Biggest Takeaways from Cleveland Browns' Week 14 Win
The Cleveland Browns pulled off their biggest victory of the season in Week 14, defeating the visiting San Francisco 49ers, 24-10. The win was their third of the year and marked the return of Johnny Manziel as the team's starting quarterback.
This game was not a typical one for the 2015 Browns. With that in mind, here are the biggest takeaways from Cleveland's defeat of the Niners.
Big Game for Isaiah Crowell
Heading into Sunday, the Browns have the league's least productive rushing offense. And while the victory might not turn things completely around, the Browns have been waiting for a big game for some time.
Cleveland rushed 41 times in the win for 230 yards and two scores. Second-year back Isaiah Crowell contributed those touchdowns, along with 145 of the yards on his 20 carries. He averaged 7.3 yards per rush with long runs of 50 and 54 yards.
This was the fourth time this year the Browns have earned more than 100 rushing yards and the first time they have broken the 200-yard mark in a game. Crowell's performance marked the first time in his career that he's run for more than 100 yards, and his two touchdowns on the day bring his rushing scoring total this year to three.
Even though it is late in the season, it is good to know that the Browns do have backs who are capable of big days. It just takes facing the right defense at the right time.
The Return of Defense
Cleveland's defense had also been one of the league's worst against both the pass and the run headed into Week 14. But if Sunday's game was the only Browns contest one has seen all year, it would be hard to believe.
The Browns sacked Niners quarterback Blaine Gabbert a season-high nine times, with Armonty Bryant and Nate Orchard each totaling two apiece. Desmond Bryant had 1.5 sacks, while Christian Kirksey, Donte Whitner and Jordan Poyer each contributed one. Xavier Cooper rounded out the group with a half-sack. The defense also had eight tackles for loss, four passes defensed and 11 total quarterback hits.
And Cleveland didn't just affect San Francisco's passing offense. It also stopped the run to the tune of 17 rushes for just 71 yards. It's the second-fewest rushing yards the Browns have allowed all year, while the 221 total yards allowed were the fewest given up all season.
Cleveland's defense has never looked so capable. This is certainly something to build upon in the final three games of the season.
Manziel's Step Forward
Cleveland quarterback Johnny Manziel took the field for his fourth start of the season after spending the previous two games on the bench. And his performance against the 49ers was another example of the on-field progress he has made in his second season in the NFL.
Manziel completed 21 of his 31 pass attempts for 270 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He was sacked twice and could have been taken down for a safety near the end of the first half if 49ers defender Corey Lemonier hadn't been called for a facemask penalty. Though not flawless—and given Manziel's lack of experience, it couldn't have been—his performance was clearly an improvement over what we've seen, not only from his rookie year but also from earlier this season.
And Manziel wasn't just useful when passing the ball. He also handled orchestrating the Browns' myriad run assignments well, something that head coach Mike Pettine acknowledged on Monday. "I thought he did a real good job in the run game," Pettine said. "We had a lot of stuff that he had to orchestrate to get us in the right run. I thought he did a good job of that, and that kind of goes unnoticed."
Pettine said after the game that Manziel's week of practice was a good one and it showed up against the Niners. What this means for Manziel's future in Cleveland as of yet is unknown, but one thing is clear: The Browns wanted him to improve, and he has. He truly is doing everything right when he's with his team.
Browns receiver Brian Hartline had his biggest game of the season Sunday, catching eight passes on 10 targets for 107 yards. It was the first time he's broken the 100-yard mark this year. His chemistry with quarterback Johnny Manziel was obvious, and together they looked like a duo the Browns could exploit with success for the remainder of the season.
But that is not going to happen. On his eighth catch of the game, Hartline fell onto his shoulder, fracturing his collarbone and ending his season. He'll wrap 2015 with 46 catches for 523 yards and two scores.
It's not just Hartline's receiving skills that the Browns will miss. As head coach Mike Pettine said: "You are not just losing his production. This is a guy who is a leader in the locker room, a leader in the meeting rooms. He is a leader on the practice field, and then game day, he is a guy that wants a ball."
Cleveland's receiving corps has been wracked with injuries as of late, including concussions suffered by Andrew Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel and a banged-up shoulder for Travis Benjamin. Hartline's injury impacts not only the receiver depth but also the veteran experience the team can benefit from on the field and in the locker room.
Another Blocked Field Goal
Browns kicker Travis Coons spent most of the season perfect on his field-goal attempts. But a strange thing has happened in the last three weeks—he has a field goal blocked in each game.
Sunday's block happened halfway through the first quarter, when the Niners' Quinton Dial swatted away his 42-yard attempt. Though Coons did make a 26-yarder later in the game and all three of his extra points, and though the Browns did win by 14 points, the trend is a concerning one.
It's a problem mainly because how these blocked attempts are happening. Multiple Browns players, notably rookies Cameron Erving and Danny Shelton, are falling down when trying to block, leaving open lanes for the defense to attempt the deflection.
Perhaps the Browns should consider a different combination of players on Coons' field-goal tries in the future. Losing three points per game can be a killer when every possible score matters.