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3 Big Takeaways: Another slow start puts Browns offense in familiar bind

TAMPA —

1. Another slow start puts Browns offense in familiar bind

The Browns increased their first quarter scoring output from six to eight Sunday, a contribution from the defense, which forced a Buccaneers safety in the early goings-on. For the offense, it was an all-too-familiar first quarter blanking that unfortunately carried over to the next 15 minutes, leaving the Browns in a 16-2 hole at halftime.

If not for two second-quarter takeaways by Cleveland’s defense, the game could have gotten out of hand just like it did the previous week against the Chargers.

“I don’t know what it is in the first half,” offensive guard Joel Bitonio said. “We practiced well this week and had a good first (10 scripted plays). We were prepared for it.

Preparation only goes so far. For the Browns offense, self-inflicted mistakes within the game led to unnecessary adversity against a Tampa Bay defense that was without star defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and came into Sunday’s game ranked as one of the league’s worst against the pass.

Every Browns drive in the first half had some kind of negative play, whether it be a sack, rush for loss or penalty. The team’s first six drives ended with third down attempts of 8, 13, 8, 14, 11 and 7 yards. The seventh ended when quarterback Baker Mayfield scrambled on fourth-and-2, crossed the first-down marker but fumbled, a play that sent the ball tumbling out of bounds behind the marker. That brought an abrupt end to a possession that began at Tampa Bay’s 19-yard line following a Christian Kirksey fumble recovery.

“That normally doesn’t happen that way where the ball goes backward; ball normally goes forward. It didn’t,” Browns coach Hue Jackson said. “We could have kicked a field goal, no question, but I thought our offense needed something to feel good about in the first half. We did not play well.”

The performance improved in the second half, and it was the main reason why Cleveland came back from 14 to send the game to overtime. Mayfield found a rhythm, holes started opening up in the running game and the Browns mostly capitalized on their opportunities to score. They quickly found redemption after coming up short on the goal line midway through the fourth quarter, scoring on the very first play, a 16-yard touchdown pass from Mayfield to Jarvis Landry, of the ensuing series following a 32-yard Jabrill Peppers punt return.

Those kinds of stretches make the first quarter -- and on this day, first half -- struggles all the more befuddling for players who know how good the offense can be when everything is clicking.

“It’s about eliminating the minus plays and if we can do that, we’re doing our job without any distractions or self-inflicted adversity,” Mayfield said. “That’s what it comes down to, that was the difference in the second half, we got some momentum and when you do that you relax and just do your job.”

2. Overtime opportunities go by the wayside

The Browns have played in enough overtime games to have trend stats, and the ones involving the offense are among the chief reasons why Cleveland is 1-2-1 in extra periods this season.

Cleveland has seen the 2-minute warning in all four of its overtimes. That’s because its defense has been mostly lights out, forcing four punts and two turnovers and seeing two field goal attempts missed against it. The offense, meanwhile, has had just one of its 10 series -- the game-winning field goal drive against the Ravens -- pick up a first down. The rest ended with seven punts, a failed fourth-down conversion and a missed field goal.

Sunday’s output was two punts on six plays. The Browns never got a shot at a third series after Peppers’ fumble on a punt return set up Tampa Bay for its game-winning field goal.

The Browns won the toss but gave it right back to Tampa Bay after going three-and-out. The Browns lost 10 yards on the first play because of a holding call on left tackle Desmond Harrison, and Mayfield’s third-and-6 pass to David Njoku sailed just out of the tight end’s reach.

“They did a good job of jumping that one,” Mayfield said. “That’s one of those throws, you got to trust it and if you want it you got to throw it, you can’t hesitate so I let it go. But then you look back on it, they let (Damion) Ratley down in a corner route on the sideline. Comes down to those moments, you got to do the fundamentals right.”

Gifted some great field position on its second series following a Jamie Collins interception, the Browns wound up right where they started and were forced to punt. Facing a third-and-3 from Tampa Bay’s 38-yard line, the Browns lost 7 yards on a sack that officially put them outside of Greg Joseph’s field goal range.

“I was trying to free up (Antonio) Callaway on an underneath route in man coverage. He separated but he has to keep going on his route,” Mayfield said. “Comes down to the little details, again. I got to push my drop-back and be able to step up and at the same time, if something’s happening and the play breaks down, I got to make a play.”

3. Browns defense shows Week 6 performance was an aberration

Cleveland’s defense had a rough stretch near the end of the first quarter and into the second, but was largely back to its old self against one of the league’s most potent offenses.

The Browns forced a safety on Tampa Bay’s first offensive possession, limited the Buccaneers to less than 4 yards per carry, became the first team all season to hold Tampa Bay to no passing touchdowns and forced four turnovers -- their second-largest total of the season. They were poised to blank a team in overtime for the third time this season before quarterback Jameis Winston completed a 14-yard pass to set up Chandler Catanzaro’s improbable 59-yarder.

Asked what he expects when his defense forces four turnovers, Jackson said simply, “to win.”

“The defense held in there, made some plays, and got some turnovers. We didn’t capitalize on some of those early; that’s what you got to do,” Jackson said. “I thought their fight kept us in it.”

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