Game 5 Review: Pittsburgh

Opening Statement: Well, that was good to see. After last week’s game, I lambasted the Browns for not blasting a bad team. A 31-10 win over Tennessee would have been what a good team did.

On Sunday the Browns did what they should have done the week before. Since the Browns last saw the Steelers, Pittsburgh has put up three bad performances in four games— and the one good performance I was giving credit for was against Carolina, because the Panthers went 12-4 last year.

That now appears to be a mistake, Carolina was 12-4 last year, scoring 22.9 points (18th in the NFL) and allowing 15.1 (second). The Panthers (who are on the schedule this year) are now 3-2-1. The offense (23.5 points, 17th) is about the same, bur the defense (26.2 points, 24th) has fallen apart).

A team with a winning record, despite allowing more points than they scored, has been lucky.

I gave credit for Pittsburgh beating the Panthers 37-19 and minimized Baltimore’s 38-10 beating, because the Ravens are erratic–on any given Sunday, they can beat anyone or lose to anyone. But the 37-37 tie against Cincinnati (which is enormously reliable, and thus a perfect barometrer) indicates that the Panthers have stepped backwards. Which might be a good sign, since the Brown will face then on December 21, with a playoff possibly on the line.

The Steelers came out and laid another egg… and the Browns did what a good team should do when that happens: beat them up. You can just say “We beat Pittsburgh 31-10– WHOOOOO-HOOOOO!!!!!” but the bigger question is “Why?” There seem to be to be four factors:

1. Pittsburgh played a terrible game. This is, of course, what the Pittsburgh media thinks. Getting absolutely hammered by Cleveland for the first time in 25 years had the impact you might imagine.

This set of grades is typical. He gives every area of the team an “F”, except the offensive line (“D) and the running backs, who got a C+ for gaining 138 and averaging 4.3 yards a carry (because “when it mattered they couldn’t gain any movement on three runs from the Browns 7“).

Which is exactly what the fans and media covering the losing team always do. The result of every game is 100% the result of their team’s effort.There were only two assessments that even suggested the Browns might have had anything to do with the outcome.

After looking at the replay 4-5 times, I’d give poor play from the Steelers about 30% of the credit for the result. As Bill Cowher and also Hines Ward noted, this isn’t a very good team.

2. The Browns played well. This is about 20% of the result. I don’t actually think they played well. The Browns had 12 possessions, but only four drives where they moved more than 50 yards (my baseline definition for a drive). And none qualifies as a drive:

  • 7-3: On the third possession (after they stopped Pittsburgh on downs in the second quarter), the Browns went 68 yards in 5 plays (1:51 of game time). 59 yards came on 2 plays– the 17-yarder to Miles Austin, followed by the 42-yarder to Jordan Cameron.
  • 14-3: The next possession was a 3 play, 55-yard ‘drive’ that lasted 1:08– a 51-yard pass to Cameron, and an offsides penalty on the Steelers.
  • 31-3: The eighth possession (6 plays 68 yards, 2:52 off the clock and a field goal in the third) featured a 24-yard run by Isaiah Crowell and a 31-yard pass to Jim Dray.  Defensive

Only the fifth possession– 11 plays, traveling 85 yards in 5:07 to put the Browns up 21-3– was a series of effective plays (averaging 4-5 yards on runs and 8-12 yards on passes):that we think of as a “drive.” Even that wasn’t a thing of beauty, since Brian Hoyer had a 24-yard pass to Taylor Gabriel, a 12-yarder to Austin, and Crowell had runs of 16 and 11.

That’s four plays for 63 yards and 7 plays for 22. The Browns deserve credit for making the plays, but the Steelsrs clearly didn’t execute well. In fact, the Pittsburgh game stories reminded me of the ones about the Browns in most of the Romeo Crennel era: “We played pretty well but we had some breakdowns.”

The Browns have established that they can run the ball– and hurt any defense that doesn’t do its job– and make a big play or two on passes. That’s clear progress and it counts for 20% of the result.

3. A lucky break– the injuries that forced Cleveland to simplify the defense. The play of the defense was by far the biggest change between the two games.

  • In the first game, Cleveland scored 27 points, gained 389 yards, but only played well in the third quarter.
  • In this one, it scored only four points more, gained 21 yards less and played well in the second quarter… and then late in the third.quarter

The defense, on the other hand, allowed 20 points less; yards per play dropped from 7.3 down to 4.7. The reduction in big plays was the largest factor:

  • .In the first game, the Steelers had 8 plays of 20 yards or more — 3 plays between 30-39 yards and 2 plays over 40.
  • This time, they had only 4 plays over 20 yards– the longest was 26.

