'Twas a rough day in First Energy Stadium.
In a physical contest, the Raiders repeatedly punched the Browns in the teeth until the hosts finally started to fight back with fury in the fourth quarter. The Raiders landed the final blow, however, in the form of a Charles Woodson interception with 38 seconds remaining.
The word of the day: Demoralizing. Each of the Browns' supposed strengths were exposed against a much-improved Raiders team. And now, the Browns fall to 1-2 with difficult games looming.
Here's what you need to know about the Browns' loss:
1. McCown, Manziel, or Davis: The quarterback doesn't matter if the run game falters as it did today. As head coach Mike Pettine admitted after the loss, the Browns cannot succeed without a strong ground game. That became apparent today.
The Browns rushed for just 39 yards on 14 attempts today. Isaiah Crowell carried the ball ten times for 36 yards, with a long of 17. Duke Johnson Jr. received four carries, gaining just three yards. If you take away Crowell's 17-yard carry, and the Browns gained just 22 yards on 13 attempts.
The Browns largely abandoned the ground game in the second half. The coaching staff called just three runs in the final 30 minutes, forcing Josh McCown to throw the ball 34 times in the second half alone.
If your 36-year-old journeyman quarterback has to throw 49 times in a game, your team is going to lose.
The Browns' utter failure to have any sort of success on the ground this season is unacceptable. General manager Ray Farmer and Pettine built this team based on running the ball, using high draft picks on Joel Bitonio, Cameron Erving, and Duke Johnson.
Assigning the blame is difficult without having seen the All-22 yet. However, from my vantage point in First Energy Stadium, the offensive line deserves much of the blame. The right side of the line in particular failed to seal the edge and open any space for Crowell and Johnson.
From what I've seen, the coaching staff is also at fault for some of the problems. Again, the film will tell the tale, but it appears to me that the staff is not utilizing the Zone Blocking Scheme (ZBS) as much as last year. Blocking assignments were wacky at times today. For example, on one run, 6'1, 231 pound fullback Malcolm Johnson was responsible for blocking 6'4, 265 defensive end Aldon Smith. Smith ran over Johnson and blew up the play in the backfield. Later on, tight end Jim Dray tried to block Justin Tuck. That didn't work out well, either.
Whatever the issue, the coaching staff has work to do. Without at least a respectable run game, the Browns are toast.
2. A tale of two McCowns: Browns quarterback Josh McCown played terribly in the first half, but improved dramatically in the second half. Granted sole responsibility of the offense after the ground game sputtered, McCown shouldered the load effectively, finishing 28-of-49 for 341 yards and two touchdowns.
Chants for Johnny Manziel began at the 12:28 mark of the second quarter as McCown finished the first half 7-of-15 for 104 yards. In the first two quarters, McCown threw behind open targets, overthrew a pair of deep balls, and hesitated frequently.
So what changed in the second half? McCown fell into a rhythm. He began to cycle through his reads quicker. He stopped fearing the pass rush. And he started firing the ball to his wide receivers without hesitation.
On too many early throws, McCown zeroed in on a primary target. The veteran checked down only once in the first half, tossing a pass to Duke Johnson on second and long. McCown only experienced success throwing to Barnidge over the middle, as he couldn't connect with his other targets.
McCown thrived in the second half despite facing a stiff pass rush. On too many occasions, the Browns went with an empty set, allowing the Raiders' pass rushers to pin their ears back and attack McCown. The journeyman frequently defeated the pass rush with quick throws, though the Raiders managed four sacks in the second half, including one on the Browns' final drive in the last minute.
McCown's only interception of the day occurred on the Browns' last offensive play. McCown spotted Travis Benjamin open near the sideline on the right side of the field, and fired a throw to the emerging star. Wily veteran Charles Woodson saw through the plot, sprinting forward from his Cover 2 assignment to seal the game with an interception.
Thankfully, McCown avoided another concussion or serious injury. He did receive X-rays on his right hand after the game, but the results returned negative, according to ESPN.com's Pat McManamon.
Give lots of credit to McCown for playing well under pressure. But the Browns can't rely on him to do this each week.
3. Tackling dummies: The Browns missed way too many tackles on Sunday, allowing the Raiders to pick up 155 yards on the ground. The Browns' offseason makeover on defense clearly did not improve the run defense, as Oakland running back Latavius Murray found plenty of room to run.
Playing against a Raiders offense built to pass, the Browns forgot how to tackle. The team's defensive linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs are all equally at fault for this failure.
The defensive linemen delivered mixed results today. Danny Shelton, Jamie Meder, and Armonty Bryant held their own, but Randy Starks, Xavier Cooper, and John Hughes III did not. Starks, Cooper, and Hughes combined for just one tackle and one assist.
The linebackers did not flow to the ball at all. In particular, Christian Kirksey did not break off blocks, and tried to plug gaps instead of trying to attack the ballcarrier. He also missed his assignment on a screen pass. More about the pass rush of Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo later.
The secondary performed the worst in tackling. Joe Haden and Donte Whitner whiffed on a number of tackles. Granted, these two should not be making the tackle every run play. Tashaun Gipson, Haden, and Whitner combined for 16 tackles, a high number considering that Carr completed 20 passes.
Consider this, too: Murray's first 10 carries went for just 19 yards. Therefore, Murray gained 120 on his final 16 carries. That's 7.5 yards per carry.
The Browns need to show vast improvement in this area. The team should take pride in shutting down the run. If the Browns cannot stop the run, teams with great quarterbacks will devour the Browns' defense.
