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Browns vs. Bengals: 7 Talking Points

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Johnny Manziel and the Browns felt the pain in the second half of a 31-10 loss to the Bengals on Thursday Night Football.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Another week, another poor second half effort.

In a disappointing display on Thursday Night Football, the Cleveland Browns lost to the Cincinnati Bengals, 31-10, in Paul Brown Stadium.

Johnny Manziel and the Browns started strong, ending the first half trailing, 14-10. As in past weeks, the second half was a completely different matter. The Browns surrendered 14 points in a fourth quarter that was difficult to watch. The Browns have now been outscored 55-3 in the second half in their last three games.

With the defeat, the Browns fall to 2-7 on the year, and the hot seat warms up for general manager Ray Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine.

Here are my takeaways from the Browns’ fourth straight loss:

1. Johnny Be Average: Manziel sparked the Browns’ offense with his playmaking ability in the first half, but ran out of momentum in the second half. Manziel showed considerable improvement, but not enough to lead the Browns to a win.

The first half was exciting as any for Browns fans, but the second half proved to be a drag.

Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo finally let Johnny Manziel do his thing in the first half. Two types of play spurred Manziel’s success: 1. Short passes to Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson; and 2. Bootleg throws by Manziel.

The coaching staff built up Manziel’s confidence early in the first half by calling checkdowns to the running backs out of the backfield. As the game progressed, Manziel’s plays outside of the pocket led to nearly all of the offense’s success.

The offensive line protected Manziel fairly well, but the Cincinnati defense frequently blitzed the Browns in an attempt to fluster Manziel. The strategy did not work in the first half, as Manziel bought time with his feet and found targets downfield on broken plays.

The Browns’ first and only touchdown can be credited to Manziel’s instincts. As the Bengals began to close in on Manziel from the right edge, Manziel slipped outside of the pocket and found Duke Johnson on a 12-yard strike. The touchdown narrowed the Browns’ deficit to 14-10 heading into halftime.

The Bengals adjusted well in the second half, as Manziel and the Browns did not pick up a first down until late in the fourth quarter.

As other teams have done in previous weeks, the Bengals made major adjustments on defense in the second half. The Bengals blitzed, but did not leave running lanes open for the scrambling quarterback. The Cincinnati defensive line stopped playing so aggressively, sealing off spontaneous bootlegs for Manziel.

On the one play Manziel did find room outside of the pocket, he came within inches of a critical third down in 3rd and 12 early in the third quarter. Following an initial measurement, the referees said that Manziel earned the first down, but reversed the ruling following a Cincinnati challenge.

The Browns’ offensive line also began to unravel in the fourth quarter. The offensive line allowed two straight sacks on the Browns’ first drive of the fourth quarter, signaling the beginning of the end for the Browns.

To be fair, not all of the blame for a poor second half performance can be placed on Manziel. As mentioned above, the offense became one-dimensional in the second half, which is dangerous, and the offensive line tired by the end of the game.

Also, Manziel’s wide receivers often ran poor routes and dropped catchable passes. Taylor Gabriel let a ball fly right through his hands and hit him in the face. Save for two receptions, Bowe ran lazy routes and didn’t put in great effort. Brian Hartline and Andrew Hawkins were sorely missed.

Could the Browns have  avoided a blowout in the second half with Josh McCown? Perhaps. But Manziel’s first half performance should be enough, in my opinion, to earn Manziel another shot next week.

Either way, Berea will be filled with quarterback talk again this coming week.

2. The Crow flies by night: Isaiah Crowell showed significant improvement in running the ball against a tough Bengals defense. The second-year back helped to kickstart the Browns’ offense, as DeFilippo finally committed to establishing the run game early, though the offensive coordinator abandoned it in the second half.

For the first time this season, Crowell exploited open holes with force. Crowell found the holes quickly, showed his fast feet in getting to the hole, and did not hesitate in dashing through it. The Georgia grad has not enjoyed a great season, but he deserves credit for being a redeeming quality of the offense tonight.

The offensive line also deserves major props for the success on the ground. The big uglies in the middle opened plenty of holes for Crowell to run through. The majority of Crowell’s successful runs occurred on inside zone plays using holes between Alex Mack and John Greco or Joel Bitonio.

