For the second time this season, the Cleveland Browns lost to a third-string quarterback making his first NFL start. And just like the loss in Denver, it couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Cleveland isn’t mathematically eliminated from the postseason just yet, but their margin for error is now less than zero. The team’s performance against the Steelers was not only disappointing, but borderline pathetic.
The buildup to the game was intense. Just two weeks prior, the Browns dominated Pittsburgh 21-7 on Thursday Night Football, only to have a brawl at the end of the game cause superstar pass rusher Myles Garrett to be suspended indefinitely.
There was more than enough talk about the rematch, from Sheldon Richardson saying he hoped Mason Rudolph would play, to Freddie Kitchens’ “Pittsburgh Started It” T-shirt. There’s nothing inherently wrong with building up a rivalry, as long as you show up for the game.
It looked like the Browns did show up at first. They got out to a 10-0 lead, and the Pittsburgh offense, led by undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges, couldn’t move the ball. But by halftime, the game was all tied up, and the Steelers would go on to win 20-13.
In mustering just 13 points, Baker Mayfield turned the ball over twice (his interception came on a miscommunication with Jarvis Landry, who was apparently at fault). Overall, Mayfield played well. But his offensive line let him down once again. Mayfield didn’t have much time to operate, as Pittsburgh generated pressure 26 times, converting seven into sacks.
The line also provided minimal push in the run game, as Nick Chubb was held to a season-low 58 yards on 16 carries. He had little room to run, often getting hit two or three yards behind the line of scrimmage as soon as he was handed the ball.
Once the Browns fell behind, Kitchens abandoned the run. Schematically it was a poor move, but is there any point in continuing to run the ball if you’re getting two yards or less on most of your attempts?
Even though Mayfield attempted 32 passes, Odell Beckham Jr. caught just three of his eight targets. It seems like Kitchens dials up one or two deep shots to him per game, and this time they came at the end of the first half, into double coverage. Very low-percentage throws. It’s okay to take shots to Beckham, as he’s quite capable of making those plays. But they cannot account for a quarter of his targets.
Defensively, things weren’t much better. While Cleveland’s offensive line couldn’t stop pressure, their defensive line couldn’t create it. The Browns mustered nine total pressures and a single sack. Hodges stood in the pocket and picked apart the secondary all game long. Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams were both atrocious, consistently allowing Steelers to beat them on deep fade routes. Hodges passed for 212 yards on just 14 completions. He didn’t take many risks because he didn’t have to.
The Browns also couldn’t stop the run, giving up 124 yards and a score on the ground. Pittsburgh did all this without their top quarterback, wide receiver, running back, and starting center, all four Pro Bowlers.
There were three bright spots on Sunday, and they were all rookies.
- Tight end Stephen Carlson finished with an 86.5 grade from Pro Football Focus. He caught two passes for 28 yards, including a nice catch-and-run that included an awesome stiff arm of Steven Nelson. His blocking was solid as well. He played 17 total snaps, and even with David Njoku primed to return, Carlson must see the field more.
- Sione Takitaki got more playing time as the Browns played more base 4-3 due to their depleted secondary. He graded out at 75.7, the highest on Cleveland’s defense of players with at least 15 snaps. He’s been seeing the field more as of late, which is a promising sign for his development.
- Sheldrick Redwine was forced into the starting free safety role, as Damarious Randall was a surprise inactive. He played all but one snap, registering three stops, one pass breakup, and a 75.6 grade. He was considered incredibly raw when he entered the draft, and that was evident in preseason. But we saw hope that the fourth-round pick could pay dividends.
The Browns are still technically alive in the playoff race. But they cannot lose again. With two games against the Bengals and one against the Cardinals, that isn’t the most unlikely scenario. But Week 16 against the Ravens should be the dagger.
Cleveland dismantled Baltimore in their first meeting, but John Harbaugh is too good of a coach to allow that to happen again. The Ravens are the best team in the NFL at the moment, and there’s no reason to expect that to change.
Even if the Browns pull off a miracle and finish 9-7, to make the playoffs they need plenty of help from teams playing Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Tennessee, Oakland, and Indianapolis.
But hey, the 2020 Draft is in 140 days.