First Impressions: Game 11 (@Atlanta)

1. Marty’s Law. In his first press conference as head coach– a day after the Browns lost 16-14 to New Orleans– a game where the Saints kicked two field goals in the fourth quarter to come from behind– Marty Schottenheimer said something that has stuck with me ever since.

  • If you lost a game by less than a touchdown, you could literally say it had turned on one play.
  • Ever member of the team could point to at least one play where he had fallen short– which had ended up costing the team points.
  • Hence it was a team loss– and if you won, it was a team win.

Coupled with the margin-of-victory studies I’d been doing– that all teams play close to .500 ball in close games– drove home the point: the outcome of a close game is almost always due to luck.

You don’t give those games back– but you don’t get too excited about them, either. Unless you’re playing a team that is way better and you stole a win, a close game is, to some degree a failure.

2. The corollary. When a game has not one, but two lead changes in the last minute, it underscores how random the result was.

When the two teams combine for five turnovers, it underscores that the game could have gone either way. Especially when most of the turnovers were appalling:

  • On CB Joe Haden‘s interception at the start of the second quarter, QB Matt Ryan threw a terrible pass. Haden had good coverage; the ball was underthrown.

Score it as a great play for Haden– but one he should never have been able to make. The Browns got the ball at the Atlanta 29, only moved 14 yards and settled for three points.

  • QB Matt Ryan‘s strip sack and fumble on the next drive was inexplicable. All day long, he seemed incapable of recognizing where the pressure was coming from and stepping away. He didn’t seem to try to evade LB Paul Kruger, who knocked the ball away– where DE Desmond Bryant could grab it.

This play wasn’t nearly as bad as the one in the third quarter, where (a) Kruger rushed through, (b) LT Jake Matthews knocked him down short of Ryan, (c) Ryan took a step to the right and then (d) stepped back to his left as Kruger was getting to his feet– going right into a 12-yard sack.

But his inability to sense the rush was the striking thing– even more than Kruger and Bryant making the most of it.

The Browns got the ball on the 40, moved only 21 yards and kicked a field goal.

  • It’s really difficult to say which interception by QB Brian Hoyer was worse. On his first– with 3:04 left in the second quarter, he threw off his back foot as TE Jim Dray was cutting toward the left hashmark.

The ball was underthrown by at least five yards and also thrown behind Dray (that is, to the right of a player moving left). CB Kemal Ishmael, was nowhere near Dray, but the ball was thrown right to him

The Falcons got the ball at the 50 and marched in for a score to take the lead 14-13..

  • Hoyer’s second interception might have been just as inept a play– and it was was far more costly. With 4:59 left and the ball at the Atlanta 6, Hoyer got pressure, scrambled back to his 21, and then threw a pass (a) off his back foot, (b) with nothing on it, (c) to a receiver who was covered and (d) not to an area he could get the ball  Had Puff caught the ball, his momentum would have carried him out of bounds.

CB Desmond Trufant intercepted in the end zone– and if the Falcons were any good, they could have marched down the field for a game-winning field goal with little or no time left on the clock.

But the drive stalled and Atlanta had to punt.

  • Interception #3 came on the next drive. I’m pretty sure Hoyer was aiming for Puff Gordon, because he was the only guy in the area. But the ball was overthrown by at least 5 yards and SS Dezmen Southward grabbed it.

The Falcons took that pass and went only 20 yards. Luckily, they play in a dome, and Matt Bryant has been 15 of 20 on 50-yarders since joining Atlanta. He got the ball to make it 24-23 with 49 seconds left.

Of the 50 points scored in the game, 16– 10 for Atlanta and 6 for Cleveland– came off giveaways in the literal sense of the word– the offensive player did everything but hand the ball to the opponent

The best defensive play was the pass rush and sack– and, again, that’s a play a Ryan walked into.

3. Waste of Time. Of all the coaches in the NFL, Atlanta’s Mike Smith bears the closest resemblance to Marty Schottenheimer as an in-game coach. Meaning that he loses a lot of games due to decision-making that is easy to second-guess

The TV guys doing the game were all over Smith for his clock management, and they were 100% right.