Crowell finished the first half with nine rushes for 42 yards, a solid effort for the back.  Duke Johnson did not gain any yards on three rushes, while Robert Turbin did not have any carries.

Pro Football Focus graded the Browns’ offensive line as the fifth best run blocking unit in the NFL this week. Some were skeptical, including me, but the Browns’ offensive line certainly earned the praise today, particularly for its work in the first half.

The Browns abandoned the run in the second half, especially in the third quarter. On two drives in the third stanza, the Browns handed off to a running back just one time for -4 yards.

The lone rush occurred on the Browns’ first offensive play of the third quarter, as Crowell lost four on a poorly blocked play. DeFilippo and the Browns did not dial up another designed run for the rest of the night, due to the need to make up a large deficit.

As we’ve seen time and time again this season, when the Browns don’t establish the run game in the second half, opposing teams focus on attacking Josh McCown or Manziel, leading to sacks and incompletions.

The coaching staff’s lack of desire to feed Crowell in the second half is particularly depressing, since the Crow ran the ball so well in the first half.

Something has to give with the run game.

3. Andy Dink-and-Dunk: Dalton used short passes to drive down the field and wear down the Browns’ defense. Andy Dalton used short passes to give the Bengals a first half lead before utilizing medium and deep balls to break the Browns in the second half.

In the past, Dalton has struggled against the Browns. That wasn’t the case today.

Dalton finished the day 21-of-27 passing for 234 yards and three touchdowns.  The 28-year-old quarterback dissected the Browns’ defense with precision throughout the night, finding the holes and exploiting each weakness. At one point, Dalton completed 11 straight passes.

To the defense’s credit, neither Joe Haden nor Donte Whitner played, as both were out with injuries. Tashaun Gipson played, but is not 100 percent. Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil and the coaching staff only had a few days to plan for Dalton.

However, the secondary still made a wealth of mistakes. For example, Tramon Williams simply could not cover Tyler Eifert. Cincinnati’s big tight end burned Williams on several occasions, including a 19-yard touchdown pass midway through the fourth quarter. Eifert ran a simple sluggo route, completely fooling Williams and easily hauling in a touchdown pass from Dalton. Williams also missed several tackles on pass plays, as Dalton targeted him all night.

Johnson Bademosi also had a bad night, particularly in the first half. Bademosi did not get beat deep, but Dalton threw at him a lot in the first half.

The lone bright spot was Ibraheim Campbell. Playing in place of Donte Whitner, the rookie performed exceptionally. The 2015 fourth round pick showed proper tackling form on a number of tackles in open space and prevented a Bengals touchdown on a Cincinnati screen play in the first half. Campbell could be a keeper for the Browns.

On the bright side, the Browns secondary only allowed two pass plays of over 20 yards. However, the secondary’s performance as a whole is a negative.

4. Attack the quarterback: The Browns’ front seven finally a way to get to the quarterback, as the defense sacked Dalton on three big occasions. A loss is a loss, and many negatives can be found in this game, but the Browns finally showed improvement in the pass rush.

The Browns did not pressure Dalton too often, but when the defense did, it was significant.

Desmond Bryant recorded the Browns’ first sack of the evening on a big 3rd down on the Bengals’ second drive of the game, preventing another Cincinnati score. The veteran blew through the Bengals’ line and made an impressive play on Dalton.

Then, early in the third quarter, Paul Kruger emerged. The pass rushing outside linebacker sacked Dalton for a loss of eight on 2nd and 10, leading to a Bengals punt two plays later. Kruger’s big play halted the Bengals’ promising drive.

Kruger’s big play does also draw our eyes to an interesting stat, though: Kruger now has just 1.5 sacks on the season. Perhaps that 5-year, $40 million contract signed in March 2013 wasn’t such a bargain after all.

Nate Orchard also joined in on the fun towards the end of the third quarter. Rolling out to his left on a playaction pass on 3rd and 2, Dalton was met immediately by Orchard. The rookie linebacker drove Dalton back for a loss of five, forcing the Bengals to settle for a 28-yard field goal.

We now know the Browns’ defense is capable of making big individual plays. The challenge now is for the defense to string together a game full of these plays.

