The game of football is complex enough that it becomes difficult to follow live at times. Watching a team and attempting to evaluate everything taking place during the event itself is almost impossible. With so many moving parts in motion, what you see initially isn't the real story. This is arguably the case with most games, and especially with the Browns recent loss to the Steelers.
Evaluations are always easy to find in the media following a Browns loss. Some of the evaluations are quite correct, while others simply fail to realize there is a game within the game on the field.
Sitting through the second half of the game this past Sunday, like the rest of you, I wondered why the offense simply failed to move the football. The Cleveland offense sputtered, especially in the second half of the 31-28 loss in Pittsburgh.
After reviewing the game and speaking with members of the team, I have gotten a clearer picture as to what transpired which led to the loss. The reasons for the unexpected collapse are plentiful.
But let's get the heel of the Cleveland Browns season out of the way immediately: The defense is atrocious.
While the defensive line play has improved dramatically over the past few games, the inability to generate a pass rush is hampering the team's overall progress. Issues such as being in the correct defensive alignment to responsibilities in pass coverage haunt the unit believed to be strength of the team heading into the season.
At least there has been some consistency: Linemen and linebackers have been unable to maintain gap responsibility and integrity. Safeties have been failing to slide over into coverage. The pass rush has failed to materialize.
Watching defensive backs in zone, cover-two and cover-three defensive schemes being far from in position is troubling enough to this analyst. Imagine the thoughts of the head coach, who is a respected and well-versed defensive mind.
There are reasons why the defense has become a liability, and the Browns defensive coordinator ultimately has the responsibility to address them. While the Browns do not posses superior talent at every defensive position, there is no excuse for poor preparation or an inability to get the team in the correct defensive set.
Back to the offensive side of the ball, where the Browns' initial success faded for a while into second-half futility of the type not witnessed since the team's expansion years. Six drives, 17 plays, 16 yards.
The Cleveland offense expected the Steelers to blitz, and they certainly did. The coaching staff wanted to get the ball out of the pocket quickly, which would naturally lead to increased utilization of the short passing game.
As the Browns moved the ball effectively in the short game early, the Steelers adjusted to pressure the short routes, while maintaining a blitz look in disguise. As the Steelers rolled coverage to minimize wide receiver Braylon Edwards' effectiveness.
Unfortunately, a lack of persistence and patience on the Browns part minimized the effectiveness of the Cleveland offense.
The Browns offense failed to make the proper adjustments to compensate for changes in the Pittsburgh defense.
A legitimate rushing attack, or threat of same, would have been the logical and immediate move to offset the Pittsburgh scheme. The Browns, however, did not have a running back available to carry out such a plan. Veteran Jamal Lewis simply does not have the quickness and vision to create and get to a hole. With the exception of success against the Cincinnati Bengals early in the season, the rushing attack has been anemic.
The pass protection was present, but the rushing threat was not.
Jason Wright, a quicker back, was not provided the opportunity to assist, for reasons unknown to those within the team.
Jerome Harrison, another quick back, was inactive. The Cleveland coaching staff does not have the confidence to let second-year running back Jerome Harrison play a role against teams like the Steelers where he may have had to supply blocking support.
The offensive scheme itself, however, was not the problem this past Sunday in Pittsburgh. Lack of confidence and execution on the offensive side of the ball was the ultimate source of the problems and is an area of concern coming out of this contest.
Part of the issue wsa that starting quarterback Derek Anderson, not wanting to make mistakes and get trapped into sacks, took the team's scheme to the extreme.
Despite the pressure filled game, quarterback Derek Anderson had the opportunity to survey the field and make plays. Unfortunately, Anderson was so wrapped up in not making poor decisions downfield and taking a sack that he simply checked down quickly. Ironically, this is a style of play at the quarterback position which was prevalent before Charlie Frye was jettisoned to Seattle.
Far too much emphasis as been placed on the head coaching decisions. Certainly, there was the bumbling of timeouts (may be the worst coaching move of the season in the NFL), which would have benefited this team on the final drive. Still, the Browns were ready to play and did so admirably against the Steelers.
The competition at the professional level is extremely close, with the slightest edge in physical ability or mental preparation being the difference from winning and losing. If you do not execute, you are going to struggle. If you do not play with confidence, you are going to struggle.
The Cleveland Browns had just those problems against the first-place Steelers. They simply did not execute the plan and did not perform like the confident bunch seen in recent games.
Granted, Pittsburgh took away some options the Browns have learned to count on and expect to come through. The real issue, though, resides in the action the team did not take, which was to keep attacking and pressuring the Pittsburgh defense.
This game was not lost due to a time-out. Nor was the game lost due to simply being out-coached. The game was lost because the team did not execute on either side of the ball for sixty-minutes. And especially not when it mattered most.