns back ten yards and took the points off the board.

On the next play, the Browns were called for a false start penalty, setting the offense back further. The farce continued on the following play as Manziel lost nine yards on a sack, setting up 2nd and goal from the Pittsburgh 25-yard line. On 4th and goal from the 7-yard line, Manziel threw an interception.

To recap, the Browns almost had a touchdown on an impressive Manziel scramble and then should have had one on a Crowell run. But the Browns lost 24 yards on three plays and then did not get any points out of the 15-play drive.

Following a Jordan Poyer interception, the Browns managed to score a touchdown on their next drive. But every good event is matched by a bad break for the Browns, so kicker Travis Coons missed the extra point.

Fittingly, on the last play of the game before the Steelers kneeled down to kill the clock, Tramon Williams was flagged for pass interference in the end zone, pushing the Browns back 29 yards.

The Browns finished the day with 12 penalties for 188 yards.


2. Go Johnny Go: Johnny Manziel showed major signs of improvement against the Steelers. However, beset by bad blocking and an ineffective run game, Manziel could not overcome the Steelers.

In a great analysis piece this week, former NFL defensive end Stephen White examined and identified Manziel’s failure to stay in the pocket and make the easy read on many plays. As the game progressed, Manziel steadily improved in this aspect.

While, as White wrote, Manziel is not ready to be a starting quarterback in the NFL, he deserves more time under center to prove himself.

Following a so-so game against the Bengals, Manziel showed more poise in the pocket on Sunday. Manziel progressed through his reads more often instead of panicking in the pocket.

Manziel’s patience paid off with several deep plays, including a 61-yard strike to Travis Benjamin in the first quarter, the Browns’ longest offensive play of the year.

Manziel and the Browns did not execute in the short passing game, however. Particularly in the first half, Manziel floated passes too high for his wideouts in the flats and threw behind his targets on short throws. Manziel improved on short passes in the second half, but looked much more effective in the medium-to-long passing game.

To Manziel’s credit, the offensive line could not slow down a stiff Steelers pass rush. Cameron Erving struggled to replace Joel Bitonio at left guard and the line did not recognize many exotic Steelers blitz packages. The Steelers also performed exceptionally in pass coverage, compounding the line’s play.

Manziel did overcome the offensive line’s ineffectiveness on several big plays, including an 11-yard run on 3rd down, coming within a yard of the touchdown. On the next drive, Manziel threw a 10-yard touchdown to Gary Barnidge.

The running game also struggled mightily, as I’ll discuss later in this piece. The team’s lack of ability to run the ball put too much pressure on Manziel to carry the offense.

Manziel finished the day 33-of-45 for 372 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception.

A very good day for the second-year quarterback, but not enough to propel the Browns to victory.

3. Big Ben burns Browns again: The Steelers’ "backup" quarterback dominated the Browns secondary. Missing Joe Haden and Donte Whitner for the second straight week, the Browns secondary laid an egg.

On the Steelers’ first drive of the game, Landry Jones fell to the ground in a heap with an ankle injury. The third-year quarterback had been pegged as the starter after Ben Roethlisberger left last week’s game against the Raiders with an ankle injury.

As Jones was carted to the locker room, the Steelers had to call Roethlisberger into action. Even on a bum ankle, the veteran did not disappoint.

Roethlisberger tore apart the Browns’ secondary in every way possible.

Roethlisberger proved to be effective as usual in the short passing game, hitting his targets with ease. But it was the deep ball that killed the Browns.

Time and time again, Roethlisberger delivered perfect deep balls to his wideouts, particularly Brown and Bryant. Roethlisberger targeted Charles Gaines and Pierre Desir, as the Browns’ young cornerbacks were repeatedly burned on long pass plays.

Roethisberger completed passes of 56, 44, 32, 28, 27, and 20 yards, finishing the day with 379 yards and three touchdowns.

Most of the blame for Roethlisberger’s success lies on the Browns’ secondary for failing to execute and run with the Steelers’ wideouts. However, defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil should share the criticism.

Why were the Browns’ cornerbacks so often isolated in single coverage of the Steelers’ speedy wide receivers? Why not adjust to a coverage scheme more suited to prevent deep passes, such as Cover 4, which uses a four-deep zone to prevent deep passes?

Perhaps O’Neil and the Browns’ staff prepared more for Jones than Roethlisberger? Regardless, Roethlisberger’s dominance of the Browns was embarrassing.

4. A little help, please? The Browns’ pass rush failed to exploit the Steelers’ biggest weakness on Sunday. Playing against a gimpy Roethlisberger, the Browns defense could not generate any kind of a pass rush.

Over the offeseason, the Browns hyped an improved front seven with a higher aptitude for rushing the quarterback following the addition of Randy Starks, Danny Shelton, Nate Orchard, and Xavier Cooper.

