Sunday, November 21, 2010

Early Onset Indigestion

Some losses are tough. Some are dispiriting. And then there are those like the ones the Cleveland Browns experienced on Sunday in Jacksonville that can't be measured by such traditional concepts. After taking the ball away from the Jacksonville Jaguars 6 (that's not a misprint) times, the Browns still found a way to lose 24-20 and, in the process, give its fans the kind of indigestion that can only come when Mom overcooks the turkey and undercooks the stuffing.

When a football team at virtually any level of competition turns the ball over 6 times, and at one point on 5 straight possessions, they are usually looking up at the wrong end of a gaudy score, like 49-3 or 62-10 or something ridiculous like that. But there they were, the Jaguars, with the ball midway through the 4th quarter when they found themselves down only by 7 but facing a crucial 4th and 1 at the Cleveland 39-yard line. Just before the ball was snapped, the Browns called their first time out, perhaps sensing this might be the most critical play of the game. Not the two T.J. Ward interceptions or the one by Joe Haden. Not the 3 fumble recoveries, but this fourth down.

And when the other team has a running back like Maurice Jones-Drew and you are at the game's most critical point, you have to know where the ball should end up, which it did. Stop him and you have a chance to secure the win that should have been yours anyway. If you don't, well, you get what you deserve.

Jones-Drew got the first down on a carry that put him over 100 yards rushing for the game. And then he found more yards on first down. And then he found even more, getting the ball down to the Cleveland 5-yard line.

The Browns then took their second time out, but this time because they had 12-men on the field, though it easily could be been just to regroup. It was a good break, or so it seemed as the defense then sacked quarterback David Garrard back to the 15-yard line. Tiquan Underwood then dropped a ball near the goal line. But just when it looked like the Browns might escape, Garrard found tight end Marcedes Lewis at the one yard line and he reached the ball over the goal line as he was being tackled by Ray Ventrone. It helped tie a game that should have been a blowout at 17-17 with 3:34 remaining.

Still, there was time.

Starting what looked like it might be their final drive at their 41-yard line with the knowledge firmly entrenched of one offensive failure after another in the second half despite the gift wrapped points the Jaguars were seemingly giving them with each ensuing turnover, McCoy nonetheless would lead the Browns down the field for a go-ahead 41-yard Phil Dawson field goal.

McCoy, battered most of the day by a Jaguars defensive line that was having its way with the Browns' offensive line, completed a 38-yard pass on first down and then on a key 3rd and 4 from the Jacksonville 36-yard line scrambled 18 yards on what appeared to be a bad ankle. But McCoy couldn't get the Browns into the end zone for a touchdown leaving the game in the hands of the defense once again as Dawson drilled the field goal through the center of the uprights.

And just as in overtime against the New York Jets a week ago, the defense couldn't get it done, allowing Jones-Drew to turn a screen pass into a 75-yard play that served as the season's most backbreaking play, supplanting, by the way, the Santonio Holmes overtime touchdown a week before. Jones-Drew was dragged down at the 1-yard line by cornerback Joe Haden, but Jones-Drew cleaned up this minor annoyance a few minutes later with the 1-yard run that gave the Jaguars the lead and the game, 24-20 with just over a minute remaining.

McCoy did a nice job of getting the Browns down the field quickly but the game ended, as did McCoy's 98-pass streak with no interceptions, when safety Sean Considine picked off a pass intended at the 3-yard line that was intended for tight end Ben Watson. It didn't help either that the Browns had squandered their timeouts earlier in the quarter, but the failure to convert on this last drive wasn't what lost the game anyway.

The enduring question of the game may be why the Browns could move the ball so well on their final two possessions when they couldn't move the ball at all for the rest of the second half. After Ward's first interception, which was at the Jacksonville 48-yard line, the Browns quickly went 3-and-out. On Jacksonville's next possession, Haden intercepted and the Browns again went 3-and-out. Garrard fumbled on Jacksonville's next possession and the Browns couldn't get a first down and Phil Dawson missed a 51-yard field goal, his second missed 51-yard field goal of the game.

What was most frustrating about those Browns' possessions was how soundly their offensive line was being beaten by Jacksonville's defensive line. Throw in an occasional blitz and an inability to effectively pick it up which led to McCoy being sacked before he had any real chance to do anything with the ball and you pretty much have it capsulized why the Browns' offense looked like the Browns' offense circa 2008 or 2009 despite being handed one opportunity after another to blow open the game.

In a sense, it was a game as hard fought as the previous week's game and with painfully similar results. But in another sense, it shouldn't have been that kind of game. The difference between good and bad teams in the NFL can often be found in turnover margins and you'd have to go along way back then I'm willing to look at the moment to find a game in which a team with a -5 turnover margin, in the game, still came away with the victory.

Until that bizarrely disappointing second half, the game was shaping up far more traditionally.

