There’s no sugar coating this one. The Browns, still alive in the playoff hunt despite being just 4-6, collapsed in the second and third quarters of today’s game at home against the also 4-6 Pittsburgh Steelers. Turnovers were the root cause, and yet another injury at quarterback certainly didn’t help things as the Steelers used 17 points off those turnovers to dominate the scoreboard. The Browns lost this one 27-11, and in a game that could have provided progress into making this a real rivalry again, it did exactly the opposite. The Browns are out of any realistic playoff scenarios, and Ben Roethlisberger improves to 16-1 against Cleveland.
The game started out with Steelers points as Le’Veon Bell moved the chains a few times and the Browns showed some poor effort in tackling. But, the Browns defense solidified with run stops by T.J. Ward and Billy Winn. That forced a Shaun Suisham attempt of 47 yards into the wind. He barely made it, but it gave the Steelers the early lead. The Browns may not have an opening drive score in their last 18 games, but they did at least tie the game on the opening drive. The big play on the drive was a third and long pickup by Josh Gordon on a crossing route that netted 24 yards. Campbell picked up half of what he needed on 3rd-and-9 to set Billy Cundiff up with a makeable field goal from 49 yards to knot the score at three.
From there, the Browns defense was pretty solid, forcing the Steelers to punt on their next three possessions. D’Qwell Jackson put the stop to one Steelers possession by stopping Bell from picking up first down yardage and then batting down a Big Ben pass deep in Steeler territory. When the Browns got the ball back for the second time, they picked up two big third down conversions and had the ball on the move in Steeler territory. On 3rd-and-7, however, Campbell took a sack and prevented a 52-yard field goal attempt from Cundiff (into the wind, but they may have tried it anyway).
All of this leadup brings everyone watching the game to the point where we all know that it went south: the Chris Ogbonnaya fumble. Sure, the Browns, or Joe Haden more specifically, had just gotten burned deep on a bomb to Antonio Brown as No. 84 spent most of the second quarter heating up and getting multiple touches after being silent on the first few drives to fall behind by seven. But, the Browns had picked up one first down, and they were making some progress in the running game (at least, progress by their standards this season). That’s when Troy Polamalu did what he does against the Browns, make plays. Obie had picked up eight yards on first down, and as he went to the ground, Polamalu ripped through with his strip play and jarred the ball loose. Pittsburgh recovered, and then immediately following, Pittsburgh moved down the field in about 90 seconds. Adding a Suisham 32-yard chip shot didn’t take the Browns out of the game, but it sure felt like more than a 10-point hole.
Jason Campbell did what he has largely done in his time as Browns starting quarterback, moved the offense in a non-spectacular fashion. But, like last week, injuries played a role and so did turnovers. Campbell took one shot to the ribs as he fell to the ground throwing a ball away, forcing Brandon Weeden to take one snap which was a fastball pass to Jordan Cameron on the first down marker that glanced off his hands. The Browns had one of only two three-and-outs on the day coming out of halftime, and after a key fourth down stop of the Steelers on both third and fourth and short runs by Jonathan Dwyer, it set the stage for disaster.
While the offensive line was solid in the first quarter, they started to really falter after that. Mitchell Schwartz continues to look like a guy who may not be able to hold his starting job much past this season. He’s been getting constant help on that side with a tight end or fullback, and he’s still not getting it done. On multiple occasions, Campbell felt pressures because the Browns right tackle simply was blown back into him or completely taken out of the play. The fateful play that doomed the Browns for the day and really the rest of the season was on a 3rd-and-7 at the Pittsburgh 39. William Gay blitzed off the left side, and the Browns either didn’t have enough blockers or lacked proper communication as both Thomas and Greco appeared to block the same guy and Gay came through untouched. He laid a crushing blow to Campbell’s head, jarring the ball loose and sending Campbell limp to the ground. Will Allen picked it up and ran it all the way down to the 4-yard line. One play later, Ben threw a slant to Emmanuel Sanders, and at 20-3, the game was over.
At such a critical junction of the game, a rule that has been applied ad nauseam in situations where it probably wasn’t warranted, the flag wasn’t thrown for roughing the passer. With the NFL’s focus on officials keeping the quarterback upright, safe, and on the field, they failed to call it for Jason Campbell. Campbell never returned to the game, and we were subjected to a quarter and a half of Brandon Weeden under center.
