The loss comes as no surprise, as the Browns have now lost 22 of the last 25 games against the Steelers and 18 of the past 21 overall.
The defeat likely spells the end of the Mike Pettine and Ray Farmer era. As of the publication of this article, the club has not announced any changes. All reports emanating from Berea signal that owner Jimmy Haslam will fire both men, but nothing is official as of yet. (Stay tuned to DBN for more updates.)
To add salt to the wound, the New York Jets lost, granting the Steelers a postseason appearance. The Tennessee Titans also lost, capturing the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. The Browns will have the 2nd and the 32nd selections in the first round of the draft.
Without further ado, here are your final seven talking points for the 2015 season:
1. A fitting end: For the fifth time in eight years, the Browns ended the season with a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The game went almost exactly as expected.
Today’s game followed the same formula followed in nearly every game this season.
The Browns started out fairly well, trailing only by four heading into the second quarter. The Browns forced two turnovers in the first half, but could not take advantage of opportunities and faced a deficit heading into halftime.
The Browns hung around in the third quarter and did not quit. But then, the team turned the ball over three times in a row and the Steelers scored 13 points to put away the Browns in the fourth quarter.
The game also ended in the most Browns-like way possible, as Austin Davis completed a 3-yard pass to Darius Jennings on 4th and 5 with 1:11 left. The Steelers assumed the victory formation and the 2015 season mercifully ended.
Speculation about the next front office, coaching staff, the quarterback corps, and the draft can now officially begin. It’s going to be an interesting offseason, Browns fans.
2. As is tradition: The Browns did not break from tradition in the final game of the season, committing a comedy of errors once in the red zone. Did you expect anything less?
The Steelers struggled early on, leaving the door open for the Browns in the first half. The Browns didn’t take advantage of the opportunities, politely closing the door for the visitors.
The Steelers turned the ball over twice and missed a field goal in the first half. Even still, the Browns managed to score just six points and entered halftime trailing , 14-9.
In typical fashion, the Browns offense enjoyed moderate success in the first two quarters, driving into the red zone three times. The drives resulted in three field goals.
On first trip inside the 20-yard line, the Browns lost two yards on three plays at the end of the first quarter. Austin Davis could not handle creative blitzes called by the Steelers, forcing the Browns to call upon Travis Coons for a 29-yard field goal.
The next trip also resulted in a missed opportunity. Once inside the 20, Davis threw two incomplete passes and lost 10 yards on a third down Steelers sack. The Steelers again brought blitzes that threatened Davis, leading to a second Coons field goal, this one from 39 yards.
The Browns reached the red zone for the third time with 17 seconds remaining in the first half. Terrelle Pryor made a beautiful 42-yard catch along the sideline to grant the Browns 1st and 10 from the Pittsburgh 15-yard line. Davis threw three incomplete passes, leading to a 33-yard Coons field goal to end the first half.
The Browns returned to the red zone once again early in the second half as Craig Robertson intercepted a Roethlisberger pass and returned it deep into Steelers’ territory. The turnover appeared to give the Browns a boost of momentum. Did that happen? Nope.
The first play resulted in a gain of four, as Crowell nearly dashed into the end zone before Arthur Moats tripped him up at the 5-yard line. On second down, Davis zoomed a pass far above Barnidge’s head, forcing a third and goal from the Pittsburgh 5-yard line. The next play resulted in disaster.
Looking for Barnidge at the goal line, Davis threw the ball into the waiting arms of James Harrison. The veteran Steelers linebacker returned the interception to the 5-yard line, stopping the Browns once again in the red zone.
The Browns drove into the red zone for the fifth time of the day late in the third quarter. Davis responded to a Steelers field goal by orchestrating a lengthy drive, converting a 4th and 1 with a quarterback sneak along the way. Misfortune again struck the offense when the team entered the red zone, however.
Following a 9-yard completion to Jennings to the 5-yard line, Terrelle Pryor incurred a 15-yard personal foul penalty, pushing the Browns back to the 20-yard line. A penalty on James Harrison granted the Browns five free yards, but Crowell gained four yards on two carries and Davis missed on a 3rd and 8 pass to Pryor, leading to another Coons field goal.
