Another opening game, another loss for the Cleveland Browns.
The Browns suffered an opening loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 21-18. The visitors spoiled a late comeback effort by the Browns, as Big Ben notched yet another win against his “rival.”
Even though the loss stings, the Browns did play a solid game after a poor start.
Here are the takeaways from the opener:
1. Oh so close: The Browns looked on pace to turn an 11-point deficit into a heroic come-from-behind win. It wasn’t meant to be.
DeShone Kizer orchestrated an 8-play, 73-yard touchdown drive down the field in the fourth quarter, showing impressive stuff for a rookie. Kizer’s most impressive throw came on a checkdown with Steelers encroaching on the pocket. Kizer tossed a short pass across the middle to Isaiah Crowell, who dashed 23 yards into the red zone.
Kizer then threw a perfect slant pass on 4th and 2, connecting with Corey Coleman for a short touchdown. Hue Jackson’s playcall was brilliant, with four wideouts lining up on the right side to open space for Coleman on the left.
The two-point conversion also went well. Crowell found a crease in the left side, as Joe Thomas paved a path into the end zone.
The Steelers finished the Browns off in textbook fashion, however, to prevent Kizer from playing the role of the hero. Ben Roethlisberger found Antonio Brown for a long pass down the left side, which was challenged by Jackson.
Following the cries of Browns fans at FirstEnergy Stadium, Jackson challenged the ruling on the field. The crew in New York upheld the call, costing Jackson two timeouts – one he took to review the play, and another penalizing him for an unsuccessful challenge.
The ruling killed the Browns’ comeback chances, as did a late LeVeon Bell run.
The loss is disappointing, but Kizer and the Browns did look solid in Week One.
2. Sluggish start leads to early deficit: The Browns started out with an awful three and out on the first possession of the game.
The first drive of DeShone Kizer’s career with the Browns started poorly and ended ignominiously, leaving some fans saying “same old Browns.”
Crowell set the Browns up with a third and long with a loss of nine on a second down run. Thomas then pushed the squad back further with a false start penalty. And a short run finally forced a Browns punt.
On the punt, Seth DeValve allowed a Steeler to burst by his right side in the gap between him and long snapper Charley Hughlett. The Steelers thus blocked the punt and recovered it in the end zone, taking an early lead.
Things did not improve for the Browns on the next drive. A David Njoku holding penalty erased a nice Crowell run and two sacks grinded the ball to a halt.
Thankfully, the cold start did not hurt the Browns too much.
3. Up tempo wakes up the Browns: After a slow start, Kizer settled in and found his groove. Head coach Hue Jackson helped his young quarterback find a rhythm and the Browns’ offense came alive.
A mix of up-tempo and pound-it-out football allowed the Browns to march down the field on a 12-play, 68-yard drive taking up 5:26 of clock. Kizer will, and should, receive plenty of praise for his poise and precision on the drive, including on the short touchdown run that capped it off. However, his line provided a lot of help.
JC Tretter pancaked his foe on multiple occasions, supplying time for his signalcaller to work. After allowing two sacks in the previous drive, the offensive line buckled down and protected Kizer well, allowing the rookie to work.
With the exception of one play, the Browns did not gain more than 10 yards on one play during that drive. The exception came on a Duke Johnson pass reception on third down, a wonderful job by Johnson of finding open space and finding the first down marker.
The Browns’ offensive success helped the hosts dominate the time of possession battle in the first quarter, 12:27-2:33.
4. Looking deep: DeShone Kizer showed no fear in throwing the ball downfield. Jackson dialed up several lengthy throws, though the first few did not end in completions.
Kizer showed off his live arm in the second quarter, uncorking a number of deep throws. The early throws did not end in completions, though Kasen Williams almost hauled in a catch of 50+ yards, if not for the sidelines.
The throws did show Kizer’s arm strength, though, and stretch the Steelers’ defense a bit.
Kizer’s arm, combined with the playaction, started to open holes in the Steelers’ secondary. Corey Coleman hauled in a deep pass from Kizer in the team’s first drive of the second half, setting up a Zane Gonzalez field goal.
On the negative side, Kizer showed too much hesitation at times. Kizer pump faked and delayed too long, falling to the ground while watching the pocket collapse around him. Kizer has to learn when to throw the ball away.
On paper, the Browns’ offensive line surrendered seven sacks, but Kizer’s indecisiveness and indecision caused most of those sacks. It’s common for young quarterbacks to attract a lot of sacks, and nothing to be overly concerned about. Kizer finished 20-of-30 for 222 passing yards, 2 total touchdowns, and 1 interception.