Weeden threw up some nice garbage time completions to Josh Gordon, who is the one guy the Steelers failed to effectively cover all day long, but the rest of it was garbage. It was an outright embarrassment. It was what we’ve come to expect from Weeden. On Weeden’s first drive, the team did pick up four first downs and get into field goal range, but Billy Cundiff is no Phil Dawson. The windy conditions blew Cundiff’s 45-yard attempt well wide left, and it did so from the ball’s initial flight. On the next three drives, it was a three and out, fumble, and pick six for Weeden. The fumble was a result of unbelievably poor ball security as he was scrambling toward the line of scrimmage to avoid pressure. The pick six was the stuff that we’ve seen far too much from the geriatric second-year gunslinger. Staring down Jordan Cameron on the first play of the drive, William Gay made it the last play of the drive by jumping the route and taking it to the house. Gay was breaking on the ball the entire time. It’s not as if he was coming out of nowhere or a deflection made this pick possible. Instead, Weeden’s tunnel vision blinded him from seeing something the other 31 guys under center this week probably would’ve seen.
The only two things I take any solace with in this game are Josh Gordon’s play and the defense’s effort. Gordon broke a franchise record with 237 yards receiving and tied another with 14 receptions to go with his one touchdown. Both records belonged to Ozzie Newsome for a 1984 performance against the New York Giants where he had 191 yards receiving. Gordon really did exploit the Steelers with the crossing routes repeatedly and got open deep a couple of times as well. I’ve often questioned Gordon’s attitude, but he really did stay tuned in the entire game and kept working to get open.
The Browns did give up 27 points, but seven of those were directly from the arm of Brandon Weeden and seven more were in essence thanks to referee Terry McAulay keeping his yellow in his pocket on the Campbell concussion-maker. Yes, Joe Haden went through a spell where he gave up some big plays to Brown, who finished with 6 catches for 92 yards and the 41-yard score. However, he made plays to make sure Brown didn’t have double the catches. The Browns outgained the Steelers 367-302, and Pittsburgh was just 4-of-14 on third down. Down to their third-string inside linebackers after Tank Carder went down replacing the injured Craig Robertson, they didn’t make it easy. Then again, they also didn’t make any big plays. Zero turnovers and zero sacks is unacceptable for a defense, no matter how stout they are otherwise. They also allowed the Steelers to possess the ball for over 7:30 of the fourth quarter before a punt that pinned the Browns as Le’Veon Bell did some hard running (23 carries, 80 yards) to chew the clock.
Offensively, if we’re stuck with Weeden for a while, that’s about as bad as it gets. The Browns still didn’t run the ball effectively, but it seemed like they just refused to commit to it. Ogbonnaya, Fozzy Whitaker, and Willis McGahee combined for 54 yards on 14 carries (3.9 yards per carry), and the Steelers were ranked near the bottom against the run. I think some more runs when we were down just 7 or 10 may have made a difference. They obviously had to abandon it later in the game.
So, here we are, the Browns are 4-7. Where there was so much optimism just two weeks ago before a matchup with the Bengals that could have put them within one-half game of first, there is only frustration and apathy left in its wake. In the last two weeks, after only getting smoked once this season (the Green Bay game qualifies), the Browns have gotten their butts handed to them on the scoreboard with a 21-point loss to Cincinnati and the 16-point loss today. Yet, did anyone who watched those games feel like the Browns aren’t on the level of those teams in many ways? Instead, it’s a -6 turnover margin and zero sacks combined between those two games that has the Browns coming up way short in the boxscore despite maybe not being all that short in talent.
In a quarterback league, if you don’t have one, then you aren’t winning. The Browns have cycled through three of them this season, and none of them are the long-term answer. I’m optimistic that correcting that one position will allow everything to gel and properly show that this team does have talent and depth in several areas. Until then though, we’re stuck with this, carrying out a string, starting draft talk, and wishing we needed more than two fingers to count the number of Browns wins against Big Ben and Flacco.
(Photo: Joshua Gunter/The Plain Dealer)