A quarter of the season has passed, and the Browns are still without a win.
Call it bad luck, missed opportunities, or a general failure — the Cleveland Browns lost to the Washington Redskins today, 31-20.
For all the club’s struggles, the Browns have not started off 0-4 since 2012.
Hope never dies in Cleveland, even after a tough start. The Browns have some exciting young talent and a smart head coach.
On the flipside of the coin, a loss is a loss, and the Browns are still the Browns.
Are the Browns en route to 0-16? Perhaps. But before we predict the next 12 games, let’s dive into today’s seven talking points.
1. Turnover turnaround: Turnovers on three straight drives killed the Browns’ momentum and allowed the Redskins to mount a comeback in the fourth quarter.
Early in the fourth, the Browns led, 20-17, and looked to be in control. The offense was driving down the field, nearing the end zone. Then, Malcolm Johnson fumbled and the tables turned.
The Redskins drove down the field, retook the lead, and never looked back.
On the Browns’ next drive, Duke Johnson caught a case of the fumbles. The second-year back looked like he recovered the ball, but the referees ruled otherwise.
The Redskins did not convert on the turnover, thanks to a pair of sacks by Cam Johnson and Briean Boddy-Calhoun.
But Washington received another opportunity soon after, as Cody Kessler tossed a pick to Norman, as described above. The Redskins put away the Browns with a short touchdown run to extend the lead to 11.
Malcolm Johnson’s fumble was the turning point of the game. Duke Johnson’s miscue and Kessler’s mistake also hurt. But Malcom Johnson’s mistake hurt the Browns the most. Like Cam Erving’s high snap a couple of weeks ago, a mistake on offense did in the Browns.
2. The kid is alright: Cody Kessler enjoyed a solid game for the Browns today, holding his water when pressured and finding the open receiver on most of his throws.
Kessler has shown tremendous improvement from his college days, and even from last week. Jackson has obviously worked quite hard with Kessler, with measurable results. The USC product finished 28-of-40 passing for 223 yards and a touchdown.
The rookie worked over the Redskins’ defense, making smart reads all day. Even amidst stiff pass rush, Kessler stayed in the pocket without getting happy feet, avoiding any big mistakes.
Kessler did take some hits due to hanging onto the ball for a second longer than he should have. Late in the third quarter, Kessler looked discombobulated after one hit, shaking off some cobwebs.
When Kessler threw the ball under pressure, he found the open option, especially on checkdown routes. Crowell and Johnson made their quarterback look like a genius with shifty plays in the open field after catching passes in the flats.
The lone exception to Kessler’s impressive day was a fourth quarter interception. On a slant pass intended for Terrelle Pryor, Kessler threw the ball a touch behind his wideout. Washington cornerback Josh Norman bodied his way to the ball, stealing it away from Pryor and giving the Redskins a golden opportunity to put the game out of reach.
To Kessler’s credit, Norman appeared to have committed pass interference on the play, holding Pryor before the ball arrived. Still, Kessler’s throw could have been better.
Kessler didn’t end the game well after the pick, throwing the ball too short in the two-minute drill. At the same time, Kessler limped through much of the fourth quarter, playing with pain of some sort.
Despite the loss, Kessler showed off some talent and poise today. That’s something to build upon.
3. Use two hands: The Browns struggled to tackle on defense, allowing the Redskins to pick up extra yards on the ground.
On a day in which the Browns’ offensive line thrived, the defensive line barely survived.
The Redskins mauled the Browns at the point of attack, particularly on the edge. The Browns’ outside defenders, namely the outside linebackers, could not set contain and force plays inside.
As a result, Redskins running back Matt Jones dashed outside for big gains, weaving his way through the Browns defense. Jones finished the day with 117 yards on 24 carries.
Poor tackling also impacted the Browns, especially outside of the tackles. Boddy-Calhoun missed a pair of tackles on the outside, Joe Schobert failed to wrap up a couple of times, and other Browns defenders showed improper form. Even Demario Davis, typically a sure tackler whiffed on the opening drive, in which the Redskins drove right down the field for a touchdown.
Arm tackling does not work in the NFL, though the Browns still employ the practice. This problem has surfaced with Browns teams in the past, but this has been a problem since the first week of the season.
To the defense’s credit, injuries have been a big problem. Not having the talented Carl Nassib hurts. Ibraheim Campbell and Tramon Williams could not play today, either.
But at the end of the day, an NFL defender should be able to tackle in space. For whatever reason, be it fatigue or poor coaching or another cause, the Browns are failing in the tackling department.
4. Big uglies doing big work: The Browns’ offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage, especially in the first half.
