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Browns vs. Steelers: 7 Talking Points

The season mercifully comes to an end.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

This #$%*ing team.

In the 2016 season finale, the Cleveland Browns bumbled a chance to win two straight for the first time since Brian Hoyer ruled Cleveland, losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-24.

The loss drops the Browns to 1-15, the worst mark in franchise history.

It’s a bitter ending to what’s been anything but a sweet season. The Browns retained the No. 1 pick, but lost in Pittsburgh for the 13th straight time and bungled several chances to win the game.

In a way, it’s maddening. In another, it’s all too predictable.

Whatever the heck it was, it delivered a fitting end for what’s been a truly bizarre season, one wrought with a fundraising fight over a parade, analytics, a Pierogi Prince of Parma, and plenty of losses sandwiched in between.

So, let’s wrap up the season with one final talking points article, so we can stop thinking for the Browns for a bit and move onto happier things.

1. What’s happening? The Browns started off the game quite well, shutting down the Steelers’ offense before driving down the field and scoring first.

It was kind of strange. I kept expecting Rod Serling to walk on screen and begin a monologue about how we had just entered “The Twilight Zone.”

In all seriousness, the Browns’ coaching staff deserves kudos for preparing the Browns well at the start of the game. The defense played with a passion, attacking the backfield and tearing through the Pittsburgh offensive line.

The Browns’ offense also looked impressive to start, with Robert Griffin III passing the ball with authority and the running game tearing off chunks of yards.

The Browns held a 7-0 lead heading into the second quarter, thanks to a nice Seth DeValve catch and run (which included a nice stiff arm), before RG3 and Gary Barnidge connected for a quick touchdown pass early in the second stanza.

It’s the first time the Browns have held a double-digit lead in the first half since Week 2 against the Ravens.

Most 1-14 teams would not have started out as strong. Call it momentum from last week’s win, a weak start by the Steelers, or a group of players fighting for roster spots, but the Browns started well for once.

2. Attack, attack, attack: The Browns defense played much more aggressively on Sunday, albeit against a team without its three best offensive weapons.

In the first 28 minutes of the game, the Browns allowed the Steelers just 15 yards on 18 plays. That’s impressive.

The Browns’ defense looked like one without anything to lose, blitzing quarterback Landry Jones with a passion and sacking him on third down on the Steelers’ first two offensive possessions.

The secondary also stepped up early on, with Jamar Taylor and Briean Boddy-Calhoun deflecting passes on deep passing plays.

Boddy-Calhoun also made a leaping interception and returned it for a touchdown in the third quarter, before it was overturned, as he fumbled while stretching the ball into the end zone. Despite the mishap at the end, it was a great play by the youngster.

While Boddy-Calhoun, Taylor, and Co. did not have to deal with superstar Antonio Brown. Even still, the secondary made some plays against a talented wide receiver corps.

Besides decent secondary play, the key to the Browns’ success was stiff blitzing. The visitors saw positive results when sending an extra rusher or two, outmatching the Steelers with 5 or 6 pass rushers.

The not-so-nice flipside? The Browns did little when rushing just four, as has been the case all season.

That’s the determining factor of a front seven — how well you can rush the passer when you don’t blitz? Blitzing is fun and effective, but you obviously cannot do it every play, lest you expose your secondary.

Carl Nassib and Emmanuel Ogbah have potential, to be sure. Each has flashed talent. But the Browns could benefit hugely from another pass rusher, be it Myles Garrett or whoever the Browns select in the draft.

3. Finally, a feast: Isaiah Crowell ran the ball well today, especially in the first half and then again late in the fourth quarter. The third-year back capped off another solid season with an impressive final game.

Sometimes, it’s tough to peg Crowell. He’s not Ezekiel Elliott, but he’s also not Trent Richardson.

Crowell does not have the speed and shiftiness of a star, yet he has the vision of a solid back. As Crowell’s career continues, it’s becoming increasingly clear that he will never be an all-star, but he’s reliably solid.

The 5’11”, 225 pound back produced when given the ball today, finishing with 19 carries for 152 yards. Crowell ripped off gains of 10 and 13 yards early in the game, setting up the Browns’ first touchdown.

Crowell also notched 12 yards early in the fourth quarter to get the Browns into Steelers’ territory, rushing for key yards on several occasions today.

The biggest rush of all came with 4:26 left in the game. With the Browns reeling from a Steelers’ touchdown, Crowell broke off a 68-yard rush to set up a 5-yard George Atkinson III touchdown to tie the game.

Crowell dipped and cut back through the Steelers’ defense, showing his gifted agility and trademark quickness. It was a thing of beauty to watch Crowell weave through the Steelers’ defense like a possessed, 225-pound ballerina with pads.

