So, for the first time in a long time… actually for the first time since the Browns returned… I went to a Browns game. To be honest, the last time I went to a Browns game I’m pretty sure I spent it sitting on my Mom’s lap in a puffy, pink, one-piece snowsuit a la Ralphie from A Christmas Story. This time, however, I was definitely more interested in what was happening on the field… and less focused on opening peanuts with mittens on. So while it wasn’t a home game, it was still a fantastic experience.
That is… until the game actually started. Ugh. That first half…
Let’s start at the beginning… which actually wasn’t so bad. Yeah, it took awhile for the wheels to completely fall off that Browns bus…
Admittedly, the Browns defense did not look like a cohesive unit during the first quarter, but some individual players really sparked. Whitner and Dansby had some great tackles, Kruger sacked Roethlisberger, and Dansby intercepted a pass. Are you noticing a trend here? All veteran players that came to the Browns from winning franchises; players who expect excellence from themselves from the first snap to the final whistle. There were no beginning-of-the-season jitters for them. Unfortunately, the rest of the defense didn’t look ready, and it really showed.
Before I explain when and how the defense totally fell apart, however, let’s take a look at the first half offense:
Tate was running pretty well. Hoyer was passing decently (sorta). But the pass protection was insufficient, and the Browns kept losing yards on penalties. My notes on the Browns’ offensive possessions from the first half pretty much read like a broken record: decent run, followed by a decent but irrelevant pass because… penalty, followed by Hoyer getting sacked or at least hurried, followed by a punt. Just ugh.
Despite the lackluster offense, however, I wouldn’t have been so embarrassed waiting in line for a hotdog at halftime if the Browns defense hadn’t totally imploded in the second quarter. Remember how the defense was supposed to be the good unit on the team? Yeah, right… not so much in Q2.
On the second defensive series, rookie corner Justin Gilbert was beat by Steelers’ wide receiver Markus Wheaton. Gilbert was way too far off his man and did not get his head around fast enough on the ball. This ultimately led to a short touchdown run by LaGarrette Blount. It would only foreshadow the horrible things to come.
Sensing Gilbert’s weakness, Roethlisberger kept targeting Wheaton, and he kept catching the ball. One time Gilbert almost got away with his sloppy coverage thanks to a Steelers penalty… uuuuuuuuntil he shoved Justin Brown into the Steelers bench and got called for unnecessary roughness. This also led to the Steelers putting points on the board. And it was just stupid. Now, it’s true that ProBowler Joe Haden and the rest of the Browns defense didn’t play particularly well in the second quarter either–there were a lot of missed tackles by both the line and the secondary. But if at least 80 percent of the problems in the first half were caused by the defense, at least 50 percent of those problems were probably attributable to the rookie corner, Gilbert. He was truly disappointing in his regular-season NFL debut. Now listen, I still have faith that he’ll get better, but man are these growing pains hard to watch.
And then, towards the end of that dreadful first half, Antonio Brown kicked Spencer Lanning in the face. Because, for the Browns, being metaphorically kicked in the face for thirty minutes just wasn’t enough.
Halftime could not have been more welcome. (Minus that super classy Steelers fan who felt the need to comment on my Believeland t-shirt. “Make Believeland.” Haha, so clever. Especially when my team is down 24 points. Jerk.)
But, then, against all odds, the Brownies that I had hoped for–and prayed for and wished for–ran out onto the field. There they were. Right there in the second half.
It started with a nice pass by Hoyer to Andrew Hawkins, a huge run by Terrance West, a couple more nice passes to Miles Austin and Taylor Gabriel, and then Isaiah Crowell blasted straight into the endzone. Six plays for 80 yards to kick off the start of a beautiful comeback.
And with improved offense, came improved defense. Kruger had another sack and a half. Billy Winn, Chris Kirksey, Armonty Bryant, and Jabaal Sheard also found their way to Big Ben in the second half and nicely showed him where he could find the turf. The secondary’s pass defense improved and–miraculously–the Browns entire defense remembered how to tackle. It would have been picture perfect (and probably gone into overtime) if Gilbert hadn’t left Wheaton wide open on the Steelers’ last drive of the half, giving the Steelers the opportunity to make the game-winning field goal. (Oh, poor baby corner, this game was so rough for you. And for those of us watching you.)
But I’m not going to dwell too much on the fact that the Browns lost 30 to 27. They came back from a 27 to 3 deficit at the half. And they don’t do that. The “same ol’ Browns” simply don’t do that. But Mike Pettine’s Browns did.
And A LOT of that had to do with veteran leadership. Dansby, Whitner, and Kruger continued to shine on defense, and Jim Leonhard helped out when he took over for the injured Tashaun Gipson. And the veterans didn’t just step up on defense. Brian Hoyer really stepped up in the pocket. He was poised, confident, and unphased in the second half. He was fast and accurate. He was everything you want your veteran quarterback to be when you need to stage a 24-point comeback. If there were any lingering doubts as to whether the Browns picked the right quarterback to lead them into the 2014 season, they were put to rest in that second half against the Steelers on Sunday.
And Hoyer didn’t have to do it alone. For a Browns quarterback with limited targets (Gordon suspended, Cameron injured, etc.) to be successful, there must be a legitimate run threat on the field. And despite Ben Tate being injured in the first half, Hoyer didn’t have just one legitimate run threat… he had two! Rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell had quite a day. West became the first rookie running back in the NFL this season to run for over 100 yards. And Crowell capped off his first game in the NFL with two–that’s right–TWO touchdowns. Turns out the Browns can run the football! And it was glorious to behold!
Now, if I’m being really honest here, there were about 8 times in the second half where the Browns messed up and squandered an opportunity to score another touchdown. And they still didn’t win the game. But this Browns fan is okay with that. Because we did not embarrass ourselves. (And, yes, I understand that I’m holding the Browns to a pretty low standard there, and there are no moral victories in football, and yada yada yada.) But listen… the Browns (Spencer Lanning, especially) got kicked in the face in the first half. And they picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and played some real, honest-to-God football in the second half.
So, yeah, we lost. But, I left Heinz Field with my head held high on Sunday. And when you’re a Cleveland fan, holding your head high… especially after getting kicked in the face for years… feels pretty good.