ATLANTA — The Browns didn't do enough in key moments of their 23-20 loss to the Falcons, and our takeaways are digging into when those moments happened and what went wrong on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
1. Mistakes early and late cost Browns most
The most crucial points of the Browns' loss happened on their first few offensive drives and final defensive drives.
Cleveland started the game with three trips to the red zone the first four times they possessed the ball but only had 10 points to show for it at halftime. Head coach Kevin Stefanski elected to go for it on fourth down on the first drive, which ended at the 4-yard line, and the Browns had to kick a field goal on the second of such red zone drives.
The Browns weren't in the red zone the rest of the game. Points in those sequences would've paid huge dividends late, and the results were an example of how aggressiveness can come back to bite.
"I'm frustrated by all of it," Stefanski said. "I'm frustrated that I didn't put our guys in position to succeed. That's really what I'm frustrated by."
The Browns still managed to grab a 20-17 lead with 9:58 left thanks to a 28-yard run from Nick Chubb, but then the defense began to show cracks.
Falcons QB Marcus Mariota was held to 7-of-19 for 139 yards in the game, but 42 of them came on a busted coverage play on a second-down pass to Olamide Zaccheaus with three minutes. Zaccheaus then gained another 15 yards due to a facemask penalty on Denzel Ward — a mental mistake that followed a coverage mistake moved the Falcons into Browns territory. The play was the biggest gain the Falcons had on their drive that led to Younghoe Koo's go-ahead 45-yard field goal with three minutes left.
"Obviously, we're not designing it to have a guy wide open," Stefanski said, "but we just have to make sure we get them in good position and make a good play when the ball comes our way."
Two drives before that, the Browns allowed the Falcons to build a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that contained only run plays. The Falcons gained 172 of their 202 rushing yards in the second half.
"They wore us down," Stefanski said. "We ran out of gas a couple times, and they made us pay. We have to find a way to get off the field."
Neither side of the ball had a terrible game. The Browns outgained the Falcons 403 to 333 yards, and the defense held the Falcons to 3-for-9 on third downs. Cleveland had possession of the ball for more than 11 minutes than Atlanta, and before Brissett had mostly played a clean, efficient game before he threw an interception on a third-and-23 on the Browns' final drive.
The Browns just didn't make the plays when they mattered most both early and late.
"We just didn't do enough," Brissett said. "We knew it was going to be a 60-minute football game, and we didn't make enough plays down the stretch."
Check out photos of the Browns against the Falcons in Week 4
2. Browns liked being aggressive, but didn't execute
No point of the game truly was arguably more important for the Browns than the missed red zone opportunities in the first half, so let's break them down a bit more.
The Browns looked smooth on their first drive up until the last play. Brissett had an instant connection with TE David Njoku for gains of 20- and 25-yards, while RB Nick Chubb had gained 11 yards on his first run of the day.
So Stefanski felt confident when the Browns advanced to the Falcons' 2-yard line. Chubb was stopped for a 2-yard loss on third-down, and Stefanski turned to Brissett to pass on fourth-and-3. Brissett looked for Njoku again, but he had defenders all around him, and the pass never had a chance.
Stefanski felt good about the play because of how well Brissett looked to open the game.
"We wanted to score sevens in the red zone," Stefanski said. "We really felt like we could. We tried to run it on that third down and got knocked back, which was unfortunate, but we just didn't come away with points, and that falls squarely on me."
On the final drive before the half, the Browns were on the move again and reached the Falcons' 1-yard line. Stefanski called a run play that was stuffed at the line on first down and switched to a pass play on second down, but a holding penalty moved the Browns back another 10 yards.
Two more incompletions led to a 29-yard field goal from Cade York, but there was still a sense of disappointment that the Browns couldn't score a touchdown before the penalty.
"You wish you could do something different because of the result," Stefanski said. "We felt good about the plays when they're not there. You're not thinking you're coming away with a holding penalty. You're thinking you're coming away with a third-and-1."
Brissett said he was fine with the Browns staying aggressive on the first drive and throughout the game. Those high-risk, high-reward plays have worked for the Browns before, but they still need to be better offensively for those decisions to consistently pay off as they should.
"We've been going for a lot of fourth downs, and we've been getting it," Brissett said. "We respect Kevin for giving us that trust … They trust us to go for it, and we just have to convert it, and we will."
3. Frustrated, but no need to panic
The Browns had an opportunity to remain in sole possession of first place in the AFC North and lost it.
Frustrating? Absolutely. But they still remain on even ground with the rest of the division. The Ravens squandered a 17-point lead and lost to the Bills. The Steelers allowed a touchdown in the final 30 seconds to lose to the Jets. The Bengals picked up only their first win of the season Thursday, but still remain in fourth in the division.
After a loss like Sunday's, it's obvious the Browns still have a lot of progress to build to be able to consistently stay ahead of those teams in the division, but with the results elsewhere in the division, the loss isn't as costly as it may feel.
"One day at a time," Brissett said. "We go home from here, and we'll go back and watch the film for whoever we play next … This doesn't change our plan. Our plan is one week at a time."