Crowell was clutch, except of course, when he fumbled the ball with 1:04 left. That evoked bad memories of an ill-timed fumble from earlier in the Browns’ history, though this one didn’t matter as much in the grand scheme of things. Even still, the turnover destroyed the Browns’ chances of winning the game in the last minute of the game, and foiled an easy chance to defeat the team’s archrival on its home turf.

Despite his awful fumble, the third-year pro has plenty to be proud of this season.

Crowell ends the year with 952 yards, 7 touchdowns, and 4.8 yards per carry. All of these numbers are improvements over last season, showing Crowell’s development as a runner under Hue Jackson. The yardage and per carry figures are career-highs.

Next season, I would like to see the Browns use Crowell more. Seriously. Crowell attempted 198 rushes, the most in his career, but not enough. Crowell is a durable back, without a major injury history.

In the coaching staff’s defense, the Browns often had to overcome a deficit, and pass the ball late in games.

But imagine if the Browns gave Crowell 20 carries per game. Not once did he surpass 20 carries in a game. The Browns handed Crowell the ball 15 times in six games this season. In those six contests, Crowell gained 582 yards and 4 touchdowns.

Let’s visit fantasyland for a second. Say the Browns hand the ball to Crowell 15 times per game, and let’s assume Crowell avoids any major injury. Based on his current yards per carry average, Crowell gains 1,152 yards. And based on his attempts/touchdown ration, Crowell also picks up a couple of extra touchdowns, ending the year with 9. Might a touchdown have changed the outcome of a game earlier on in the season, avoiding the 14-game losing skid? We’ll never know.

Getting back to reality, between Crowell and third down back Duke Johnson, the Browns have an above average backfield. These two are not the problem on offense.

The Browns could use a third running back, but the investment needs to be in offensive linemen, a wideout, and a quarterback (see below) over the offseason.

4. Not the answer: Robert Griffin III made some plays today, but continues to show why he should not be the Browns’ quarterback next season.

It’s simple. RG3 cannot be a consistently successful NFL quarterback.

If you watched RG3 today, or even look at his numbers glancingly, you might say, ‘Gee, the Browns have a decent quarterback there. Maybe they shouldn’t draft a quarterback early.’

If you think this, you may want to reconsider.

Here are the facts:

  • Griffin finished today 29-of-40 for 232 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception
  • Griffin ends the season with 886 passing yards for 2 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, with a 59% completion rate
  • On the ground, Griffin ran 31 times for 190 yards for 2 touchdowns this year
  • Griffin was sacked 22 times, or once every 6.81 passing attempts
  • Entering Week 17, Griffin had a 38.7 QBR, ranking 36th out of 38 NFL quarterbacks with 100+ attempts (only Josh McCown and Bryce Petty ranked lower)

Here are the conclusions we can draw, based on the facts:

  • Griffin is a quarterback who likes to scramble and does not feel comfortable the pocket, based on his high running rate (about 6 runs/game).
  • Due in part to his penchant for scrambling, RG3 is sacked a lot, as his offensive line does not know where he is and cannot accurately protect him as he tiptoes away from the pocket.
  • Griffin does not produce enough passing yards and touchdowns to generate wins. Throwing for 177.2 yards per game just will not cut it. And tossing just 0.4 touchdowns per game simply will not do the job.

Now, we need to need to keep these stats in perspective. Due to injuries, Griffin only started 5 games. That’s a relatively small sample size.

However, we can draw these conclusions based on what we’ve seen during his limited time this season, simply by using the ol’ “eye test”:

  • Griffin locks onto his wide receivers. The former Washington standout did so several times today, nearly costing him more than one interception. As it was, Griffin threw into triple coverage while staring at Rashard Higgins. Griffin is a one-read quarterback, and that’s a dangerous thing in the NFL.
  • Griffin throws passes behind his receivers, especially in 1-on-1 coverage. In both the first and second half, Griffin made some solid throws, but threw them behind the receiver instead of in front of them. As the Steelers’ defense scuffled early on, this did not have an impact. However, the Steelers deflected several passes because Griffin threw behind his wideout. This has been an issue all season.
  • Griffin is a good leader, and seems to be liked by his teammates. By all accounts, he seems to be a solid teammate and good person. I try to write about all players fairly, and while I criticize RG3 for his on-field performance, he seems to be an upstanding character in the locker room. And based on his tweets after the game, it’s tough not to like the guy. But still, RG3 is 26 years old, and will be 27 in February. He’s not going to show significant improvement and become a franchise quarterback, his prime is nearly complete.

Now that I’ve invested 500+ words on RG3, here’s my conclusion: Griffin is not the guy. He could be a solid No. 2 behind Cody Kessler next year, or a No. 3 behind Kessler and a rookie. But he should not be the guy heading into next season.

