The Cleveland Browns fell to 2-7 on Thursday night after being beaten by the Cincinnati Bengals, 31-10. In such a loss, it’s easy to focus on what went wrong—because so much did—but there are things that the Browns did right as well. Let’s take a look at both to get a well-rounded look at the effort the Browns put forth in Week 9.
What Went Right—The First Half
The first half of the game was a strong one for the Browns on both offense and defense. While the defense ceded two touchdowns to the Bengals—both to tight end Tyler Eifert—the Browns were only down by four points at halftime. And Cleveland did not allow many yards—just 124 total, with Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton completing nine of his 13 passes for 77 yards, two scores and a sack, and the run game totaling just 54 yards on 14 combined attempts.
On offense, Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel was allowed to be himself in the first half, extending plays with his legs and routinely making throws to extend drives. Thanks in part to Manziel, the Browns totaled 11 first downs in the half and converted four of their seven third-down attempts. He completed 11 of his 18 pass attempts, for 128 yards and a touchdown, averaging an NFL-caliber 7.1 yards per pass. He hit running back Duke Johnson for a passing score, and had only two clear run plays, netting him (and the Browns) 11 yards. Manziel also connected on passes with seven different targets. Though he was still first-read-or-run, those first reads were varied, allowing the Browns to get the most out of their young quarterback.
The run game seemed promising, too, with Isaiah Crowell doing most of the work. He rushed nine times in the first half, for 42 yards, including a long run of 13 yards. It seemed as though the Browns would keep things close with the undefeated Bengals, if not pull off the long-shot upset. There were gobs of good to build upon, from Manziel’s clear progress in his development, the Browns clearly leaning on one running back more than others and finding ways to get the football moving despite not having receivers Brian Hartline and Andrew Hawkins and with those remaining (Dwayne Bowe excepted) being, frankly, quite small for their position.
The problem? Everything good that came the Browns’ way on Thursday was confined to the first half. Just as the first half was what went right, the second half contained practically everything that went wrong beyond Eifert’s two first-half touchdowns.
What Went Wrong—The Second Half
It’s no secret that the second halves of games have been where the Browns have struggled on both offense and defense. And those two hands wash one another—the offense hasn’t been scoring points, while the defense has been giving up double-digit points to their opponents. The defense digs a hole too deep for the offense to pull the team as a whole out of, even though the offense has been the only consistently positive thing the Browns have had going for them this season. What’s amazing, especially regarding Thursday’s loss, is how the Browns put themselves in a position to fail thanks to ill-thought-out halftime adjustments.
Manziel’s drive to improvise was quashed. Pettine said at halftime—in comments scrutinized to high heaven in the hours after them—that while Manziel had “done a nice job throwing the ball on the run,” he still added, “[w]e’ll get him calmed down a little bit in the second half and hopefully get some more production.” “Calmed down,” in this instance meant to keep Manziel in the pocket, where he’s not comfortable. Granted, that’s something Manziel will have to become increasingly more comfortable with if he’s going to be long for the league, but that doesn’t mean tamping down Manziel’s improvisational nature entirely.
But that the Browns did, and, in concert with masterful halftime adjustments by Cincinnati, Manziel added just 40 passing yards to his first half total. Until the final minutes left to play in the game, the Browns had only seven total yards of offense in the second half. They didn’t earn a first down until there were less than three minutes to play. Manziel was sacked three times, including twice on a single drive. Crowell only got two carries in the final two quarters, echoing the disappearing act the Browns played with Johnson in Week 8. It’s no surprise that the Browns had zero points in the second half.
The defense finally collapsed under the weight. The Bengals had 247 yards of offense in the second half, and scored 17 points. The inability to set the edge when defending the run reared its head yet again, leading not just to 152 total Cincinnati rushing yards but an embarrassing 25-yard Mohamed Sanu touchdown run on a reverse that saw no Browns players in the position to make the necessary tackle. Cincinnati converted eight of its 14 third downs by the time the game ended, and had 23 first downs. The Browns, in contrast, had 13 first downs and converted four of their 13 third downs—all of those conversions coming in the first half. In 10 Bengals drives, they punted twice; in nine Browns drives, they punted six times.
The Browns have just one game to play in the next 25 days—next Sunday, against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Then, they have a much-needed bye week in Week 11. Pettine has made it clear that the extended time off the field of competition will allow them to “reset,” “hit pause,” and “assess” the status of the team. This could result in a shift at myriad positions on offense and defense, including receiver, linebacker, cornerback (especially with the return of rookie Charles Gaines Jr.) and, yes, quarterback.
For all intents and purposes, the Browns’ season is over. While it’s not unheard of for teams to assess, adjust and start stringing together wins, the degree and nature of changes that would have to take place in Cleveland for that to happen aren’t ones this organization is likely to undergo just yet. But this also means the Browns do have room to be creative over the second half of the season. More playing time for rookies—and for Manziel—will allow the Browns to analyze where their roster stands at this point, what they have for the future and where they need to cut bait. It also gives time for the coaches to prove they can keep their jobs, jobs that are easily hanging on by a thread right now.
But, for all the mistakes the Browns made on Thursday night—and there were many—there were also positive signs worth building upon. From Manziel’s improvement as a quarterback, to linebacker Nate Orchard showing up in a positive way both on film and on the stat sheet, to the many creative ways Johnson can be used, there are good things that came out of an admittedly bad loss.