Momentum is a funny thing.
For 30 minutes in the first half, the Browns controlled the game. The Browns saw the ball bounce their way often as the offense and defense rolled. The next 27 minutes played out much differently until Johnny Manziel uncorked a bomb to Travis Benjamin.
Whatever the circumstances, the Browns emerged with a win at First Energy Stadium today, 28-14.
If you missed the game, you missed a lot. Here are the key takeaways from today's win:
1. Manziel's Mojo: The magic is back for Johnny Manziel, as the second-year quarterback threw two beautiful deep touchdown passes to Travis Benjamin to secure a win against the Titans. His performance wasn't always pretty, but Manziel got the job done.
Manziel finished the day 8-of-15 for 172 yards and two touchdowns. The Browns coaching staff kept the ball out of Manziel's hands for the majority of the day, but when the coaches handed him the reins, he delivered.
His first big play came on just the team's second offensive play of the game. Following an Isaiah Crowell run to the right on first down, offensive coordinator John DeFilipo called a play action pass from an offset I-formation. Manziel and Crowell sold the fake to the right side, drawing in free safety Michael Griffin and strong safety Da'Norris Searcy. The fake isolated cornerback Coty Sensabaugh in single coverage with Benjamin with no help over the top. Manziel delivered a deep pass to Benjamin over a confused Sensabaugh for the 60-yard touchdown.
The Browns likely practiced this play a lot in practice this week, and it worked to perfection. The safeties bit on the fake, allowing Benjamin to use his speed in space, leading to six points.
Manziel's second big play came at a critical juncture -- 3rd and 7 from the Browns' 49 yard line with 3:06 to play in the fourth quarter.
The play broke almost immediately. The Browns lined up with Trips to the right and a back next to Manziel in the shotgun. The Titans sent a seven-man blitz that beat the Browns' seven men and forced Manziel to scramble to the left. In doing so, Manziel moved away from all of his wide receivers.
Playing Cover 1, the Titans assigned a defensive back to each Browns wideout and a high safety to the deep middle of the field. Seeing Manziel scramble and the safety drift up, Benjamin broke for the deep left part of the field. Manziel lofted a perfect pass to him, showing great vision. Manziel demonstrated remarkable composure on this play and great arm strength on a pass lofted 55 yards in the air to Benjamin in stride.
Besides these two plays, Manziel did not have a standout game, passing 6-of-13 for 62 yards with two fumbles, both recovered by the Browns.
Ball security is still an issue for Manziel, though it did not bite him today. Manziel must learn to protect the ball, particularly when stepping up in the pocket. The fumbles both occurred as Manziel stepped up to avoid pressure in the third quarter.
Either way, Manziel stepped up in the clutch today. Did he earn the starting job permanently? Head coach Mike Pettine will likely answer that question this week once Josh McCown exits the concussion protocol. If Pettine names McCown the starter for next week, Browns fans will not be too happy.
2. Benjamin or Bust: The Titans could not stop the Browns' speedy wideout and return man. Travis Benjamin accounted for three touchdowns and saved the team from a loss today. His first touchdown reception provided a big early boost, his punt return afforded a big cushion, and his second deep reception sealed the win.
Remember when everyone called for the Browns to cut Benjamin in August? Without Benjamin, the Browns don't win this game. The club might have to pay big money to keep him next offseason.
Manziel and Benjamin seem to have a close connection, especially with the deep pass. Benjamin is a much-needed deep threat for a team built on a ground-and-pound strategy. The Browns need to continue to utilize his speed in the passing attack.
Benjamin has also developed into a very good return man. I will not say great yet, since it's his first touchdown return of the year. Still, his potential is incredible.
On his lengthy return, Marlon Moore, Barkevious Mingo, and Pierre Desir provided key blocks. Benjamin's speed eluded the other defenders. He's unstoppable in the open field.
Staying consistent and healthy are Benjamin's primary challenges moving forward.
3. Night and Day: Unlike last week, the Browns easily won the turnover battle. The Browns' defense recovered three fumbles and the offense avoided any costly turnovers. That's a recipe for success.
While not perfect, the Browns defense seized on chances to end drives early, particularly in the first half. The club forced four fumbles, and caused another one that was erased due to a delay of game penalty in the second quarter.
Speaking of that penalty, the officiating on that play was atrocious. I hate to criticize referees, but this is inexcusable.
With 4:32 remaining in the half, Marcus Mariota ran out of time in the pocket and decided to make something happen. Mariota tried to scramble, but lost control of the ball after it collided with the rear end of a Titans lineman. The "buttfumble" was recovered by the Browns, but the referees reversed the play after the fact due to a delay of game call. According to rules expert Mike Carey, the back judge is supposed to throw his flag and stop the play. However, the official did not do this as he should have. Delay of game did indeed occur, but the Browns lost an opportunity to score more points.
Moving on from this rant, Manziel was lucky that his teammates fell on his two fumbles. But Manziel avoided throwing into coverage. He smartly threw away several passes on plays with no open receivers and only scrambled downfield twice.
Manziel's patience inside and out of the pocket is to be commended.
