The road to 0-16 has shortened.
The Cleveland Browns fell to 0-6 today with a 28-26 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
The visitors trailed the Titans, 28-13, late in the game before storming back to nearly snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat. But the molars of misery shut on Hue Jackson and the Browns, as a failed 2-point conversion on the first of two touchdowns led to second guessing and a dejected mood among Browns fans.
All is not lost, as Cody Kessler put on a helluva performance. There’s a silver lining in the loss.
But at the same time, there are a lot of negative takeaways. For example, the offensive line is about as useful as a poopy flavored lollipop.
Without further ado, here we go into the talking points.
1. Comeback city: The Browns near came back to beat the Titans. But here’s the question: Should the Browns have went for two on the first touchdown or the second?
Trailing 28-13 with 6:43 left on the clock in the fourth quarter, the Browns looked done. But Cody Kessler pulled out some magic and orchestrated a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive.
Along the drive, Kessler converted one third down and two fourth downs. He finished off the drive with a nice fade route to Terrelle Pryor.
Then, Jackson told the offense to stay on the field.
If Kessler completed the pass on the two-point conversion, we’re not talking about this. But of course, a Titan deflected the pass, the Browns remained down by 9 points, and the second guessing began.
I see the argument from both sides. I’ll start with Jackson’s side.
You’re down by 9 points with 2:07 remaining. You have a nonexistent run game. You have a rookie quarterback. You have two timeouts and the 2 minute warning, but a defense that allowed 137 rushing yards.
The odds are stacked against you receiving the ball back. So why not take a shot?
Also, since you have a rookie quarterback, do you want to rest the game on a two-point conversion with just seconds left on the clock? Can you count on an inexperienced kid to tie the game with everything on the line? And if he fails, do you want him to absorb the blame for the loss from his teammates and fans?
Jackson’s way of thinking does make some sense. However, it was the wrong decision.
An extra point keeps momentum on your side. You’re down by 8 points with a chance to tie the game if you get the ball back. If you do recover the onside kick, your team is amped and the opposing defense is demoralized. The mood isn’t the same if you’re down by 9, as the opposing defense has little to lose at that point.
Consider one of Jackson’s defensible points — he’s got a rookie under center. Well, Kessler didn’t play like a rookie. He displayed the poise and confidence of a full-fledged vet. Why not give him the ball and let him work?
Consider this, too — the Titans defense was tired after being on the field for the last six minutes of gametime. The Titans were more susceptible to allow a 2-point conversion after the second touchdown than the first.
Logically, in my view, Hue Jackson made the wrong decision.
Here’s the sticking point: It’s tough to criticize a coach unless you’ve been in his shoes. A head coach makes a decision in an extremely high pressure environment. Other coaches are in his ear, his players are pushing him, the fans are roaring, and time is ticking. Especially for a coach in just his second season as the head man, it’s a difficult decision.
That said, from an analytical standpoint, Jackson’s decision was not correct, at least from where I’m sitting.
2. Kessler killing it: Cody Kessler enjoyed a great game against the Titans. It’s hard not to love this kid.
The rookie out of USC did not always show off perfect accuracy. Kessler missed on a couple deep passes and a few short passes to the outside.
But the youngster often extended plays with his feet, finding the open receiver in short to intermediate range. The best example occurred in the second quarter, as Kessler scrambled to avoid mounting pressure in the pocket. Kessler rolled to his right and arced a pass to Ricardo Louis for a 42-yard completion.
Kessler orchestrated a clutch 9-play, 94-yard drive late in the second quarter, narrowing the Browns’ deficit to 14-13 with 40 seconds left in the first half. Kessler capped off the drive with a gorgeous fade pass he lofted to Pryor in the end zone.
From what I could see on the television coverage, Kessler appeared to perform much better against zone coverage than man coverage.
Kessler did not look as great in the second half. He outshot his wideouts, especially near the sidelines. The rookie also locked onto his wide receivers, staring down Pryor on several plays.
But Kessler faced a crippling Titans pass rush. He was often forced out of the pocket or throw the ball sooner than he would have liked to. The Titans had SIX sacks and ELEVEN quarterback hits. His line failed him today.