For those keeping score at home, that’s five red zone trips and 12 points.
This is what separates good teams from bad ones. Until the Browns figure out how to score touchdowns in the red zones, general managers and coaches will continue to blow through Berea like tumbleweed.
3. Sliced and diced: The Browns’ secondary could not contain, let alone stop, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. The duo carved the Browns like a holiday turkey.
Even amidst the first half mistakes, Roethlisberger and Brown did not encounter much resistance from the Browns’ secondary.
Using a different strategy after Brown embarrassed the Cleveland secondary earlier this season, defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil opted to use Tashaun Gipson as a cornerback. O’Neil assigned Gipson to drape Brown, a tactic that did not pay off.
Even with safety help over the top, Gipson could not slow down Brown. The star wideout finished the first half with 10 catches for 150 yards and a touchdown. Roethlisberger completed 18-of-24 passes for 227 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception in the first half.
Following a Robertson interception early in the second half, the secondary returned to form. On 3rd and 2 from the Pittsburgh 13-yard line, Darius Heyward-Bey beat Pierre Desir in single coverage. Roethlisberger lofted a long pass to the former Raider for a gain of 66 yards. Desir took Heyward-Bey on a shoestring tackle, barely preventing a touchdown.
Roethlisberger beat the Browns again early in the fourth quarter. One the first play after Davis’ fumble, Roethlisberger found Markus Wheaton in the back left corner of the end zone for six. Wheaton beat Johnson Bademosi for the score.
Roethlisberger finished the day 24-of-36 passing with 349 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. Brown finished with 187 yards and a touchdown.
The two interceptions are impressive, but the fact remains – the Browns secondary stinks without Joe Haden.
4. Building blocks: Several Browns players enjoyed solid days amidst the loss. The next general manager and coach will have few promising players to build upon.
Duke Johnson, Terrelle Pryor, Craig Robertson, and Jordan Poyer all turned in solid performances in the season finale.
Johnson represented a dangerous option as both a running back and receiver against the Steelers. The rookie received eight touches today, gaining 46 yards. Johnson repeatedly eluded Steelers in open space whenever he received the ball, stiff-arming several Steelers and even dodging a James Harrison tackle. One of his most impressive plays occurred on 3rd and 2 deep inside Cleveland territory. Johnson caught the ball a yard away from the first down and immediately confronted two Steelers tacklers. Johnson ran through the two Steelers and stiff-armed another to gain the first down and some more.
Johnson exited the game in the third quarter, though he soon returned. If Johnson can stay healthy, he might enjoy a big year in 2016.
Pryor showcased his athletic ability late in the first half with an impressive catch. The quarterback-turned receiver gained 42 yards on a deep pass down the left sideline, allowing the Browns to score before the end of the half.
Pryor dropped a pair of other passes, due to big hits, but the catch was incredible. Pryor used his superior athletic ability to make the catch and give the Browns a brief boost of momentum. This flash of potential should be a sign to the next general manager – Keep this guy around. Pryor has talent.
Robertson finished the day as one of the few defensive players who performed well against the Steelers. Robertson showed good form on three tackles, recovered a Brown fumble, and picked off Roethlisberger on the veteran’s first pass of the second half.
Sitting in zone coverage, Robertson watched Roethlisberger’s eyes and leaped in front of a pass intended for Brown. Robertson then dashed down the field, dodging tacklers and weaving his way down the field to the Pittsburgh 9-yard line.
Robertson has not always played well this season, but the 27-year old linebacker flashed potential today as a solid inside linebacker.
As mentioned above, the secondary as a whole played poorly, but Poyer made a few nice plays. The third-year safety picked off Roethlisberger with 3:28 left in the first quarter, jumping a route by Martavis Bryant. Poyer returned the pick 12 yards to the Pittsburgh 24-yard line. The turnover led to a the Browns’ first field goal of the game.
Undoubtedly, a total rebuild awaits the next general manager and head coach. The future looks grim, but at least a few players played well.
5. A silver lining: Gary Barnidge completed an excellent season with another solid day, reaching the 1,000-yard mark in the season finale. Barnidge represented one of the few bright spots for the Browns this season.