5. Third down blues: The Browns lost the game tonight with poor play on third down. Both the Browns’ offense and defense looked bad on third down.

First and second downs weren’t beneficial for the Browns by any stretch, but third downs killed the club. The Browns converted just 4-of-13 (31%) third down attempts on offense and allowed the Bengals to convert 8-of-14 (57%) third down opportunities.

On offense, the problem stemmed from a lack of imagination. DeFilippo and the Browns didn’t try anything out of the ordinary, calling predictable, vanilla plays that the Bengals stopped most of the time. The Browns did not gain a first down on offense in the second half until the 2:41 mark of the fourth quarter.

The Browns need to come up with some trick plays or creative calls. For an example, look no further than the Bengals’ double reverse to Mohamed Sanu that worked perfectly for a 26-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

The Browns defense was plagued by penalties and mistakes on third and even fourth down. On 4th and 2 at the Cleveland 6-yard line in the second quarter, Randy Starks lined up offsides, granting the Bengals a free first down. Two plays later, Dalton found Eifert in the end zone for six.

Similarly, the secondary experienced breakdowns and coverage issues on third downs. One particular play saw Armonty Bryant covering a wideout alone across the middle, perhaps on a blown zone call. Tramon Williams missed his assignment several times, as well.

The Browns’ failures on third downs allowed the Bengals to dominate the game in one critical area – time of possession. The Bengals enjoyed a 36:03-23:57 advantage in this category.

DeFilippo and O’Neil have lots of work to do.

6. Who dey? Dwayne Bowe and Justin Gilbert received significant playing time against the Bengals. The disappointing duo saw plenty of snaps, but neither impressed.

Due to injuries to Hartline and Hawkins, Bowe was pressed into action on Thursday evening. Bowe didn’t make any game-breaking plays, but the 31-year-old wideout did record his first catch of the season.

Running a short pattern near the right sideline, Bowe hauled in a pass from Manziel for a 4-yard gain in the first quarter. Bowe remained quiet until late in the fourth quarter.

Bowe hauled in a pair of catches for first downs, giving him three catches for 31 yards on the day. For most of the game, Bowe ran bad routes and didn’t do much, but the veteran did have a few nice plays.

Gilbert also played plenty, serving a big role on defense, locking up Cincinnati’s top wideouts one-on-one. Gilbert squared off against AJ Green and Sanu and managed to avoid surrendering major gains.

Gilbert did not play so well in special teams. On one kick return, the second-year cornerback decided to take the ball out from five yards deep in the end zone, and tried to hurdle a Bengal. Upon hitting the ground, Gilbert lost the ball, but was ruled down. Gilbert’s mistake nearly cost the Browns big-time.

On the Browns’ next return, special teams coordinator Chris Tabor sent out Marlon Moore, who later blocked a Bengals punt.

Gilbert did not have an awful night, but expect to see him on the bench again once Joe Haden returns.

Speaking of rarely seen players, the coaching staff again refused to play Duke Johnson in the second half tonight. Johnson received just five touches tonight, three runs and two receptions. The rookie running back turned these touches into 38 yards, including a 12-yard touchdown catch.

For the second straight week, Johnson received less than two touches in the second half. Johnson got one last week and zero today. As Chris Fedor tweeted tonight, does Johnson’s contract stipulate that he can only play in the first half?

The lack of involvement for Johnson is beyond frustrating. Johnson is one of the team's most explosive playmakers and you don’t give him a chance to make a difference?

7. Hot seat watch: Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine have to be feeling nervous following tonight’s second half collapse. An embarrassing loss on national television and firings by other teams might have owner Jimmy Haslam thinking of a change.

Fans and pundits alike have joked about ridding the team of the dynamic duo of Farmer and Pettine. As I wrote earlier this week, another Browns blog has even started a petition calling for Farmer’s head.

But the threat of a change is increasing in Berea. The Browns stand at 2-7 on the year, and face an incredibly challenging schedule to finish out the season. As much as we like to joke about firing coaches and general managers in Cleveland, things are not looking good for Farmer and Pettine.

Like it or not, unless the Browns start winning, rumors and reports will swirl for the remaining seven weeks of the season.

As Samuel L. Jackson famously said in Jurassic Park, "Hold onto your butts," Browns fans.