PITTSBURGH – Missed throws.
After taking some steps forward – albeit small, and only in certain areas -- the previous two weeks, what is shaping up as one of the worst offenses in Browns history took quantum leaps backward in Sunday's 27-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.
The running game, which had gotten much better against the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills with a 100-yard rusher in each game with Jerome Harrison and Jamal Lewis, produced 91 yards in 23 carries, for an average of four yards per attempt. However, that's skewed, because wide receiver Joshua Cribbs, running out of the wildcat offense, had 45 yards in six tries. Operating out of a conventional alignment, the Browns had 16 carries for 45 yards, with Lewis getting 21 yards in 11 tries and Harrison 26 in five attempts.
"You can't think that the wildcat will come in and save the day," left guard Eric Steinbach said. "It keeps the defense guessing, and it's effective. But you've got to have your regular offense move the chains and get first downs."
The Browns didn't do that, getting just 12 first downs all day – with all of their alignments combined – and only 197 total yards.
The running game – and the passing game, for that matter – also suffered greatly because of offensive coordinator Brian Daboll's insistence on many series to run the ball into the middle of the line on both first and second down, gaining just a yard or two and setting up third-and-long situations that only served to feed the Steelers' fierce pass rush. Quarterback Derek Anderson was sacked just twice but was under duress for much of the afternoon.
That, plus his inability to throw accurately on some occasions, and being victimized by enough dropped passes to last an entire season for the second week in a row, accounted for the fact Anderson was just 9-of-24 passing for 122 yards, a touchdown on a one-yarder to fullback Lawrence Vickers and a costly interception, giving him a 51.0 quarterback rating. Last Sunday in a 6-3 win over the Bills, Anderson was 2-of-17 passing for 23 yards and a pick and a 15.1 rating. So in these last two games, he is 11-of-41 for 145 yards, one TD and two picks.
Asked afterward if Anderson would continue to be the starter, Browns head coach Eric Mangini said, "I'm not looking to make a move."
But Mangini did make the move to Anderson from Brady Quinn at halftime of a 34-3 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Sept. 27, saying at the time that while the offensive struggles were certainly not all Quinn's fault, he made the change to try to jump-start the attack.
For the year, counting the last two games and half of the Ravens contest, Anderson is 48-of-108 passing (44.4 percent) for 506 yards, two TDs and six interceptions for a 41.6 rating.
Quinn, who won the job in training camp and started the first three games, is 45-of-74 (60.8 percent) for 400 yards, one TD and three picks for a 62.9 rating.
You have to wonder why Anderson is apparently not being judged by the same criteria as was Quinn.
The passing game was also hurt against the Steelers by Cribbs, while throwing out of the wildcat, going 0-of-2 with an interception that occurred late in the first quarter on a second-and-10 play from the Pittsburgh 14 with the game scoreless. Cribbs, a former Kent State quarterback who had not thrown a pass all year before Sunday, tried to hit wide receiver Chansi Stuckey on a short route to the right. But he was under pressure from linebacker LaMarr Woodley, and instead of heaving the ball away, he threw off his back foot to avoid getting crunched. Realizing that, strong safety Troy Polamalu jumped the route and picked off a pass that didn't have a lot on it.
"I've got to make better decisions," Cribbs said simply. "Whether it was rust from not having thrown much or whatever it was, I should have made a better decision and thrown the ball away."
But as costly as Cribbs' interception was, Anderson's was more costly. It came with the Browns behind 27-14 but trying to score a TD and make it a six-point game, having driven to the Pittsburgh 31 with 4½ minutes left and facing a third-and-15 situation. Forced out of the pocket, he scrambled left and, as he approached the line of scrimmage and with plenty of open territory ahead of him, he eschewed the run and tried to throw the ball to wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi in double coverage. Free safety Ryan Clark grabbed the pass at the 1.
Both of the defenders were in front of Massaquoi, so if Anderson had lofted the ball over their heads toward the back left corner of the end zone, the receiver might have been able to catch it.
"I probably should have tried to run and make a play," Anderson said. "It was a stupid play."
The Browns offense, as a whole, made a lot of those on Sunday – and it has made a lot of them all year. The offense scored just one TD against Pittsburgh, with the other one coming on Cribbs' 98-yard kickoff return late in the first half. For the year, the offense has scored only four TDs. That seems like a typo, but unfortunately for the Browns, it's not. It's a cold, hard, disheartening fact.
And, oh yes, adding to their troubles, the Browns had four turnovers against the Steelers – the two interceptions and two fumbles.
"It's frustrating," Anderson said. "It's really frustrating."
Added Mangini of the offense's maturation, "It's not something that's going to come overnight. It's a process. I see progress every game, but you want it to come faster. If we do a few things differently today, it's a different game."
But the Browns didn't do them differently, so it wasn't a different game.
It was another instance of the offense not doing its part to contribute to a win. The result, instead, was that the offense contributed – heavily – to a loss, dropping the Browns to 1-5, equaling their start in 2006, when they finished 4-12.
Right now, 4-12 might be wishful thinking unless things change offensively – drastically and soon.