The Browns’ front seven has recorded just 16 sacks this season in ten games. So much for an improved pass rush.

Playing against an offense led by Big Ben is never easy. On the other hand, the Browns did enjoy one big advantage today: Roethlisberger did not have his typical mobility due to an ankle injury.

Did the Browns exploit this weakness? Of course not.

O’Neil and the Browns often called blitzes, particularly in the first half. Paul Kruger often rushed from the edge. But for whatever reason, the blitz calls were not effective.

As the game progressed, the coaching staff seemed to abandon its blitzing strategy, utilizing a more conservative scheme. That strategy didn’t work out, either. Roethlisberger had plenty of time to throw, using it to allow his receivers to streak down the field and come open down the field.

Missing Haden and Whitner, the Browns had to know the Steelers would target Gaines, Desir, and Bademosi. So did the staff shield the youngsters with creative and effective blitz calls? Nope.

5. Dead weight: The offensive line could not protect Manziel or open holes for the running game. The absence of left guard Joel Bitonio deeply affected the Browns against the Steelers.

The "Steel Curtain" is not what it once was, but the Steelers defense is still fearsome. The Steelers punished Manziel, sacking the 22-year-old signalcaller six times and recording six quarterback hits. Quite often, especially towards the end of the game, Manziel had to buy time with his feet to avoid Steelers pass rushers.

On the year, the Browns have allowed 36 sacks.

As the Browns predicted, the Steelers dialed up many unique blitz calls, sending defenders from inside or the edge and confusing the heck out of Manziel and the Browns offensive line. It wasn’t pretty. Manziel nearly had his head ripped off on a savage facemask by Pittsburgh’s Arthur Moats. Manziel stayed in the game, but that could not have been pleasant.

Speaking of unpleasant, the Browns’ running game simply stunk.

The Browns finished with 14 rushes for 15 yards. Manziel gained 17 yards on three scrambles, while Isaiah Crowell lost five yards on six carries, Duke Johnson recorded 10 yards on four attempts, and Travis Benjamin lost seven yards on a poorly executed sweep.

Yes, some of the blame falls on the running backs. Crowell hesitated and didn’t hit the hole with speed. But the offensive line looked as porous as SpongeBob SquarePants.

Cameron Erving played particularly poorly in place of Bitonio at left guard. The 2015 first round draft pick was taken to school by Cameron Heyward and other Steelers offensive linemen. Erving did not show good form on many plays, failing to fire out of his stance or use his hands properly. At first glance, Erving looked bad, though left guard is not his usual position. Further film study will shed light on Erving’s play.

In the meantime, the Browns need to find a way to establish some kind of a running game.

6. A silver lining: The Browns’ defensive line stopped the Steelers’ ground game. If there’s one positive from Sunday, it’s the Browns’ run defense.

Offseason additions have not improved the Browns’ NFL-worst run defense, but the unit showed some improvement today.

On 21 Pittsburgh rushes today, the Browns allowed just 60 yards. The club had not limited an opponent to less than 100 yards since allowing 91 rushing yards to the Chargers on October 4.

From the beginning of the game, the Browns defensive line penetrated the Steelers’ offensive line on running plays and forced the Steelers to stick to passing. Roethlisberger ruined the approach, likely intended to force Jones to beat the Browns through the air, but the intention was smart.

The Steelers’ only real success on the ground came at the end of the game. Heading into the fourth quarter, the Steelers had -4 rushing yards. Of the Steelers’ 60 rushing yards, 35 came on the final drive of the game.

Granted, Pittsburgh running back DeAngelo Williams is not even close to LeVeon Bell in terms of talent. However, stopping the run is important.

At least the Browns’ defense stopped something.

7. Heated seats: Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine are feeling the heat following a 2-8 start. Owner Jimmy Haslam promised "no change" in a statement to reporters from and the Akron Beacon Journal following the game, but the winds of change are blowing.

Heading into the bye week, the Browns have a dismal record of 2-8, the club’s worst start since 2012. The Browns have lost five in a row. Five of the team’s losses have been decided by 14 or more points. The quarterback situation is a tangled web. One first round draft pick is not playing and two others are underperforming.

In short, the Browns are a mess.

Haslam seems willing to let the last six games of the season play out, but how long will his patience last? How many games do the Browns need to win for Pettine and Farmer to keep their jobs?

A loss to a division rival never helps. A long losing streak can cost you your job.

Perhaps Pettine can forestall a change by firing O’Neil or offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. Following another poor effort, though, he can only spread the blame so much.

Farmer’s similar inability to build a stout roster is also catching up quickly with this team.

Is it time for a change in Berea? That’s not for me to say. But you can bet Haslam is thinking long and hard about the future after this loss.