4. Can't touch this: The Browns' pass rush failed to lay a finger on Derek Carr, allowing the second-year quarterback plenty of time in the pocket. Following a seven-sack showing against the Titans last week, the Browns' pass rush registered zero sacks against a retooled Oakland offensive line.
Get ready for a crazy stat. The Browns recorded zero quarterback hits today. Zero.
The Raiders managed five sacks and seven quarterback hits against a Browns offensive line with two perennial Pro Bowlers. Facing an inferior Oakland offensive line with just one Pro Bowler (left tackle Donald Penn reached the Pro Bowl in 2010), the Browns could not touch Carr.
On nearly every passing play I saw, outside linebacker Paul Kruger blitzed. To my knowledge, not once did he force Carr out of the pocket. Barkevious Mingo similarly struggled to break through to the backfield.
Perhaps the duo's failure stems from the lack of blitz calls today. The Browns did not dial up complicated blitzes to fool Carr. The young signalcaller just dropped back deeper in the pocket and slung it, burning the Browns for 314 yards and two touchdowns.
The secondary deserves some credit for not allowing more yardage. The Raiders tried to isolate Whitner in pass plays to the tight ends, as the Titans did successfully, but Whitner deflected several passes in a solid effort. Haden also put forth a gutsy performance following a rib injury. The veteran cornerback does deserve some scorn for allowing Amari Cooper to run wild, as the rookie wideout hauled in eight catches for 134 yards.
Speaking of pass coverage, defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil's playcalling seemed sketchy at times. The Browns' cornerbacks often played off-man coverage, allowing Oakland wideouts 7-10 yards of space at the snap. Why call this coverage every down when you have two very good corners going against two good, but not great, Oakland wide receivers? Also, the Raiders used the Browns' man scheme against them in several instances, including Carr's 18-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Seth Roberts at the end of the first half. Carr motioned Roberts to the outside, isolating Kirksey in man coverage. Carr then floated an easy pass to Roberts on a fade route for six points.
Next week in San Diego might be difficult to watch. If the Browns' pass rush does not improve, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers will have some fun.
5. Nothing special: Two special teams plays helped the Raiders clinch the victory. Two plays stuck out today on special teams. One of the plays falls on the Browns' special teams unit, the other does not.
The first play happened at the four minute mark of the fourth quarter. The Browns' defense had just forced a three-and-out. First Energy Stadium was rocking.
Then the momentum disappeared. Travis Benjamin muffed a punt while trying to evade a teammate who was hurtling at him. Naturally, the Raiders recovered.
On the ensuing drive, the Browns' defense came up in the clutch with a critical stop inside its own territory, leading to the second play referenced above.
On the next punt, Travis Benjamin allowed the ball to bounce inside the 10-yard line before Taiwan Jones downed the ball at the 2-yard line. Benjamin made the proper play, as returners are taught to plant their toes at either the 10 or the 15, and avoid catching any punt over their heads. Controversy arose upon the replay.
The jumbotron at First Energy Stadium showed Jones' toe touch the goal line while the ball touching was his hand, which would result in a touchback. Seeing the replay, Pettine tossed the challenge flag with 2:26 remaining in an attempt to avoid awful field position. The referee called the evidence inconclusive, costing the Browns a timeout and field position.
In retrospect, this play did not have a critical role in the outcome. But the Browns did burn 50 seconds in getting past the 20-yard line.
Another play also comes to mind when thinking about the Browns' special teams. The defense had just stopped the Raiders on 3rd and 15, forcing an Oakland punt. Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor called a punt block, sending his middle en to attack punter Marquette King. The plan backfired when three different Browns collapsed on King, leading to a roughing the kicker call. I've never seen three players commit this penalty on one play before.
Eight plays later, Carr completed a three-yard touchdown pass to Andre Holmes to extend the Browns' deficit to 10-0.
You can't fault Tabor for the errors, but in the future, the Browns need to make plays on special teams to win games.
6. Blue zone: The Browns faltered in the red zone today, losing out on critical points. Out of three trips to the red zone today, the Browns scored just 13 points, or two field goals and one touchdown.
On a pair of occasions, the Browns drove deep inside Oakland territory before faltering and settling for field goals. The first example is particularly concerning.
Following a 17-yard Crowell run (his longest of the day), the Browns set up at the 1-yard line for 1st and goal. Calling a run, pass, then run, the Browns failed to push into the end zone. A false start on 4th and goal from the 1-yard line led the Browns to settle for a field goal before halftime. Five plays later, the Raiders scored a touchdown to make the score 20-3 heading into halftime.
This has been a problem for the Browns since 1999. For whatever reason, the Browns just can't figure out how to convert inside the 20.
Hopefully offensive coordinator John DiFilippo can figure out this problem. Few things frustrate Browns fans more than missed opportunities.
7. Who needs star wide receivers? Brian Hartline and Gary Barnidge each played exceptionally against the Raiders. The experienced duo helped McCown in a major way, securing every big pass McCown threw.
Not all was negative on Sunday. Hartline and Barnidge finished with a combined 11 catches for 201 yards.
Hartline played especially well near the sidelines, running slants and outs efficiently. He even made an unreal catch on the ground using his legs to corral the ball to his hands. The Ohio State product earned his stripes today.
Barnidge proved to be McCown's big-time wideout. Whenever McCown needed a completion, he threw to Barnidge. Four of Barnidge's catches were on third or fourth down, while the fifth ended in a touchdown. Perhaps the Browns don't need Jordan Cameron after all.
Duke Johnson also played a significant role in the passing game for the first time this season, hauling in six passes for 32 yards. The rookie seems to be a reliable safety blanket for McCown.
Of all the position groups, the wide receivers performed best today. The Browns have at least have something to build on for next week.