The last game of the 2021 season. What a bummer. The hype for this year was so high. What happened? What actually happened to make this year end the way it did?
Game-after-game it was mostly agonizing. The first Bengals game was exciting and the only real contest all year that the club played well on all fronts: offense, defense, special teams and coaching. And now, here we are in a simply meaningless game for both teams just playing for jobs with a focus on next year.
The only thing that mattered was where would the Browns end up in the pecking order of the NFL draft. From 11th to 15th was on the line with either a win or loss. Tickets to this game were either extremely cheap or on several posts, were being given away. In the end, Cincy was only playing for a possible elevation of their third seed into the second seed with a lot of second-teamers on the field as they succumbed 21-16 to Cleveland.
So who played well for the Browns? Who didn’t?
QB Casey Keenum - Don’t look now, but the backup is 2-0 this year as the starting quarterback. Although he had few spectacular plays, he played well as the game manager, got two key first downs on scrambles and tossed two touchdowns in the process while only being sacked once. 17 for 24 with one pick for 176 yards is nothing to call his mom about, but his 2021 win-loss record is one quarter of this year’s wins. We will never know if a healthy Keenum would have made a difference than an injured Mayfield. On the flip side Keenum threw an interception (which was a tipped ball) and had a fumble go for a Bengals touchdown. His third-and-one sneak with 1:28 to go for the first sealed the win. It helped that his offensive line did a good job at pass protection this game.
Offensive line - Not to allow the inmates to jail break two weeks in a row, for the most part this unit played well. RT James Hudson had his issues including allowing DE Wyatt Ray to penetrate and slap the ball out of Keenum’s hand in the second quarter which resulted in the scoop-and-score, but overall was good in the running game. Both guards, Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio showed why they are Pro Bowlers as each can pull and then take on the second level for extra yardage. Center J.C. Tretter had his moments and also his issues. LT Jedrick Wills did not have a spectacular game with pass protection, but in run blocking he is very steady and can seal the edge every time. Nice work fellas.
LB Jacob Phillips - Suffice to say, Phillips will be the Day 1 starter next year barring another injury and proved why he needs to be on the field all four downs. Someone just needs to practice with him on his receiving skills as he allowed a sure interception go right through his paws with 2:42 left in the game with Cincinnati on the Cleveland seven yard line. Early in the second stanza his delayed sack went unnoticed by the Bengals’ blockers for the sack. With 6:48 to go in the game, it was Phillips who smacked RB Chris Evans on the screen as he beat tackle Jonah Williams that set a second-and-nine into a third-and-10. Led the team in tackling with nine total tackles, a QB hit, several pressures, two batted passes plus two tackles for loss. If this was a hockey game, Phillips would be one of the three stars of the game.
Third down defense - In the first half, Cincinnati’s offense was 0-6 on third down. They finished 4 for 13.
CB M.J. Stewart - Mercy. Has anyone else noticed the demon inside this man? Not only can he hit, and hit hard, but he is rarely beaten on any passing play to his man. And get this: he isn’t listed as the starter. Every day at practice I would have him tutor every single defender in the Art of Tackling. Stewart had a mild first half, but Cricky! he dominated the final quarter. Love, love, love this kid and would make any future defender the Browns sign or draft a sure-tackler their Number 1 priority. With 3:58 left in the game and facing a third-and-seven, Bengals QB Brandon Allen found WR Trent Taylor who had gotten past the linebackers, Stewart came across the other side of the field to nail Taylor after a 26-yard completion that could have been a score. Two plays later his tight coverage on WR Mike Thomas he forced a third down at the Browns’ 23. Then on Cincy’s final touchdown and onside kick attempt, after Harrison Bryant muffed the kick, it was Stewart who was engaged with a block and saw the loose ball for the recovery which nullified a possible Bengals comeback.
Defensive line effort - Although no one player had an outstanding game, this group as a unit had a very good game. DT Malik McDowell had his moments and is proving worthy of a good run stoppage guy. It is going to be very difficult not to re-sign Jadeveon Clowney as he has proved to be one of the best along the line with constant pressure on passing downs and you just can’t run to his side. It was DT Tommy Togiai (three tackles) who chased down Evans with just over two minutes to play on a third-and-10 that was just short of a first. DE Myles Garrett had some good pressures and came close to two sacks. Cincinnati had just 79 yards rushing on 18 attempts. Nice job for this group.
