This loss can be attributed specifically to two touchdowns the Browns gave up, one in the first quarter and another in the fourth. Without those two scores, it's almost certain Cleveland would have notched its first win of the season.
So let's take a look at what went wrong in those two scores and how the Browns can avoid making those mistakes in the future. Here's a quick hint: Make tackles.
Touchdown One: Adam Jones' 81-yard punt return for a touchdown, 1st Quarter
The punt return. One of the most routine plays in the NFL. However, when things go wrong, the result at best is a large return and the worst is a touchdown. The latter is what happened to the Browns on Sunday.
It starts out innocuous enough. Adam Jones catches the punt, and there's a member of the Browns coverage team there to tackle him, just as he should be.
However, he misses the tackle. Jones is now free to head into heavy traffic.
Linebacker Kaluka Maiava (or it may be offensive lineman Shaun Lauvao; it's hard to tell) has the next shot at taking Jones down. Fellow linebacker Craig Robertson is also unblocked if Maiava/Lauvao cannot make the stop.
Robertson, however, finds him tied up with running back Chris Ogbonnaya, controlled by two Bengals defenders, and Maiava/Lauvao whiffs on his tackle. Another Browns player, however, is in front of Jones and could bring him down.
Except he doesn't. Next up are Eric Hagg and the newly-freed Robertson and Ogbonnaya.
Hagg gets a hand on Jones' foot, but ultimately does not make the tackle. Robertson and Ogbonnaya lag behind instead of putting on the jets to attempt a stop of their own. Tight end Alex Smith now enters the picture as another Brown who could stop Jones.
Smith gets hung up by a Bengals blocker, however, and another Brown misses another tackle. Again, going for an arm tackle rather than putting his full force behind the stop.
Finally Robertson sees his chance though there's a blocker keeping him from getting too close. Jones has made it nearly all the way through any would-be tacklers, but Smith has his eyes directly on him, in front of him, unblocked.
Smith is there, and Robertson is closing in, and it appears that Jones is about to be tackled.
However, Robertson dives and misses his tackle. Smith remains as a threat to bring him down, however.
But of course, Smith whiffs on his tackle. To Ogbonnaya's credit, he's finally able to run in and attempt to catch up with Jones.
But Jones has the speed and the momentum. Ogbonnaya cannot catch up, and just like that, the Bengals have found themselves up by a touchdown without their offense even taking the field.
Touchdown Two: Andy Dalton's desperation pass to Andrew Hawkins for a 68-yard score, fourth quarter
Again, this passing play starts as innocuously as the punt return. It's a 3rd-and-10, at midfield, and it's clear that the Browns are hoping to bring pressure and either force a deep incompletion out of Andy Dalton or get a sack and stop the drive.
Dalton is able to roll away from the pressure at the last second, however, and is able to keep the play alive. At first, it seems like maybe he'll just throw it away.
But all that defensive pressure up front has left the downfield receivers single covered. It provides a good opportunity for Dalton to get the ball to speedy slot receiver Andrew Hawkins, and he connects.
Hawkins does the rest from here. He's being pursued by nickel corner Trevin Wade, and safety Eric Hagg is less than 10 yards away.
It seems at first the duo will get him.
However, Hawkins cuts to Wade's outside, gaining another step on him, while Bengals running back Brian Leonard makes quick work of Hagg on the block.
Leonard also helps out against T.J. Ward, the next Brown to try to stop Hawkins; he has a partial block, while Ward also misses a tackle.
Buster Skrine is the last man with a chance keep Hawkins from scoring; he fails, and thus, Hawkins gives the Bengals a touchdown and a 31-17 lead.
These two touchdowns highlight two different problems for the Browns. One is tackling. Arm tackling has always been a problem for Cleveland, as are missed tackles. Never is this more evident in a kick or punt returned for a touchdown.
Diving arm tackles, rather than an attempt to get physical, cost the Browns the stop. Further, kick and punt coverage, despite the seeming chaos, is a highly-choreographed system of movements. The goal is for members of the coverage team to stay in their respective lanes.
That way, no one gets distracted when a returner weaves in and out of would-be tacklers. If everyone stays in their lane, the return man will generally come to them, making it easier to tackle him. However, the Browns' coverage unit, in this case, was so flustered by how far out Jones was able to take the ball that they forgot the fundamentals of their positions and tried to chase him down for the stop.
This approach rarely works and is how teams generally get burned for touchdowns from a kick or punt return. The Browns need to return to their special teams fundamentals and remember to not panic. Return coverage shouldn't be a game of pursuit, but of making the tackle that comes to you.
The Hawkins touchdown, in contrast, is more of a lucky break for the Bengals than it is an example of the Browns defense breaking down. But there is a major lesson to be learned from it.
It's the danger of pressuring a quarterback without accounting for the possibility he can get the ball out of his hands. The Browns practically bring the house on this third down, but only one defender has a chance to get his hands on Dalton.
While the rest of the defense tries to push forward, Dalton rolls out, and before the Browns' remaining defenders have time to react, the ball is in Hawkins' hands, and the speedy receiver, along with some blocking assistance, scores a touchdown.
The Browns need to be more aware when sending a pass rush or throw fewer defenders into the mix to allow the field to be adequately covered. This will help mitigate the damage done if the pressured quarterback is able to complete a pass.
Without committing these two errors on Sunday, it's quite possible Cleveland could have defeated the Bengals. At least as long as they don't allow these mistakes to repeat this season, they can chalk it up to a painful, but necessary, learning experience.
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