Browns vs. Steelers: Takeaways from Cleveland's 20-7 Loss
The Cleveland Browns fans can finally relax and watch good football on Sundays because their team’s season has come to an end. It could not come soon enough as they had to watch their guys take a full-on nosedive in the second half of the regular season.
The Browns finished the year with a 4-12 record after being 4-5 and in the thick of the AFC North race at one point. Finishing the season with seven straight losses and losing nine of 10 games is the perfect way to miss the playoffs and begin an offseason of speculation.
There will be speculation about the draft, about the future of head coach Rob Chudzinski and about who will return to play in a Browns uniform next season.
Before we get to the offseason, however, let’s take a look at the Browns' 20-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday.
Chudzinski May Be out
Just a few short weeks ago, it seemed insane to even cater to the notion that Browns rookie head coach Rob Chudzinski could be fired after the season. It is not so crazy anymore.
About an hour before kickoff Sunday, ESPN's Chris Mortenson dropped this nugget on the Twitter world.
One place of turmoil (again) to monitor is Cleveland Browns, where there's some turmoil & unhappiness with how team folded 2nd half of year— Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) December 29, 2013
Then, about midway through the third quarter, the Browns' front office released a statement, as reported by Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, to all Browns media members saying, “Our focus is on the game today. We will not discuss any evaluation of the season until this upcoming week."
The fact that they would address the speculation mid-game was odd enough, but the fact they did not include an ounce of support for Chudzinski is even stranger.
Chudzinski has been overly aggressive at times this season, and his team did spiral out of control over the final seven games, but that was not his biggest mistake.
A coach is only as good as the quarterback he hitches himself to, and he hitched himself to Brandon Weeden out of training camp. Little did anyone know that he may have sealed his fate as a head coach in Cleveland before he even got to his first game.
The Defense Was a Myth
The very same defense that was once ranked top five in the NFL finished the year looking like one of the weaker units in the league. As the season unfolded, it plummeted down the rankings and will likely finish outside the top 10 in total defense.
On Sunday, it was once again gashed in the running game. Defending the run was possibly the strongest part of the defense at one point this year. That is not the case anymore.
The defense finally broke a 10-game streak where it allowed multiple touchdown passes to the opposing quarterback, but, instead, it was mauled on the ground. The Steelers combined for 120 yards rushing when they came into the game ranked 29th with only 84 yards per week.
There Is Talent on the Browns
It is easy to get caught up in the doom and gloom of a losing season, but there is still a silver lining. The Browns have talent on their roster, and no matter who the coach is next season, they will have plenty to work with.
The Browns had five players selected to play in the Pro Bowl and one more named as an alternate. Returning Pro Bowl offensive lineman Alex Mack and Joe Thomas will be joined by wide receiver Josh Gordon, tight end Jordan Cameron, defensive back Joe Haden and could also be joined by safety T.J. Ward.
Besides them, cornerback Buster Skrine had an above-average season and running back Edwin Baker flashed the last three games. Linebacker Jabaal Sheard and defensive lineman Billy Winn also showed flashes this season.
With a full stable of healthy players and the right guidance, the Browns should be in a position to take a large step next season.
Roethlisberger Might as Well Own Stock in the Browns
While Jimmy Haslam may hold the paperwork stating he is the owner of the Cleveland Browns franchise, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger might as well be the majority shareholder.
After Sunday’s win, he is now 17-1 against the Browns in his career with 27 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions. He has a quarterback rating of nearly 100 and has rushed for 182 yards and three touchdowns, his highest total against any opponent.
In fact, the Browns have just two total wins against Roethlisberger and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. It’s tough to make the playoffs when you are automatically signed up for four losses in your division each season.
Gordon Needs to Learn to Handle Physicality
The book is out on wide receiver Josh Gordon. That being said, he is still posting staggering numbers, which speaks to his elite abilities.
Despite being a relative non-factor on Sunday, he still finished with seven catches for 82 yards. Barring some kind of record-breaking performance, he will be the first Browns receiver to finish the season leading the NFL in receiving yards with 1,646 yards.
The problem is that he has not adjusted to the physical way teams have played him down the stretch. Between now and next season, he needs to work on using his body and strength to fight off defenders at the line of scrimmage and when he hits his cuts on routes.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the knocks on Rob Chudzinski has been his overly aggressive philosophy at times. He has made a name for himself going it on fourth-down conversions this season.
The Browns went for three more attempts on Sunday and finished the year three shy of the all-time record with 31. Unfortunately, they were 0-3 on Sunday and just 14-of-31 on the season. That means the Browns completed just 45 percent of their attempts this year, which is in the bottom half of the league.
Only two teams had 25 or more fourth-down attempts this season—the Browns and Jacksonville. That is not good company to be in.
Players Checked out for This Game
It kind of comes with the territory that in Week 17 with nothing to play for some guys will mentally check out, but it was glaringly obvious Sunday. The Browns had seven players inactive for their game against Pittsburgh, and five of them were starters.
The conditions were sloppy and nasty in Pittsburgh with rain beating down on the players all game long. Still, somehow, the Browns had multiple players who took a lot of snaps with perfectly clean jerseys deep into the third quarter.
Then, early in the fourth quarter trailing 17-0, the CBS cameras panned down the Browns sideline, and a number of players were laughing and looking the opposite way before a third-down snap.
These are not uncommon or egregious acts, but it certainly speaks to where the team was mentally ending the season.
The Browns Are Still the Browns
I am as guilty as anyone. In Week 9 when the Browns defeated the Baltimore Ravens to improve to 4-5, just one-and-a-half games out of first place in the division with two weeks to prepare for the Cincinnati Bengals, I bought into the hype.
I wrote on this very website about how this was not the same old Browns and how that win was a huge shift in culture. Fast forward seven straight losses later and I am still scraping the egg off my face.
The Browns once again finished with double-digit losses, once again finished last place in the AFC North and once again have questions about their coach possibly being fired.
The one positive is that the Browns have been locked into the fourth pick in the 2014 draft; that won't change. So while this season was just about as unbearable as the past 13 since 1999, at least there is still a chance the Browns can find the quarterback they have needed for so long. I won’t be holding my breath, however.