Passan: Partially Positive???

In a sure sign that The Apocalypse is indeed upon us, the inimitable Rich Passan sifts through the rubble of yet another "coulda been" and pulls out a slightly-charred silver lining. Seriously. He does. Hide the women and children, though. Because Rich is scary. And stuff.

Let's see now. The Browns lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday, in no particular order, because . . .

  • (a) Sean Jones dropped a sure interception deep in Pittsburgh territory early in the fourth quarter.

  • (b) Romeo Crennel did not throw the red challenge flag on the following play.

  • (c) Defensive end Simon Fraser cold cocked Ben Roethlisberger a second time following Daven Holly's second interception of the game in the final minute of the first half.

  • (d) Defensive end Nick Eason didn't hit Roethlisberger hard enough in the fourth quarter and pulled up instead of finishing him off.

  • (e) Offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson hauled out his turtle attack when the Steelers made menacing moves toward the Cleveland lead late in the game.

  • (f) Charlie Frye still has pocket presence problems, doesn't take care of the ball and is not a playmaker.

  • (g) They couldn't handle the Steelers' no-huddle offense or get off the field on third down in the fourth quarter.

  • (h) All of the above.

The correct answer, of course, is (h). There are other reasons the Browns played hand grenade to the Steelers. So close and yet . . .

But those other reasons pale in comparison to the aforementioned.

Jones makes the interception and the Steelers don't score the touchdown that made it 13-10 and finally took some momentum away from the Browns.

On the following play, Cedrick Wilson caught a Roethlisberger pass for about 20 yards on a third and 10, but was flagged for offensive pass interference.

Why should Crennel have challenged? Because the pass was ruled complete, but Wilson's right foot clearly landed out of bounds and replays showed it was not a completion.

So instead of winning the challenge and then declining the penalty, making it fourth and 10, forcing Pittsburgh to punt, the Steelers retained the ball, converted the third-and-20 and went on to score the touchdown that pulled them to within three points.

There was plenty of time for the coaches upstairs to look at the replay and tell Crennel he had to challenge. The clock was stopped and it takes time to walk off the penalty.

Fraser's brain cramp wiped out what most likely would have been the Browns' only offensive touchdown of the afternoon, one that would have given them a 17-0 lead at the half.

Holly's interception return to the Pittsburgh 3 was negated because Fraser couldn't resist drilling Roethlisberger a second time even though the play was well downfield.

Makes you wonder what he was thinking. Wasn't once enough?

And what's with Eason pulling up after jarring Roethlisberger off balance in the fourth quarter? Did he really think he was King Kong and could knock a 6-5, 240-pound quarterback off his feet with a mere shove? Roethlisberger needed to be planted like Fraser drilled him earlier in the game. The first time.

Then Davidson made matters worse, diving into a shell with a 20-17 lead and four minutes left in the game when it became obvious the Steelers found the rhythm for the game that eluded them in the first three quarters.

Instead of coming right back and attacking the Pittsburgh defense, Davidson kicked it into safe mode. We saw tight formations, high-percentage plays.

No mistakes. Close-to-the-vest Republican football. The kind that contributes to losing games. Some call it playing scared.

Shades of Maurice Carthon.

It was Murphy's Law out of control.

When is this type of thinking going to stop? Until it does, mediocrity will always dog the Browns.

That strategy played right into the Steelers' hands. The gassed Cleveland defense was back on the field tout de suite.

By then, Roethlisberger and his no-huddle gang had elevated their game to a whole new level, one the Browns were incapable of matching.

Nothing was going to stop Roethlisberger in the fourth quarter and the inevitable became improbable reality.

That's one of the big differences between Roethlisberger and Frye. Big Ben can put a team on his back. Frye cannot, or at least has not shown the ability to do so in his first 15 games. One wonders whether he ever can.

We see the same things from Frye game in and game out. Poor pocket presence. Poor decision-making. The usual fumble.

The fourth-quarter collapse spoiled some pretty good football, mostly on defense and special teams, for three quarters.

Revenge for last year's 41-0 embarrassment on Christmas Eve day reverberated all week in Berea. And it showed when the Browns played a nearly flawless first three quarters. It looked as though Crennel and his men finally got the meaning of this rivalry.

The Steelers played as though they had no clue. They looked lost and confused. Roethlisberger was victimized by his stone-handed receivers.

The usual Bill Cowher emotion factor was absent. The Browns were one step quicker in everything they did, especially on defense.

Role reversal, NFL style.

And then it was gone. Just like that. The Steelers flipped a switch in the fourth quarter and the big tease was over.

Why can't the Browns find that switch?

If nothing else, they lead the NFL in breaking their fans' hearts and finding creative ways to lose games.

They had the Steelers exactly where they wanted them after three quarters. They had their chance and blew it.

Too bad because it would have made a great story after the nasty Christmas present the Steelers delivered last season.

But make no mistake about it. This latest effort was definitely a step in the right direction.

The trick now is to improve on this building block. Find that switch, flip it and then take it to the next level.

The corner hasn't been turned yet. But it appears to be in sight.

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