Amidst the pressure, Kessler found Pryor on a critical 4th and 1 conversion with five minutes left in the fourth. That’s a pass few quarterbacks have the cohones to make, especially with a pass rusher approaching at full speed.
He made a similar play on 4th and 5 with 3:05 left, tossing a clutch pass over the middle to Andrew Hawkins to keep the Browns alive. Two plays later, Kessler made a perfect throw to Pryor on a slant route for a touchdown with 2:07 left.
Kessler faced adversity in other areas. His wide receivers dropped several well-thrown balls. Ricardo Louis dropped two passes in the fourth quarter, including one perfect pass that would have been a 15 yards gain with 3:05 left in the game.
But Kessler still led his team on a second scoring drive after recovering the onside kick. This kid didn’t quit.
Crowd noise also affected the Browns, slowing the team’s two-minute offense on the first touchdown drive. But Kessler still managed to lead the Browns on TWO long touchdown drives late in the game to nearly steal a game for the Browns.
Kessler finished the day 26-of-41 for 331 yards and 2 touchdowns. Not bad.
I’m not sure if Cody Kessler is the quarterback of the future. But damn, this kid is fun to watch. Kessler has immeasurable courage and poise under pressure. He’s hard not to root for.
3. Pounded on the ground: The Cleveland Browns entered last week as the top rushing team in the NFL, at least statistically. The last two games, the Browns have looked like one of the worst rushing teams in the league.
The first half illustrated the Browns’ problems. Terrelle Pryor lined up as a Wildcat quarterback three times in the first half, managing just three yards on two passes and a run. Isaiah Crowell attempted five runs, gaining zero yards. Crowell rushed into the teeth of a Titans defensive line that blew by Cameron Erving and Alvin Bailey. Duke Johnson received his first rush of the game in the second quarter, gaining five yards on his lone carry.
As a team, the Browns recorded just 8 yards on 7 carries in the first half.
Often running backs are blamed for poor hole recognition when the run game scuffles. The backs weren’t the problem today.
When given a seam on the outside, Crowell dashed for 11 yards on the second play of the third quarter. Johnson also ran with a passion, twice losing his shoe on runs. Even without his shoes, Johnson kept running and pushing forward.
The problem today, especially in the first half, was poor blocking. The team severely missed Joel Bitonio today.
On the first play of the third quarter, Erving received a facemark penalty on a Crowell run, wiping out what would have been a modest gain to start the second half. That play highlighted the Browns’ struggles today.
Johnson did push the ball into the end zone with 27 seconds left in the game, bringing the game within one score.
The lack of run game forced Kessler to throw it again and again. The Browns ran the ball just 15 times against 42 passes.
The Browns finished with 40 yards on 15 carries. The blocking has to improve.
4. You had one job: The Browns’ secondary struggled against the deep ball against the Titans. Missing Joe Haden, the Browns looked awful again.
Playing mostly a zone defense, the Browns got burned on several deep passes.
The most notable example occurred early in the second quarter. QB Marcus Mariota found Kendall Wright for a 48-yard touchdown catch. Assigned to cover the deep left half of the field in a Cover 2 scheme, Derrick Kindred hesitated as Wright broke left on a deep post route. Kindred’s indecision allowed Wright to blow past him, haul in the pass while falling to the ground, and still have time to stumble into the end zone.
Kindred again struggled in zone coverage on the Titans’ first drive of the second half. Kindred hesitated for a split second as Rashard Matthews approached, allowing the Titans’ wideout to speed past him and find open space. The play resulted in a diving 42-yard completion to Matthews.
The Browns also struggled on third down, especially late in the game. Wright hauled in two big third down passes midway through the fourth quarter, extending a Titans drive that resulted in a touchdown pass. The 14-yard toss to Anthony Fasano placed the game nearly out of reach.
Without a doubt, the Browns are banged up in the secondary. Haden sat out today. Safety Jordan Poyer had to be taken to the hospital with an abdominal issue and possible concussion after a brutal blindside block in the first half. Tramon Williams has struggled with injuries.
