While there are a lot of obvious takeaways from the Cleveland Browns’ week 1 tie against the Pittsburgh Steelers, there were plenty of small things that helped determine the outcome of the game. These are five things that I noticed that might have gone under the radar in week 1:
1. A Lack of Snap Discipline
A lot of times announcers and fans will use hyperbole when describing an NFL game.
“That hole was so big you or I could have run through it!”
-every announcer, probably
There are, however, a few things that I believe 90+% of fans could actually do in an NFL game. Those things include getting lined up correctly (with a bit of instruction and practice of course), and not moving until the snap.
On Sunday, the Browns struggled with those things, particularly rookie LT Desmond Harrison. Harrison did show his elite quickness and athleticism at the position—his ability in pass protection is impressive—and he was a rookie making his first start after being injured in training camp and quickly shuffled into the fold. But even when a player is injured, taking mental reps and visualizing doing the little things right are still things they can practice. I’m not convinced Harrison was fully engaged.
By my count, the Browns surrendered 5 penalties that showed a lack of snap discipline, either jumping offsides or false starting. Joel Bitonio had a key false start on 3rd and 3, turning the conversion attempt into a much more difficult 3rd and 8, and Harrison jumped on the very next play turning it into a 3rd and 13. Certainly not the kind of situation you want your offense in when the passing game isn’t clicking.
Later, Myles Garrett jumped offsides turning a Pittsburgh 3rd and 10 into a much more desirable 3rd and 5. These kinds of key penalties can really raise or lower the degree of difficulty in keeping drives alive.
Pittsburgh only jumped offsides once, with Bud Dupree trying to get ahead on a pass rush. There was a 5:1 ratio in snap discipline penalties overall, and it is hard to win when you lose that battle before the ball is even snapped.
2. Special Teams Errors
The blocked and missed kicks were obvious turning points to anyone watching, but the Browns lost the Special Teams battle in a lot of ways over the course of the game.
While he didn’t break out for any scores, the Browns’ inability to contain Ryan Switzer and was apparent, as was the lack of a threat in the Browns’ return game. The Steelers netted 63 more yards than the Browns in returns, and in this game, those 63 yards meant a lot.
Other mistakes hurt, too:
- An illegal block in the back penalty nullified a decent Jabrill Peppers kick return out of half.
- Another penalty made a bad TJ Carrie kick return even worse.
- A leveraging penalty allowed the Steelers to kick the ball short with a lot of hangtime on a kickoff, placing it inside the 5 yard line and setting up Antonio Callaway for failure on his return.
- Peppers fair caught a punt that he clearly could have returned in overtime.
- A shanked punt in overtime set the Steelers up with good field position to begin the drive where they kicked (and missed) their FG.
3. Constraint Plays
Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson didn’t have their best days in terms of running efficiency. We briefly saw Hyde get going on one drive, but Hyde ran for 2.8 YPC while Johnson ran for 3.4 YPC on the day. It was clear that Pittsburgh knew the run was coming when it wasn’t 3rd and long.
Some of the bright spots on the day for the backs were “constraint plays”, or plays that are designed to keep the defense honest. Duke had a nice 3rd down conversion on a screen pass, while Hyde had a few of his longer runs on draws. Both types of plays are designed to look like drop back passes at first, then to capitalize when the defense overplays the pass.
The more the Browns can use constraint plays consistently and effectively, the less defenses will be able to key in on one phase of the game. And an honest defense is easier to beat. The worst Browns offenses of since the return have often been bad at utilizing constraint plays, so it was good to see at least some success in week 1.
4. Mixed Success Defending Run Pass Options
Defending Run Pass Options or RPOs is not the easiest thing in the world for the defense. RPOs build a constraint play into a normal play, and give the quarterback a simple read to make a defender wrong no matter what he does. So defending them often involves committing an extra player to stop the run (and leaving the defense open for big plays over the top if the play is a pass) or some sort of multi-defender shift or disguise.
The Browns had mixed success with this on Sunday, as they surrendered a 63 yard catch and run to JuJu Smith-Schuster on an RPO early in the game. Allowing such an explosive play gave the Steelers a great scoring opportunity, and also provided Ben Rothlisberger an easy look on a day when he was prone to turnovers.
However, later in the game LB Jamie Collins miraculously popped in front of another pass option out of an RPO, with Rothlisberger hitting him square in the chest for a should-have-been interception. Baiting Rothlisberger into the throw was a win, even if dropping the pass was disappointing.
Giving up big plays is more palatable when big risks come with big rewards (turnovers), and if the Browns can’t stop RPOs outright, they will need to capitalize on plays such as these.
5. Rookie Defenders
CB Denzel Ward’s 2 INTs and LB Genard Avery’s should-have-been-game-winning forced fumble will get well-deserved attention, but both rookies made some positive impact that will go under the radar.
Ward’s willingness to come up and hit people—even if his tackling form hasn’t been up to Gregg Williams’ standards—has been great. He disrupted the flow of several plays and mixed it up in the flat. We won’t pay him to be a tackling machine, but not every highly-drafted cover corner is willing to do the dirty work. Ward is.
Genard Avery’s activity has been outstanding. He was disruptive against the run and the pass, athletic, solid in coverage, and versatile (often playing as a stand-up DE). I wish we had 4 of him. Despite playing in a 4-3 defense, he found his way onto the field for 51% of the Browns’ defensive snaps.
On the play where Avery sacked Rothlisberger at the end of OT, he hit the ground and bounced up to block for Joe Schobert before Rothlisberger even hit the ground, which was just an example of the hustle and activity he brings. Avery is everywhere.
What did you see?
Did you notice anything that went under the radar in week 1? Join the conversation in the comments below.