5. It’s a man’s game: The Browns made rookie mistakes with the ball, and paid for it. Four turnovers, two committed by rookies, killed the Browns.

Especially early on, the Browns looked like an NFL team. The Browns did not look like a collection of misfits, or a ragtag bunch of youngsters, as the team has played like for much of the season.

The Browns played like a group of savvy veterans, handling the Steelers early on.

Then, the mistakes cascaded.

Robert Griffin III threw into triple coverage, staring into Rashard Higgins’ eyes like an actor on stage staring into the eyes of his beau.

Then on the team’s next drive, rookie Anthony Fabiano fired an early, high snap that RG3 could not recover, leading to a short field for the Steelers to work with.

The Steelers entered halftime trailing 14-7, as the Browns’ mistakes allowed the hosts to hang around.

The Browns almost provided the dagger late in the third quarter. Boddy-Calhoun leaped in front of a Jones pass, dashed 68 yards, and stretched for the end zone to complete a pick-six. But the rookie did not control it over the goal line, fumbling the ball back to Jones.

The turnover completely changed the momentum, as the Steelers drove 80 yards on the ensuing drive for a touchdown to tie the game.

And with a chance to win the game with 1:04 left, Crowell made the most crucial mistake of all. The Browns’ top back fumbled the ball inside the 5-yard line, breaking the Browns’ hopes of winning the game in the final minute of regulation.

The Browns made some incredible plays today. But rookie mistakes killed the Browns, turning what might have been a 35-21 win into a 27-24 loss.

As an added note, the playcalling on the overtime drive was ugly. Why call a pass to Randall Telfer, who has caught 2 passes all season? Then, why choose a screen pass to Andrew Hawkins, which lost 14 yards? Why not call a run there?

Yes, Crowell fumbled the ball in the red zone earlier. However, Atkinson pounded the ball in earlier on an inside zone run out of the shotgun, and Duke Johnson is a reliable runner.

Very puzzling.

Either way, the fact of the matter is that the Browns squirreled away a chance to win, same as always.

6. Bloom among the gloom: In the midst of a difficult season, several players blossomed into NFL starters. Foremost among them? Terrelle Pryor.

In his first full season at wide receiver, Pryor developed into a bona-fide NFL stud.

The Ohio State product hauled in 77 receptions for 1,007 yards and 4 touchdowns in a special year. Pryor progressed as a route runner, showing moves and quickness as the “X” receiver. Pryor made leaping grabs and showed off incredible agility and footwork near the sidelines.

The Browns need to resign this guy.

It’s been a blast to watch Pryor succeed in Cleveland. Jackson proved to be a huge asset in developing Pryor, using his familiarity with him from their Cincinnati days to connect with the former quarterback.

The sky is the limit for this 6’4”, 223 pound receiver. Hopefully he signs with the Browns.

On the defensive side, the biggest bright spot was Christian Kirksey.

Talk about a player who made a big leap. Following the departure of Karlos Dansby, Kirksey stole the show, far outshining veteran Demario Davis, who did do a fine job in his own right.

Kirksey finishes the year as the Browns’ leading tackler with 94 takedowns. Today, he topped the team with 11 and added one of the team’s four sacks.

Kirksey could be the Browns’ starting middle linebacker for years to come. The third-year pro showed his pursuit skills and ability to attack the ballcarrier this season, taking the right angles and showing solid form. In a defense full of poor tacklers, Kirksey didn’t miss too many.

The Browns did develop some playmakers this season. Hopefully these two can lead the way for the development of many more pros next season.

7. Finally: The season is over. Hallelujah.

It’s been a long, grinding season. Every week has been difficult. I’ve found it a struggle to keep writing about the losses, week after week.

Personally, I’m glad it’s over. I know you are, too.

And perhaps the best news of the season came out this evening, when Jimmy Haslam told the media that no significant changes are coming in Berea. No firing of the coach, no switching regimes, no hiring of any more football people.

At long last, Haslam seems to have received the message — Consistency is key.

That leaves us without a coaching controversy or a power vacuum atop Berea. Instead, we can focus on the 2017 NFL Draft and having the No. 1 overall pick.

I’m sure I’ll be writing and talking about this in the coming months, but here are my top 5 needs for the Browns in the draft:

1: Cover cornerback
2: Center
3: Quarterback
4: Pass rusher
5: Safety

Now, I don’t mean to say the Browns need to or will select players in this order. My philosophy is to take the best available player, then based on your needs.

Whatever your views, I’m sure we’ll be discussing them thoroughly in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, thanks for reading and enduring. Thank you for being so loyal and kind this season. You make the job worth it.

Happy New Year to you and your families.