In the first half, after Hoyer’s first pick, the Falcons had the ball with 2:52 left. Here’s the play sequence:

  • 1& 10, MID 50 (2:52) Ryan hits WR Julio Jones for 21 yards.
  • 1 & 10, CLE 29 (2:13) Ryan hits TE Levine Toilolo for 8 yards.

Atlanta hasn’t tried to stop the clock, so we hit the two-minute warning. That’s 52 seconds used to travel 29 yards. It’s such inept use of the clock that everyone assumed Smith was trying to burn off time, so the Browns couldn’t answer.

OK, fine.

  • 2 & 2, CLE 21 (2:00) Offensive Coordinator Derek Kuetter takes a play from Bill Belichick’s old playbook and runs “Jackson up the middle”. Jackson gets 2 yards for the first down.

Again they don’t stop the clock– even though Atlanta has all three time outs. So getting these two yards burns off 41 seconds.

  • 1 & 10, CLE 19 (1:19) Ryan hits WR Roddy White for 6 yards… and White runs out of bounds.

Does that make any sense– after you’ve been using time as if your goal is to burn it? Of course not. Let’s assume this is a reflex mistake by White.

  • 2 & 4, CLE 13 (1:15) Ryan throws incomplete to RB Devonta Freeman (his only target. He got only 5 carries for 7 yards)
  • 3 & 4, CLE 13 (1:10) Ryan hits Jones for 5 yards, on the left side of the field.

Smith immediately calls time out, and commentator Steve Beuerlein correctly went berserk. You have the first down. There is a minute left. You’re at the Cleveland 8-yard line. You can only run four more plays.

And if you’re worried about having enough time left to score, what the hell are you stopping the clock for now? Why didn’t you do it after the first play, when you burned 49 seconds, or after Jackson ran for a first down (which burned 41).

If you’re planning to run the ball, I get it. But you can stop the clock by spiking it any time you want. Or simply call time out.

  • 1 & GOAL, CLE 8 (1:00) Ryan hits Jacquizz Rodgers for an 8-yard touchdown.

This series is exactly why Smith’s teams underperform in the playoffs and why he gets barbecued, There’s no rationale for these actions that makes sense. You can’t go back and reconstruct a plan.

You stopped the clock so you had enough time to throw a quick slant for a score– and leave 55 seconds on the clock? WTF, dude?

Not that the Browns put the time to good use. After the touchback, Hoyer threw incomplete to Puff– then hit him for 19 yards. The Browns, who had all three time outs, let 22 seconds elapse.

Hoyer threw incomplete to WR Miles Austin, then hits WR Andrew Hawkins for 14 yards– and Southward pushes him out of bounds.

Give me one good reason a sane defender stops the clock. Because you can’t bring him down? Southward is 6’0″ and 211; Hawkins is a smurf.

Hoyer hits Hawkins again to get the ball to Atlanta’s 42– making it a 59-yarder for K Billy Cundiff, who is 8 for 29 from 50+ yards, the lowest mark of any active kicker (in case you were deaf and didn’t hear that stat the 42 times the broadcast team repeated it during the drive).

Rather than try to get the ball closer, Hoyer fires another “wishful thinking” pass to Puff down close. It falls incomplete… at which point Smith naturally decides to call a time out– to ‘ice’ a kicker who doesn’t need the psychological games.

Then the Falcons do it again at the end of the game. Let me put the plays where they burned a significant amount of time in red:

  • 1 & 10, ATL 45 (2:42) Jackson gets no yards up the middle.
  • 2 & 10, ATL 45 (2:07) Ryan to Jones for 9 yards.
  • 3 & 1, CLE 46 (2:00) Jackson gets a breakaway run of 3 yards.
  • 1 & 10, CLE 43 (1:31) Ryan hits Rodgers for 1 yard.
  • 2 & 9, CLE 42 (1:03) Ryan hits TE Harry Douglas for 7 yards.
  • Atlanta time out (#1) at 00:55.
  • 3 & 2, CLE 35 (0:55) Ryan throws deep, hoping to hit WR Devin Hester. Hester is open, but Ryan misses.
  • 4 & 2, CLE 35 (:49) Bryant hits the 53 yard field goal.