The change was the defense the Browns were playing. Due to a string of injuries to the front 7 players, the Browns couldn’t shuttle fresh legs in and out on every play, blitzing from all angles and (as a result) forcing their secondary to cover one on one. They had to play a very vanilla defense– and it helped them.

The problem with a “Big Play Defense” is that it often produces big plays for the opposition,. The Browns had 4 sacks in game one; only 2 this time. But they played a more consistent game, meaning fewer big plays for Pittsburgh.

I’d give the coaches credit for adapting the defense to the players if they hadn’t made it so clear, leading up the game, that they considered being unable to blitz like Rob Ryan on steroids to be a horrible shortcoming.

So the largest single step forward, I think, is due to luck.

4. Veteran savvy and moxie. I value “intangibles”– but I think people mention them 2,000 times for every actual example.Intangibles tend to be invoked when someone wants to support a point, but can find no evidence.

If a player (a) lasts long enough to qualify for a union pension and (b) avoids getting suspended or arrested, , he automatically becomes a “veteran” with “intangibles”.

Should he manage to make the Pro Bowl or come close to leading the league in anything, he acquires “savvy”. Should he manage to appear in the playoffs, he receives “grit”,and if he gets a ring, he adds “moxie” and becomes “a team leader”, regardless of whether he contributes any such thing

This reputation has no relationship to his quality of play. The Indianapolis Colts are currently puzzled that they’re allowing more points and that their run defense has declined from 4.5 yards per carry to 4.8.

This is despite signing D’Qwell Jackson, who leads the team in tackles (tied for 17th in the NFL) and who has charmed the media with his sober, thoughtful interviews.  The realization that Jackson usually ranks among the league leaders in “blown assignments” and “yards given on cutbacks through the area he were supposed to secure”– because he pursues the ball and leaves gaps open– has not occurred to anyone yet.

It takes astonishing malfeasance– Percy Harvin and Adam “Pac-Man” Jones spring to mind– for a player to not get these designations. Often, depending on whether he (or the team) is perceived to be playing well, a perceived liability can become a strength.

A year ago for example, everyone was talking about how “distant” and “uninvolved” QB Jason Campbell was. People wrote that he was simply trying to get a paycheck. When Campbell played and had a few good outings, he became “quiet” and a player who “leads by example.” When the team began losing and Campbell showed signs– on the field and in interviews– of panic, he became a “head case” and a “coach killer”

I mention this to establish my bona fides on the issue, as prelude to saying that leadership accounted for 15% of the outcome.

The thing that struck me watching the replay repeatedly was the sense of resolve. Both offense and defense seemed to be saying “We might not win the game, but there’s no reason we should get blown out the way we did in the first half of Game 1.” And they did it despite adversity:

  • The offense gained -8 yards on six plays in the first quarter. Two three-and-outs with two stuffs and a sack.

But the offense continued to try to run its games plan:(a) run to gain ground and force the defense to play run first and (b) rely on play-action passes and rollouts to set up the pass.

When the offense lost Alex Mack with the score up 14-3 and the Browns at the Pittsburgh 47, it didn’t falter. It ran 8 more plays, gained 47 yards and scored a TD. There were no sacks, Brian Hoyer went 1-2 for 12 yards. The six rushed gained 35 yards.

There were no penalties– and only one mental mistake (some confusion that required the use of a timeout on the Pittsburgh 10). There were no turnovers– Isaiah Crowell fumbled, but he recovered the ball– and no penalties.

  • After a three-ant out on the first series, the defense gave up field goals on the next two chances. (That Pittsburgh’s kicking teams imploded is not relevant to that statement. It should have been 6-0)

But even on those two drives, there was no panic or grotesque mistakes. Pittsburgh needed 10 plays to get 39 yards– less than four per play– on the first field goal. It needed 10 plays to go 18 yards on the second.

It’s a basic fact of life that every good defensive coach realizes: If you force the offense to run enough plays in order to score, it will eventually make a mistake. The mistake can be a penalty, a turnover, a dropped pass or a blown block. If you can force a team to get 4-5 yards at a time– not 7-10 per play– they’ll screw up.

This team doesn’t have “veterans” whose only credential is their birth certificate. Hoyer was trained by he franchise that produced Tom Brady; Andrew Hawkins learned under Marvin Lewis. Austin made two Pro Bowls before injuries chewed him up. Joe Thomas is a Hall-of-Famer. Dray, the backup tight end, ; the new guard, Paul McQuistan, started 14 games for the team that won the Super Bowl.