4. Still work to do: The Browns' running game showed improvement, but isn't where it needs to be. As a team, the Browns rushed for 116 yards, a slight improvement from 104 yards against the Jets. The offensive line and running backs looked better, but it's not enough.
Isaiah Crowell finished with 15 carries for 72 yards, while Duke Johnson ran 12 times for 43 yards. Crowell averaged 4.8 yards per carry (4.1 ypc minus his longest carry of 15 yards) and Johnson averaged 3.6 yards per carry (2.1 ypc minus his carry of 20 yards). Each hit the holes well at times, but have not yet hit midseason form.
Both backs cutback well, particularly on designed runs to the left. Schwartz sealed the edge on several runs to the left, allowing Crowell and Johnson to pick up chunks of yardage.
Johnson's best run came in the second quarter, as Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio paved a large opening for Johnson to dash 20 yards through. Credit Thomas and Bitonio for good blocking throughout the day, though both did have lapses.
Crowell's best carry was his 11-yard touchdown run with six minutes left in the first. It was a thing of beauty: Each Browns player on the field did his job.
Malcolm Johnson picked up the defensive end on the playside. The motioning wide receiver (could not see his number in person or on the replay) ran an out route to the right, drawing the free safety (Griffin) away to give Crowell space, Mitchell Schwartz and John Greco sealed the edge to the left perfectly with blocks of the outside linebacker and defensive tackle. Crowell finished it off by running over the two Titans safeties. It was perfect.
Besides the two runs, the ground game gave the Browns decent yardage, but nothing impressive. The Browns linemen need to get to the second level more quickly and hold blocks for a little bit longer.
5. Good and bad: The Browns defense pressured Mariota, but failed to stop the run. The Browns relentlessly attacked Mariota all day, forcing bad passes and sacking the rookie seven times. The front seven did not perform as admirably against Dexter McCluster and Bishop Sankey.
Give credit to the Browns' front seven, particularly the defensive line, on passing downs. The big boys up front pinned their ears back and attacked Mariota. The aggressiveness paid off with turnovers and an uncomfortably day in the pocket for Mariota.
The front seven didn't play as well against the run. The defensive ends were pushed around at times, failing to occupy the Titans' blockers. This allowed the Tennessee offensive line to move on to the second level and block the Browns' linebackers before they could attack the Titans' running backs.
This problem reared its ugly head in the first quarter on a 44-yard run by McCluster. The Titans sealed the edge to the right side, moving from the Browns' ends to linebackers and forcing the secondary to make a play. Joe Haden missed the tackle and McCluster was off to the races before Tashaun Gipson stopped him.
The run defense is a big cause for concern moving forward.
The secondary did not play perfectly, but showed major improvement. The Titans targeted Donte Whitner in the passing game by isolating him in single coverage on a tight end, usually Anthony Fasano, who led the Titans with five catches for 48 yards. Joe Haden also got beat by Dorial Green-Beckham on a late touchdown pass, but did not allow much otherwise.
6. Lack of creativity: The Browns coaching staff lost its imagination in the second half and nearly lost the game. The Browns' offense was ineffective for all but one play in the second half, as the Browns became predictable.
Credit the coaching staff for a smart gameplan in the first half. The only mistake was keeping the offense on the field on 4th and 1 early in the second quarter instead of kicking a 35-yard field goal, which would have increased the lead to 17-0. Besides this error, the staff played it well in the first two quarters.
The second half was a completely different story. Two of the team's four possessions in the second half went run-run-pass. Also, two of the four drives resulted in three-and-outs. An average fan in the stands could closely predict the Browns' every move.
In the second half, the Browns did not pass from the I-formation and did not run from the shotgun. The Browns cannot sit on leads by running twice and then passing on third down, particularly when the ground game isn't functioning on all cylinders.
Part of the problem could be audibles. Does the staff allow Manziel to audible. To be honest, I do not know the answer. If the answer is "No," that could explain the offense's sluggishness in the second half.
Audibling at the line of scrimmage can be critical to a team's success, as the quarterback can count the number of players in the box and audible if the play doesn't have the numbers to succeed. Perhaps Manziel could have audibled to a quick pass when the Titans were stacking the box.
Either way, this is a correctable problem. As Manziel grows more comfortable with the first-teamers, the Browns can open the playbook and become less predictable.
7. Reason before passion: Browns fans should temper expectations and remain even-keeled following the win. As I said last week, the Browns are not an 0-16 team, and not a 16-0 team. This is a middle-of-the road Browns squad with solid potential.
Browns fans tend to overreact. It's in our blood. One loss, and fans say 'The Browns are awful.' One win, and fans say, 'The Browns are amazing.' The truth lies in between.
The Browns showed significant improvement today, but have a lot of room for growth. This team has an offense with a talented quarterback and running backs with potential, but an offense that can shoot itself in the foot and fall to pieces. This team has a defense with front seven with a knack for getting to the quarterback but cannot stop the run.
This season will be a rollercoaster ride. Browns fans should hold on tight: The next 14 games will be very interesting.