In addition, Kizer needs to take care not to lock onto one wide receiver. The youngster did so on one pass late in the third quarter, and it led to a TJ Watt interception, one play after Watt speared Kizer.
5. New-look defense: Strangely enough, the Browns’ defense looked like the Steelers’ defense in the first half. Gregg Williams’ new defense played like a steel curtain and held Pittsburgh at bay.
Williams and the Browns showcased an impressive aggressiveness and ferocity. The Browns swarmed to the ball and gangtackled, particularly on short running plays. While the Steelers did have several third and short opportunities, the visitors did not have much success in picking up first downs.
In fact, according to CBS Sports, the Steelers failed to gain a first down in the opening quarter for the first time since December 30, 2012. The Steelers didn’t score an offensive touchdown until the final minute of the first half.
Aggressiveness is the easy answer to the Browns’ success on offense. But what’s the true reason? Effective rotation.
Williams and the Browns cycled in plenty of players in both the front seven and the secondary. For example, Jamie Meder began the game as the starter at defensive tackle. However, Larry Ogunjobi saw plenty of snaps at nose, using impressive moves inside to get around Steelers’ linemen.
Carl Nassib also used his big frame to bring down Ben Roethlisbeger on the second play of the second half.
An unfortunate pass interference penalty (in this writer’s opinion, unwarranted) spoiled a solid Browns’ effort in the third quarter. The penalty granted the Steelers 40 free yards and wonderful field position, which Big Ben turned into a short touchdown strike to Jesse James.
Derrick Kindred enjoyed a nice day, thwarting a promising Steelers’ drive with a fourth quarter interception and solid play on several other plays.
As a whole, the Browns played well on defense.
6. No room to run: The Browns tried to establish a run game in the first half, but struggled to open holes for the team’s running backs.
As Nathan Zegura harped on the radio broadcast, the Browns’ offensive line could not open holes for the Browns’ backs against a fierce Steelers defense. Kevin Zeitler blocked poorly on a few plays, failing to open a gap, as did some of the other Browns’ linemen.
However, don’t blame the Browns’ linemen completely. Crowell and Johnson did not show great vision with the ball. Crowell especially seemed to run directly to the designed gap instead of surveying the field and looking for a cutback lane. Crowell had clear cutback lanes on multiple occasions, but ran right into the teeth of the Steelers’ defense.
The result? A total of 19 runs for just 31 yards in the first half, with Crowell notching just 13 attempts for 19 yards.
Coincidentally, the Steelers could not gain any traction in the running game, either. Pittsburgh only notched 22 yards on 9 attempts in the first three quarters. LeVeon Bell looked rusty and ineffective against the Browns, partially due to him missing training camp.
While the Browns could not run the ball despite a dedication to do so, the squad’s defense deserves kudos for stopping the Steelers from establishing the run. After all, the Steelers only scored 14 points on offense, to the Browns’ 18.
7. Yellow towels, yellow bellies: The Steelers showed their true colors on Sunday, with dirty play after dirty play. The Steelers’ defense should receive some fines on Monday.
The Steelers committed three personal fouls on Sunday. All three were deliberate, high, helmet-to-helmet hits. First, William Gay nailed Ricardo Louis with a his helmet, causing the Browns to send the young received through the concussion protocol, which he passed. Second. Watt dove into hit Kizer’s helmet after a sack, without a doubt a dirty, deliberate play. And finally, J.J. Wilcox led with his helmet on Coleman’s touchdown.
Give credit the referees for enforcing the rules. We’ve seen the Steelers get away with cheap hits in the past. But now the NFL needs to take it further and punish the Steelers for these repeated cheap shots. These are not isolated incidents.
Late, high, deliberate hits are the type of plays that will kill the NFL. These hits cause injuries, particularly head injuries, which are very dangerous. Not only for the hitee, but the hitter. In fact, Wilcox departed the game with an injury.
The type of hits laid down by the Steelers is the kind of old school football that gave so many NFL legends Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). These unnecessary hits should be eliminated from the game of football. If they are not, participation will continue to decrease at the youth football levels and football will be hurting for players.
Now that I’m off my soapbox, the Browns played well despite the loss. The Steelers are a dirty team, and will still do well this season. While Kizer made mistakes, the young quarterback has potential and the Browns will be interesting to watch this season.