On defense, Paul Kruger won a title with Baltimore; he beat Donte Whitner‘s team in that game. Karlos Dansby had an interception in Arizona’s Super Bowl. These are players who have experienced pressure and high-quality football and can speak up.

That’s not the brand of Shinola the Browns normally peddle. Gary Barnidge has played only season on a playoff team; he played third tight end and kicking teams and only had one pass thrown his way. What can he tell you about winning? Desmond Bryant played on two .500 teams, but has never played  for a team that won more games than it lost. His insight in championship football is limited. Quentin Groves has never played for even a .500 team.

Not to rag on the players, but when the 2013 Browns blew a lead to Cincinnati and got stomped by Pittsburgh the next week, there were no lessons those players could impart.

A key thread in this game– not the most important, but significant–  was the Browns hanging around and waiting until the Steelers screwed up– and then pouncing.

The Steelers of old would not have screwed up. But recent Browns teams would never have been able to take advantage of the opening the opponent provided.

Questions?

The key play in the game was the missed field goal, right?

Wrong.

You think it was the defensive stand– where they forced the Steelers to go for a field goal?

No.

You didn’t see the momentum change after that?

I don’t believe in momentum. If you’re up by 10 points and driving for a TD and the defense forces the QB to throw a pick, runs it back and the offense blasts in for a score, making it a 3-pouint game? In that case, sure.

Usually it’s the line that everybody draws after they know what happened as they look to explain the result. The Browns scored 31 unanswered points? Must have started earlier; let’s look for the first highlight before that.

Taking those points off the board wasn’t a game-changer?

Not hardly. Whether or not Pittsburgh had made the field goal, the Browns could have taken the lead by scoring a TD. All the miss did was change the margin.

Hey, even if Pittsburgh had they had scored a TD, that’s 10-0– they’ve come back from deficits more than twice as large– twice.

But lets play it your way. Pittsburgh made a bad play on the field goal try– an unforced error that was 100% their fault. Other than fall on the guy, the Browns had nothing to do with the outcome. And as a result of the play, the Browns…

  • Got the ball back– which was going to happen no matter what the happened on the kick.
  • Were in position to take the lead with a touchdown– which would have been true whether or not the Steelers made the kick.
  • Took possession on their own 32– more or less where they would have had it, unless the kick returner tried to take it out from 7 yards deep.
  • Had the adrenaline of the players on the field for that play– none of whom were on the offense—  go sky-high.

And, charged up by this development, the Browns went out and…

…missed connections on a dink pass to Hawkins

That play changed the momentum so much that…

… Crowell gained four yards before being pushed out of bounds.

After that, the Steelers messed up on a coverage to gave Austin 17 yards on a pass. And then completely fouled up on the long pass to Cameron.

So why did the entire game suddenly change? 

I don’t think it did. Cleveland didn’t come out firing on all cylinders, but every team except Denver has 2-3 games a season where they don’t score on their first two possessions and get a TD on the third.

The missed kick happened early in the second quarter, with the score was 3-0. Teams rarely come back from a 3-0 deficit at the end of the first quarter, but only because two teams rarely combine for only three points in the first quarter.

Last season, according to the game finder at Pro Football Reference, there were only 36 games. in 16 cases the team up 3-0 won, and in 20 games the opponent did.

If we look at every game where the winning team was scoreless at the end of the first quarter and the losing team had a lead (that is, >= 3) there were 43 come-from-behind wins.

Everyone at the game could feel the change.

And there’s a good reason they reacted that way. According to the game finder at Pro Football Reference, the Browns (since 1999) have gone 45-163 when they fall behind at any point in the game  If the Browns fall behind, 75% of the time the game is over.

Let me drill down. The reason Browns fans assume a 3-0 lead at the end of the first quarter is insurmountable is that it has been true 17 out of 19 times. Think about that for a minute: If the score is Opponent 3, Browns 0 at the end of the first quarter, Cleveland has come back only twice. In those 17 losses, the eventual margin of victory was:

  • 7 points or less seven times
  • 8-14 points five times
  • 15+ points– a blowout– five times.

We all know how those games work– defense holds it close for a quarter or two, offense can’t move the ball, eventually the opponent wears down the defenders.

I’ll give you a reason erasing a 3-0 lead seemed like a huge deal. In 4 of the 20 games in 2013 where a team was losing 3-0 at the start of the second quarter– and came back to win– they beat the Browns:

But in the real world, 3-0 isn’t anything you pain about– or even 6-0 or 10-0. It’s simply a deficit that a good team can overcome.