However, the injuries do not excuse failed execution in coverage.
The secondary’s one shining moment came on the first play of the fourth quarter when Williams made a diving interception to halt a promising Titans drive. Credit Williams, a player I regularly criticize in these recaps, with a phenomenal play.
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton shares some blame for not adjusting with a man scheme using the safeties over the top. Isolating inexperienced safeties in deep coverage against talented Titans wideouts is not a great idea. But you can only do so much with an afflicted secondary.
5. You can’t do that: Penalties killed the Browns today. Boneheaded mistakes cut the Browns deeply today.
The Browns finished the game with 11 penalties for 96 yards. That’s too damn high.
The visitors stumbled at every opportunity, with false starts, holding calls, and everything in between.
Perhaps most egregious were two false start penalties on wide receivers. That can’t happen.
Crimes committed deep inside their own territory burned the Browns several times. The club drew two special teams penalties that set the Browns back big in the field position battle.
Speaking of field position, the Browns started six of their 12 drives within their own 25 yard line, including four within their own 12 yard line.
An incredible seven Browns drives were three-and-outs today. That means every time the Browns picked up a first down on a drive, they scored.
That speaks to the importance of special teams. It’s a lot easier to get a first down when you’re not concerned of being dropped in your own end zone for a safety.
The Browns have to clean things up on both sides of the ball.
6. What’s the deal with Cam? In his first game back a rib injury, Cameron Erving looked awful.
Erving did well snapping the ball to Kessler without any miscues, with the exception of a delayed snap late in the third quarter. That penalty pushed the Browns back further, forcing the Browns to run a draw on third down to avoid a safety.
Erving got blown up by outside linebacker Derrick Morgan with under a minute left in the fourth, leading to a sack of Kessler and forcing the club to burn a timeout.
Kessler faced stiff pressure all day, in part due to poor blocking by Erving. The second-year lineman allowed at least two sacks and a handful of quarterback hits.
A center’s job is to call out blitz protections and protect the quarterback from harm. For whatever reason, due to inexperience, lingering injuries, or the Titans simply being more talented, Erving did not do his job.
Erving’s role as center is critical to the safety of the quarterback. A promising, young quarterback, Kessler took a beating today. It’s almost too risky to keep Erving at center.
Sure, you want to coach and help a kid learn how to play the position, especially after the previous coaching staff failed him. But the Browns can’t allow Kessler to get killed. It might be time to slide John Greco back to center and see if Jonathan Cooper can play right guard.
7. Go outside, young man: The Browns shut down the run in the first half, but once the Titans started running outside, the Browns couldn’t do much.
The Browns showed an intensity on inside runs, plugging holes and pushing the Titans’ offensive line. The Titans simply couldn’t gain any traction on the ground in the first half.
Danny Shelton should receive a heap of credit for bouncing off blocks and causing havoc. The nose tackle had one of his best games as a Brown, both on and off the stat sheet. It seemed as if the second-year lineman had a hand in stopping nearly every Titans’ inside run. After a rough rookie year, Shelton is showing signs of promise.
The Browns’ success against inside runs continued in the second half. Ibrahiem Campbell charged in off the edge on one play midway through the fourth quarter, stuffing the play behind the line of scrimmage.
But outside runs hurt the Browns. The Titans utilized tosses and off tackle runs several times, picking up big chunks of yards, especially in the third quarter.
The reason for the Titans’ success on outside runs? A pulling tight end or guard. The Titans sealed off the edge on successful outside runs, pulling the defensive end inside and holding off the outside linebacker. Demario Davis could not get off blocks to seal off the edge on successful Titans rushes.
The Browns did limit Demarco Murray, a very talented back, to 65 yards on 21 carries, a yard per carry average of just 3.1. But Mariota killed the Browns on the ground. The second-year signal caller ran seven times for 64 yards, including a 41-yard killer.
The Browns have figured out how to shut down opposing backs inside. Now, the team has to find out how to stop the outside rush.
If the Browns could figure out how to stop the pass, that would be great, too. Next week in Cincinnati should be interesting.