The recently extended Barnidge became the first Browns’ tight end to record 1,000 receiving yards in a season since Kellen Winslow notched 1,106 yards and five touchdowns in 2007.
Barnidge finished the game with eight catches for 66 yards, serving as the top target for Davis, a role he has relished all season with three different quarterbacks.
Barnidge made a few key catches, including a 7-yard grab on 3rd and 6 inside the red zone late in the third quarter. Barnidge caught the pass before the first down marker, fighting for the extra yard needed to pick up the first down.
The veteran tight end made another critical catch early in the fourth quarter. The Browns faced 1st and 10 from inside the 1-yard line following false start and delay of game penalties. Instead of opting for a safe run, offensive coordinator John DeFilippo called a pass. Davis completed a big 20-yard throw to Barnidge, who absorbed a big hit from Harrison to give the offense some breathing room.
Of course, Davis fumbled two plays later, but Barnidge deserves credit for not throwing in the towel.
6. Quarterback carousel: Austin Davis struggled against a stout Steelers defense while rumors swirled about Johnny Manziel. Davis is clearly not the solution at quarterback, and Manziel’s days in Cleveland might be limited.
As expected, the team’s third-string quarterback struggled in the season finale against the Steelers.
Davis finished the game 24-of-46 for 240 yards and two interceptions. The second-year quarterback also fumbled once and was sacked seven times.
Davis repeatedly missed receivers and struggled to avoid a Steelers defense that blitzed nearly every play. The offensive line did its best, but the Steelers’ creative blitz packages proved too difficult to stop.
Davis looked lost in the pocket at times when pressured, completely opposite of Manziel. Davis also threw into coverage frequently, as the Steelers dropped at least two potential interceptions. Davis is a decent backup, but nothing more.
Meanwhile, rumors of Manziel’s visit to Las Vegas on Saturday evening continued to swirl on social media during the game. Photographic evidence emerged, then was discredited, as the drama over Manziel’s whereabouts last night persisted.
During Pettine’s post-game press conference, the second-year coach called Manziel a "work in progress" and answered several questions about the controversial quarterback. Pettine even denied an allegation made by a reporter that Manziel was sent home earlier this week because he showed up to a meeting inebriated.
The quarterback situation looks quite murky heading into the offseason.
7. An uncertain future: The Pettine/Farmer era looks to be over, but the axe has not fallen yet. When will Haslam announce his decision?
Fans are waiting for the expected announcement from Haslam and the Browns. Every reputable outlet is reporting that Pettine and Farmer will not return for 2016. The only question is: When and how will the Browns announce the move?
Since last offseason, debacle after debacle has plagued the Browns. Johnny Manziel has spent plenty of time in Pettine’s doghouse due to missteps off the field, Farmer received a suspension for texting down to the sidelines last season, and leaks have sprung everywhere in Berea as the fates of Pettine and Farmer hang in the balance.
Besides the off-field woes, the Browns did not have a good season by any stretch of the imagination.
The offense performed above expectations, as Barnidge and Johnson emerged as reliable weapons, but the team again failed to find an answer at quarterback. We still don’t know if Manziel has the chops to succeed as an NFL quarterback, thanks in part to Pettine’s reluctance to play Manziel.
The defense regressed significantly, becoming one of the worst in the league. Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo, Danny Shelton, Justin Gilbert, and Gipson all underperformed. O’Neil’s gameplans nearly always failed as the defense often collapsed at the end of games.
The special teams saw Benjamin have success as a punt returner, but Coons saw a season marred by blocked field goals. The kickoff return unit frequently allowed lengthy returns while the team’s return men rotated nearly every game. Penalties often set back the unit, too.
Following a promising 7-9 season, especially considering the 7-4 start, this season’s 3-13 record is utterly unacceptable. Injuries surely played a part in the losing, but Farmer did not sign the right free agents or draft well, and Pettine often did not put his players in a position to succeed.
In one word, this season was a failure.
As a result, heads will roll. Agree or not, change is coming to the Cleveland Browns. Time will soon tell how far-reaching will the changes will be.
Buckle your seatbelts, Browns fans. It’s going to be a wild one.
Author's Note: I hope you enjoyed the Talking Points articles this season. Do you like these articles? Let me know in the comments section below. Thanks for reading. -JG