The Jaguars opened the scoring with a 47-yard Josh Scobee field goal, but that was just a prelude to one of the more amazing Cleveland Browns' drives in recent memory.

Starting with the ball at their own 8-yard line as a result of a penalty on the kickoff following the Jacksonville field goal, McCoy engineered what would turn out to be a 16-play, 92-yard drive that covered nearly 10 minutes and ultimately gave them a 7-3 lead. It kept their string alive of having a lead in every game this season.

During that drive, the Browns converted 4 third down plays. McCoy was 6-8 on the drive and also scrambled for 10 yards when the Browns were 2nd and 21 on the Jacksonville 44-yard line. It gave the Browns a much more manageable 3rd and 11 which they converted when McCoy hit Mohamed Massaquoi for 14 yards.

After holding the Jaguars on their next drive, Cleveland appeared to be back in business, moving the ball from their own 19 down to the Jacksonville 33-yard line. But the drive died when McCoy and Massaquoi were not only not on the same page but actually reading different books. On a blitz, McCoy threw deep where Massaquoi appeared to be heading but instead Massaquoi broke off his route and the ball bounced harmlessly away. Phil Dawson missed a 51-yard field goal that gave Jacksonville good field position on their own 41-yard line.

But the Jaguars' drive died when they tried to crib a play from Brian Daboll's playbook and had Jones-Drew attempt an option pass. There's a reason why running backs don't play quarterback and Jones-Drew perfectly illustrated it as he soft-tossed the ball in the direction of receiver Mike Thomas as Abe Elam stepped in for the easy interception. The Browns weren't able to capitalize, however, going a quick 3-and out. It turned out to be foreshadowing, in a big way.

That gave the Jaguars an opportunity to put together their own long drive and take the lead at halftime when Garrard found Thomas on a 5-yard pass to help give the Jaguars a 10-7 lead. Thomas had gotten inside of defensive back Sheldon Brown for the touchdown. The drive covered 68 yards in 13 plays and used up most of the last 5 minutes of the half.

After an exchange of possessions to open the second half, the Browns regained the lead when Elam stripped Jones-Drew at the end of an 8-yard run. Elam, who was on the bottom of the pile, scooped up the ball and walked into the end zone as the other 21 players on the field stood by, each with a look on their face that said “wasn't the play over?” It wasn't as the referees signaled touchdown. On the replay the ball was indeed fumbled but a solid case could have been made that Elam was down by contact. Oddly the Jaguars appeared to give no thought to challenging the call as Dawson kicked the extra point that gave the Browns the 14-10 lead.

The Browns seemed to be right back in business when Ward intercepted a Garrard pass that had bounced off Thomas and was down at the Jacksonville 48-yard line. But they went 3-and out with McCoy getting sacked on third down and were forced to punt.

But the Browns' defense proved to be as resilient as Beef Jerkey when Haden got an interception off Garrard 5 plays later. Haden had a nice run to near the Jacksonville 10-yard line but the ball was stripped at the last moment and fumbled backward, where Chris Gocong recovered. On 3rd and 11 and the Jaguars blitizing as if Rob Ryan were calling the plays, McCoy dropped back and attempted to hit no one in particular on what would have amounted to a screen pass. It was nearly intercepted. That set up a 38-yard field goal by Dawson that pushed the Browns lead to 17-10 late in the third quarter.

From there, the Jaguars kept bouncing back from their own self-inflicted wounds just long enough to tie it on the Lewis touchdown and then take the lead on the game on the Jones-Drew touchdown.

For McCoy, the game was a learning experience, if nothing else. Subjected to repeated pressure, he did wilt and mostly handled it well when he wasn't otherwise secretly hoping he wouldn't get injured in the process. He was 17-28 for 241 yards and one touchdown. He also had two key scrambles but was sacked 6 times. Running back Peyton Hillis, facing his near-twin in Jones-Drew, was far less effective. Bottled up all day by a swarming Jacksonville defense, he had only 48 yards on 21 carries, though he had the one touchdown on the McCoy shovel pass at the 10-yard line.

Garrard, far more experienced than McCoy, wasn't really much better. He was 20-24 for 254 yards, 2 touchdowns but 3 interceptions. The difference was Jones-Drew. He had 132 yards rushing on 24 carries and had 87 more yards on 3 pass receptions, the bulk of which came on that 75-yard screen play.

The Browns haven't really been favored in any game this season so it's difficult to say they lost a game they were supposed to win. Still, circumstances sometimes dictate when you should win and those circumstances so dictated on Sunday. But though this team is progressing, it isn't yet good enough. They are a better team with a better future than last year's model. But at 3-7, it's hard to argue that their record isn't what it should be.

1 comment:

m. said...

That I wrote my last comment before this piece was posted at my end, says something about us--- individually and collectively---but hey, that's just what I see and writers are notorious for making things up. Go figure. m.