Well, if you couldn’t feel the momentum shift
you don’t have a good feel for the games.

No, I’m just calmer than people who go off 47 times a game, like a chihuahua on espresso, The play-by-play at PFR has a column where it calculates the home team’s chances of winning (based on score, ball position and time remaining, using the complete database of play-by-play accounts). It’s not very useful, but it does provide perspective.

  • After the field goal, made it 3-0, the Browns chances to win were 43.0%
  • After the botched field goal, Cleveland’s probability of winning rose to a whopping 45.8%

Well, that’s just some statistic.

It’s actually a projection model, based on historical database. Because teams often do play better after a turnover, it does use them in the estimate. That’s why the percentage went up after the missed FG.

After Hoyer threw his incompletion on first down and Crowell didn’t get much on second, it had fallen back to 43.0 it didn’t bump until Hoyer threw the 17-yarder and then the 42-yarder.

If you’re asking my opinion, the play that swung the game was the 51-yard TD pass to Cameron. That was the one where you could see the Steelers realize they were were in trouble.

  • The failure to get the first down from 3rd-and-5 on the 17 had\s been a problem all year long. That upset them, but they weren’t shocked..
  • The screwed-up field goal made them annoyed.  But they wrote it off as a one-time error.
  • When the Browns scored the first touchdown– after the blown coverage that let Cameron go 42 yards to the 5, they were angry at each other.

But the score was still 7-3 and that’s a veteran team. They knew they could come back from that; they’ve done it. They came right back with a deep pass to LeVeon Bell and missed. Then Bell ran for four yards. Then Roethlisberger missed the third down pass.

The Steelers were unhappy but the defense went out thinking “We’ll just stop them, get the ball back and take the lead.”

What killed them was the next sequence. The Browns came out in their “run it down your throat” packages, with Tate in the backfield, three tight ends lined up right, and Hawkins over on the left, and went no-huddle.

1-10-(Cleveland 40): Tate over left guard for 3 yards

Pretty clever fakeout, huh? They line up all the beef to the right, but run left.  Pittsburgh got it, though.

2-7 (Cleveland 43): 5-yard Offsides penalty on Pittsburgh

Heyward guessed wrong on the snap count, it looked like. Anyway, it takes the Browns 5 yards closer– from second-and-long to second and short.

2-2 (Cleveland 48): Tate over right guard for 1 yard

Now it’s 3rd and 1. The run package is still in. The Steelers know the next play will be a run– and they go all out to stop it. So when the Browns run a play-action pass, there’s nobody in the deep middle. Now it’s 14-3. (This page goes over it really well.)

And that was the point where the Steelers began to panic, The Browns had hung 24 unanswered points on then in week one– 26 the week before in Tennessee– and you could see them wondering “Are they going to do this again?”

On the next possession the Steelers imitated the Browns– three runs for 24 yards and then they tried a long pass on 3rd and 1. After Roethlisberger missed connections, the Browns took the ball back and did the 10-play, 85-yard drive. Talk about putting your boot on the opponent’s neck.

That’s great play-calling. We’ve never had that before.

It’s not just the call. There are a lot of other elements.

1. To set it up, Cleveland had to be able to run the ball well enough to make opponents fear it. That play couldn’t have worked since Peyton Hillis left town; nobody stacks the line to stop Willis McGahee or Trent Richardson..

2. Hawkins drew the one guy in deep coverage. You have Davone Bess lined up, he doesn’t scare anyone.

3. They had also great execution. LB James Harrison actually guessed play-action and took off after Hoyer. Barnidge pulled left and blocked him one-on-one. Which, even though Harrison is washed up, was still a good play.

4. Cameron had to see the middle was open and get there, plus Hoyer had to make a good fake and then get it there.  Ben Watson wouldn’t have gotten down there and Colt McCoy couldn’t have thrown it that far.

Is Hoyer having a great year, or what?

Given those alternatives, I’ll go with “or what.”  I don’t think he is as good as Browns fans currently believe he is. Maybe I am slow to identify the new Tom Brady or Kurt Warner… but I don’t feel any pressure to crown a player after 5 games.

A decent quarterback– a guy whose rating is in the 80-85 range, with a TD-INT ratio of about 1.5 to 2? I can see Hoyer being that guy– a Brian Griese or Marc Bulger (or Andy Dalton or Ryan Fitzpatrick, if you need active players).

That isn’t a bad guy– you can win Super Bowls with guys like that, if your defense and running attack is good as this team might be. But I would like to see him play like a franchise QB for 16 games, not 5.

You wouldn’t lock him up right now?