Offensive linemen are often overlooked in favor of skill players. Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson will receive plenty of praise, as they should, for superior vision, quick burst through the hole, and solid blocking on passing plays.
However, the Browns’ offensive line deserves just as much credit for a great performance.
The Browns’ line bullied the Redskins’ front seven, particularly on run plays. Head coach Hue Jackson called a host of runs to the right side, pulling guard Joel Bitonio from left to right in order to lay the seal block on the Redskins’ linebacker nearest the hole. Bitonio did his job perfectly, opening big lanes for the Browns’ backs to run through.
Austin Pasztor blocked much better than last week, preventing the Redskins from blowing up the play from the outside. Spencer Drango also performed well, as the Browns blocked downhill and manhandled the Redskins’ line.
Thanks to the offensive line’s efforts, Crowell and Johnson combined for 10 carries and 60 yards in the first half alone. Crowell finished the day with 15 carries for 112 yards, and Johnson attempted 9 rushes for 53 yards.
The Browns need to continue to pound the ball the rest of the season. The Browns have a solid running game. Now the question is how to more effectively utilize that advantage in the passing game with playaction.
5. Title bout: The Pryor v. Norman bout did not disappoint. Can the Browns sign Pryor to an extension already?
Terrelle Pryor enjoyed a solid game against all-star corner Josh Norman. Pryor used his height to beat Norman, creating separation by using his size to box out Norman. Pryor ran some really nice routes, deceiving Norman on several occasions.
The Ohio State product beat Norman in one-on-one coverage a handful of times. Pryor was targeted a team-high nine times, hauling in five receptions for 46 yards and a touchdown.
Norman did make a few nice plays, too. The former Panther intercepted Kessler on a throw to Pryor in the fourth quarter, though the mistake was hardly Pryor’s fault.
For a matchup predicted to be lopsided, Pryor held his own against one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Sure, Norman and the Redskins won the game. But Pryor showed he can replace Josh Gordon as the team’s gamebreaking wideout.
Pryor remains one of the bright spot on a Browns’ offense struggling with injuries and in-game mistakes. Hopefully the Browns can keep him around.
6. Third time’s the charm: The Browns performed quite well on third downs today.
As mentioned above, give Kessler some credit. In his second start, the rookie made some nice throws in the clutch. Kessler completed 10-of-10 passes for 70 yards and a touchdown on third down today. When Jackson called a pass on third down, the Browns were 6-of-10 on conversions.
The Browns finished 8-of-12 overall on third down, not a bad rate.
Pessimists will criticize Kessler for only recording 7 yards per pass on third down. Optimists will praise Kessler for completing all 10 attempts.
Your opinion depends on your point of view, but objectively, Kessler outperformed expectations when the chips were down.
On a bright side note, the Browns only punted once today.
On the defensive end, the Browns’ defense had an alright day on third down. The Redskins converted 4-of-8 third downs, a decent rate for a depleted defense.
The takeaway here, however, is Kessler’s performance under duress. If the youngster can withstand the abuse a Browns’ quarterback observes, Jackson might be patting himself on the back at year’s end.
7. You can’t handle the lead: The Browns blew another lead today. The truth is, the Browns don’t play well with the lead.
Today’s contest marked the third consecutive time the Browns have enjoyed a lead, only to see the opponent punch the Browns in the mouth and take it back.
To the Browns’ credit, the visitors only held a slim 20-17 edge over Washington, but committing three consecutive turnovers is unacceptable.
The Browns had a chance to improve the lead to at least 6, if not 10, before Malcolm Johnson’s turnover. All of the blame cannot be placed on Johnson: His miscue alone did not cause the Browns to lose. (By the way, don’t blame Jackson for giving the ball to Malcolm Johnson, The Duke was being tested for a concussion at the time.)
The root of the problem is the team’s response to adversity. When faced with a turn of momentum, the Browns crumble.
Today, for example, Malcolm Johnson fumbled, giving the Redskins the ball at the Washington 9-yard line. Then Cousins orchestrated a soul-crushing 10-play, 91-yard drive to give the Redskins a 24-20 lead with 10:39 remaining in the fourth.
Poor performance late in games is an organizational problem dating back to 1999. How many times have the new Browns squandered a second half lead and collapsed at the end of a game? Too many times to count.
That’s Hue Jackson’s challenge. His Sysphean task is to help the Browns overcome this roadblock, and help his youngsters perform better at the ends of games.
It’s not an easy undertaking — I don’t envy Jackson. Not only must he and the front office find, evaluate, draft, and coach up talented players, the “New Browns Order” must change the culture of this organization.
The first step is winning a game. Hopefully for Browns fans, the team can win one sooner rather than later.