In the NFL, it rarely pays to sit on a lead. On Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, intentional or not, the Cleveland Browns discovered that truism in the nick of time.
After electing to kick off to start the game and stopping the Titans on their first possession, the Browns took over on their own 38-yard line. On their first play they gave the pretense of looking stodgy and uninspired with a two-yard run up the middle. On their second play, however, they took a page out of Bernie Kosar’s playbook — to strike deep into enemy territory at the earliest opportunity — as Johnny Manziel threw to Travis Benjamin for a 60-yard touchdown. Forty seconds and zing, 7-0 with 12:51 left in the first quarter.
After recovering a Terrance West fumble on the fifth play of the Titans’ next possession, the Browns drove from midfield for a second touchdown, sealing the deal with an 11-yard touchdown run by Isaiah Crowell. That drive, lasting almost four minutes, took a little longer and with 6:26 left in the first quarter the Browns were up 14-0. The Browns offense didn’t exactly begin to hibernate at that point. They remained relatively creative and Manziel even attempted another long pass, although that one, to Andrew Hawkins, was thrown into double coverage and was probably ill advised.
With about a minute remaining in the first half, and after several unproductive possessions by both teams, Brett Kern of the Titans punted and Travis Benjamin returned it 78 yards for a touchdown, giving the Browns a 21-0 lead at halftime.
It was in the third quarter, however, that the Browns began to play it safe, and the pretense of stodgy play-calling gave way to its reality. Not counting Manziel taking a knee at the end of the game, the Browns had four possessions in the second half and not once did they attempt a pass on first down. The pattern—run-run-pass—became the Browns’ very predictable method of attempting to eat up the clock, if not the yardage, and to assume the Browns defense would take over from there.
Mike Pettine, who admitted after the game that the Browns got “a little bit conservative in the third quarter,” added that “it would have been hard to justify up 21 to come out and be throwing the ball. We wanted to make sure at the very least that the clock was moving. They did a good job knowing that.”
You’ve heard of the Prevent Defense? This is the Prevent Offense.
Regarding their third-quarter caution, Pettine said, “Bad things can happen when you throw the football and especially with the lead we did not want to … we weren’t sitting on it but at the same time we were picking our best runs and wanted to make sure that we worked the clock and that the possessions weren’t fast. Like I said, I give them credit for defending what we did.”
That notion, “bad things can happen when you throw the football,” is a defensive-minded attitude toward offense, as if bad things can’t happen when you don’t put a drive together and get points, when you go three-and-out, when you give the ball right back to the opponent and give them another opportunity to catch up. When you put your defense right back on the field with too little rest. It is almost the opposite of playing to win. It is playing a not-to-lose-style of the game. You’ve heard of the Prevent Defense? This is the Prevent Offense.
In the second quarter, the Browns put together an effective nine-play drive that started at their own 30-yard line. It began with a 20-yard run by Duke Johnson. The Browns attempted one pass during that drive, a short, quick side-arm throw by Manziel to Andrew Hawkins for a 9-yard gain. When the drive bogged down, the Browns tried to convert a fourth-and-1 with a quarterback sneak and were stopped with 6:44 to go. Going for it on fourth and one can hardly be called overly conservative, but that drive was beginning to reveal something to the fans as well as to Dick LeBeau: The Browns looked like they were afraid to throw the ball.
After the Titans second unanswered touchdown made the score 21-14, the Browns final game-clinching drive began on their own 20-yard line with 6:42 remaining in the fourth quarter. It consisted of six straight rushes which took the ball to midfield. The last two runs by Isaiah Crowell went for two yards each, bringing up a third-and-6. After a Titans timeout, Manziel was pressured from his blindside, did a pinwheel spin to his right to avoid the rusher, and rolled left, looking downfield. That’s when he found Travis Benjamin, who was waving his right arm.
Those first 30 yards gained on the ground to get to midfield were impressive and, who knows, perhaps Mr. LeBeau had finally decided, Well, they’ll surely have to pass now, and adjusted his defensive schemes accordingly. As for the touchdown pass itself, Pettine admitted that it was not the play called. “It was going to be a much more conservative pass on the other side of the field.”
Afraid to throw the ball? Supposedly, Josh McCown, throughout his career and during this season’s training camp, has demonstrated excellent downfield accuracy with his throws. And now, in this one game, Manziel also showed that his hundreds of passes over his young career have not been a fluke of luck. The guy can pass the ball.
Intended or not, the two long touchdown passes, one on the Browns’ second offensive play of the game and the other on their second-to-last, made for a nice set of bookend bombs for the Cleveland offense. Whether it’s McCown or Manziel, perhaps the lesson to be learned by this relatively new Browns regime is that being afraid of all the bad things that can happen when your own team throws the ball, is a fear to be overcome, not embraced.