If you try to sign him now, you’ll be paying him $10-15 million. That’s too big a risk to take. Look, he’s from North Olmsted; he wants to play here. His big concern is that teh Browns might go with Johnny Football over him.

As long as the Browns don’t chisel him, they can sign him

Only in Cleveland– we get a good guy after we draft one.

Five words: Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. This is another reason to wait and see what happens.

Can you trade Manziel?

Sure– but unless you play him, and people see how well he works out, you probably won’t get teh #1 and #3 you paid for him. The Cowboys are 5-1, and Tony Romo looks great. That takes out your #1 option.

Again, this is not a decision they need to make right now, unless a team loses a QB before the the trading deadline. Maybe Rex Ryan would bite.

Why didn’t the Browns get Percy Harvin?

First of all, he can’t stay healthy. he’s missed 25 games in the last five years.

Second, he isn’t that good. Career high in catches is 87. Career high in yards is 967. Career high in TDs, 6. Antonio Brown is a better player.

Third, because the media has blown so much smoke up Harvin’s butt, he thinks he can decide what he will and won’t do.  That’s why Seattle dumped him.

This is a good offense right now– a great one, potentially, if the players continue to progress and if Puff comes back in good shape.

You want me to talk about the defense?

Yeah– do you think they can keep this up?

Keep what up? The Steelers gained 359 yards. They rushed for 138, getting 4.3 a crack. They have one good receiver– Antonio Brown went 7-10 for 118 yards.

What they did, basically, was play better pass defense on Markus Wheaton, who declined from 6-7 for 97 yards to 4-11 for 33 yards, thanks to either the presence of Buster Skrine or the absence of Justin Gilbert. Wheaton, who had 97 yards in  his first game, has had 180 in his last five,

Also, the linebackers covered LeVeon Bell effectively. He fell from 6-7 for 88 yards to 4-6 for 23 yards. That seemed to be the result of Roethlisberger not trying to hit him.

Pittsburgh made it simpler by not trying to run the ball, too. Of the 32 rushes, 22 (for 92 yards) came in the first half. They rushed only 10 times (for 46 yards) in the second.

Well once they got behind…

You’re kidding– that old cliche? Aside from the history or the theory, we have the evidence of a team that has pulled off two comebacks of equal or greater magnitude– one against the team on the other side of the field:

  • The Browns were behind 24-3 at halftime of the first Pittsburgh game. They’d run 11 times for 62 yards. They ran 19 times for 121 yards in the second half.
  • They ran 16 times for 92 yards in the first half of the Tennessee game and 20 times for 82 yards.

What we’ve learned this season is that sticking with what you do well– even when you are way behind– is what can get you back into the game.

You will lose if you run the ball and take 8 minutes to score– and the defense doesn’t stop anyone. But if your defense can’t shut the opponent down, you lose anyway.

Who was your defensive MVP?

Pittsburgh coordinator Todd Haley. After scoring 30 in the opener, the Steelers have scored (in order) 6, 37, 24, 17 and 10. A good offense is a lot more consistent than that.

The big element was that the Steelers don’t have any balance. After last week’s 17-9 win over the Jaguars (a lot closer than it should have been) there were complaints the Steelers didn’t run the ball more. So on the first three possessions, 17 of the first 22 plays were runs, including three uncreative runs when they get first-and-goal.

Roethlisberger is bitching constantly about Haley, asking to call plays. Usually that is a bad idea; when thee QB calls plays, passes usually go up.And that isn’t a good thing, because Roethlisberger is 32 and has been sacked 17 times (tied for firth).

Four guys stood out– the two inside LBs and the safeties. Dansby stopped anything that came into his path; Craig Robertson didn’t make any mistakes. Whitner made a bunch of stops; Tashaun Gipson didn’t let anyone get behind him.

Skrine (who’s 5’9) was helped by playing against a receiver (Wheaton) who is 5’11.

Wasn’t Joe Haden impressive?

If you give him a lot of credit for playing with a hip injury. Antonio Brown whipped him  K-Waun Williams had a better game.

Ishmaa’ily Kitchen stepped in for Phil Taylor
and the defense barely missed a beat

Which, I think, is more of a comment on Taylor than Kitchen. Maybe he’d look better in a basic 4-3

Look, I recognize that I don’t sound impressed by the defense, but it’s hard to figure out how much of what happened was Cleveland. A week ago. the Steelers put 10 points on the board against the Jaguars– with 7 coming on a pick-six.

I promise, if Jacksonville plays really well against Cleveland this Sunday, to be more impressed. Right now, this is all I can do, OK?

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