The Browns get the ball with 44 seconds left, go 61 yards on 7 plays and kick the winning field goal.

Let me get this straight… you called your first time out with 55 seconds left– to make sure you could throw a deep sideline pass (Hester is running down the right sideline)?

It’s not a play that involves intricate motion, or puts you in any danger. You drop back and toss the ball down the sideline. So what on earth could justify stopping the clock to discuss they play?

And why a deep pass– which is tougher to make? Why not a dink pass over the middle, to get the first down?

Actually that is rhetorical. I know what happened, because I’ve asked people connected to the Falcons when this stuff has happened in the past.

  1. Smith called the time out as soon as the pass to Douglas was blown dead. It was third and two– and he assumes (being the old-fashioned, uncreative defensive guy he is), that it’s time to have a pecker contest with Pettine and run Steven Jackson up the middle again. Even if it gets stuffed, he can still kick with 8 seconds left.
  2. When they huddle at the sidelines, Kuetter (or Ryan) says “I want to pass on the play and I think we can beat them deep.”
  3. Instead of saying “No– we’re going to do this my way– we’ll run, hopefully get the first down and definitely burn off time” Smith lets himself get talked into throwing.

So instead of killing time and maybe getting the first down– taking the clock down to 20 seconds or less– the Falcons burn off six seconds.

The best thing about this, as my friend pointed out, is “When Mike tries to explain why it happened, an honest answer makes him look week– or like he’s trying to throw a player or an assistant under the bus. He’ll say Rufus said this was our best bet’ and guys will ask Rufus, and he’ll reply “Hey I just made a suggestion when they asked. He’s the coach’. 

“This has happened a bunch of times, and Mike always looks like the bad guy. He should just stick to his plan, but he always feels he should let everyone in on the process.”

Well, if he’s lucky, he can reflect on his mistakes and maybe learn from them after he gets fired. The Falcons probably won’t let him go until year’s end, but this should be the last straw.

4. Puff for MVP. Without him, Cleveland doesn’t win. His performance in the game bordered on the supernatural: 8 catches (on 16 wild heaves) for 120 yards (15 a carry).

Not one of the missed connections seemed to be his fault. And given how badly Hoyer played, I’m not inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt on anything.

He didn’t score, but he did get six first downs. Plus, on the two interceptions where the defender could have run the ball back (the one in the end zone was at the back of the end line and only a crazy person would have run it out) Gordon made both tackles. Not exactly the “Tackle? Moi?” reaction that you’d get from The Randy Rules, Ocho Stinko or Terrible Owens.

And my favorite play was his one incompletion off the busted gadget play on the opening drive of the third quarter. On 2nd & 6 from the 35, RB Terrance West threw a rotten pitch back to him, and Gordon was looking at a huge loss.

Rather than panic, he rolled to his right and threw the ball out of bounds– making the throw look catchable enough to avoid an intentional grounding call.

Had that penalty been called:

  • it’s 10 yards lost
  • The penalty is marked off from the spot of the foul. (which was way behind the line )
  • You don’t get to replay the down.

So it would have been something like third & 35. And that was a drive where the Browns scored (the field goal that made it 16-14).

I’ve been tough on the guy, but that was a pretty amazing performance. Most players claim they have been working out… but damned few actually have.

Puff has a unique ability– when he runs, it doesn’t look like he’s that fast– but nobody ever seems to be able to catch up to him. Sometimes that’s just bad defense… but he never looks like he is hurrying.

It would be nice if he can keep his head screwed on right.

5. Program note: I have more stuff I want to say, but it’s a short week and I might not get to it. Stuff happens, so enjoy yourself.

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