RB D’Ernest Johnson - When Johnson runs, he reacts like it is the last carry of his football life and he is going to take down anyone in his path and make them pay as he struggles and grinds for every added yard. Had a well-deserved touchdown and played great as he led all runners with 123 yards and a 4.9 per carry average plus a 10-yard reception right before the half that kept the chains moving. Hopefully we will see #30 suit up again next year.
Fourth down - Cleveland was 0-1 on fourth down on the Bengals’ two yard line late in the third quarter on an incomplete dropped pass to Donovan Peoples-Jones. In a similar situation, Cincinnati converted their only fourth down conversion with just over two minutes in the game as CB Greg Newsome was late on the coverage and a touchdown pass to Evans went uncontested as the Bengals pulled close to 21-16.
Tight end play - Wasn’t this offense supposed to be tight end heavy? Harrison Bryant had one catch for nine yards. David Njoku two catches on two targets for 11 yards. Austin Hooper blanked. If these guys are going to be strictly blockers, why not bring in blocking tight ends who are a lot cheaper and don’t drop passes when thrown to?
TE Harrison Bryant - He missed a sure touchdown in the second quarter that went right through his hands while in the end zone. The worst play of the game was the short-hop into his chest on the onside kick as the Bengals were looking to steal the win. Apparently Bryant has never played infield on the baseball diamond because you always play up for the bounce instead of going low. You are on the “hands team” for a reason, not to give the game away. In the off-season, have Bryant’s dad hit him a thousand grounders.
Offense - Geez. Somebody do something about how anemic this offense really is. Cincinnati played more backups than starters while Cleveland had just Mayfield out. And yet, for most of the game the Browns could not move the ball. First half alone: three punts, two touchdowns, one fumble, one interception. Were the Bengals actually trying to win this game? They had just 182 total yards of offense and going into the fourth quarter it was just 14-10 Browns. Third down conversions were better at five for 11.
Milk Bones – where one minute you’re young and fun and the next you are turning down the radio in your car to see better
WR Anthony Schwartz - Had some great moments including the reception to the 11-yard line just seconds before the half; and then will drop a sure pass like the third-and-nine play with 6:06 left in the first quarter. Needs to work on his downfield blocking as well as several times his man played off a weak block to make the tackle.
WR Demetric Felton - He should have played more in a truly meaningless game, but gave it his all and produced when called upon. The rookie will be back next year and had a touchdown that he weaved in-and-out as he found a hole to the end zone. Caught both targets for 18 yards.
WR Donovan Peoples-Jones - Next year, the Browns have got to get an elusive punt return man as DPJ is anything but as evidenced by his five-yard average. He even fumbled one punt which is uncharacteristic of him but happened. Not a single time on a return in any game will the viewer think “he just might break one.” On the fourth down play on Cincy’s two, DPJ simply dropped the pass. Caught a key reception for a first down early in the opening quarter. 38 yards for the Browns’ best receiver is not even close to being a good day.
CB Greedy Williams - Broke up a nice pass towards the end of the first period on a third-and-10 that forced a punt. Was out of position at times and on key down and distance situations. His pass interference call midway through the third quarter was on a third-and-five at Cleveland’s 39-yard line and placed Cincinnati in business at the Browns’ 23. To be fair, Bengals WR Stanley Morgan, Jr. baited Williams and pulled the cornerback into himself then released as if was being held as the back judge was shielded. Style points for the flop. That drive ended in a field goal. Greedy recorded zero tackles.
WR Jarvis Landry - The game started great for Landry as he cradled a touchdown pass on the Browns’ third possession of the game. But for the other three quarters, was great on downfield blocking and was used sparingly for the remainder of the game. Led all receivers with 75-yards. Will hold our breath to see if he returns next season.
QB Baker Mayfield - Before kickoff, it was reported that the Browns announced that the starting signalcaller would head into the off-season as their starting QB with plans to retain him. Speculation had surfaced this week that Mayfield and head coach Kevin Stefanski were at odds and that Mayfield had stated he could be traded if things did not turn in the right direction for this offense. There are definitely two camps with Browns’ fans: keep Baker and watch him flourish when he is healthy, and ditch Baker and bring in a seasoned veteran. Stay tuned and don’t touch that dial.
What position of need should the Browns focus on getting stronger at this off-season?
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