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3 Big Takeaways: Deep ball burns Browns at worst possible times

PITTSBURGH -- We’re analyzing the three biggest storylines from the Browns’ 20-13 loss to the Steelers.

1. Deep ball burns Browns at worst possible times

The Browns lost Sunday’s game in a similar fashion to the way they did a month earlier in Denver. 

Similarly, the opposing quarterback began the season as someone who would see the field only in the worst-case scenario. And similarly, that quarterback got the best of Cleveland’s defense when he aired it out for a handful of big plays that ultimately proved to be the difference.

The Steelers didn’t get much of anything in the first quarter, mustering just 2 yards and a single first down. Along the way, they fell behind, 10-0. A heave on third-and-long, though, seemingly changed everything midway through the second quarter, as James Washington corralled a 31-yard pass to put Pittsburgh near midfield. The Browns stiffened up inside the red zone, but the Steelers had their first three of what would become 20 unanswered points.

“They had a free play,” Browns coach Freddie Kitchens said, referring to the offsides penalty that also occurred on the play. “We can’t do that. We’ve got to maintain our composure and get a stop.”

With 1:19 to play in the half, Hodges connected on a 28-yard pass to Tevin Jones -- the longest of the rookie receiver’s career -- before letting Washington make another play on a deep ball to the end zone. Washington induced a pass interference penalty, but it ultimately didn’t matter as he secured the 30-yard throw for the game-tying score.

“I think they got us up front a little bit, and I think we need to match that intensity and continue moving forward with that same intensity that we started the game with,” Kitchens said. “We have to be able to carry that through the whole game and not just in short spurts.”

Hodges found Washington on his longest throw of the day on Pittsburgh’s opening drive for the second half. The 44-yard completion put the Steelers inside the red zone, and they cashed in a few plays later on a short Benny Snell Jr. run to take a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

Those four throws added up to 133 yards. Hodges was 10-of-17 for 79 yards on all of his other pass attempts. 

“I thought we did a good job for the most part of the whole game containing him. They were able to throw some balls deep and make some plays with their receivers,” linebacker Joe Schobert said. “That is stuff that we gave them and really have to correct. If we can eliminate that, I think we are right where we want to be.”

The Browns were short-handed in the back end of their defense and relied on a handful of different groupings at safety throughout the game. In the past month, the Browns have lost Eric Murray to a knee injury and Morgan Burnett to a season-ending Achilles injury, seen Jermaine Whitehead get waived and were without Damarious Randall on Sunday because of a non-injury related coach’s decision. That meant significant snaps from the likes of rookies Sheldrick Redwine, who started, and J.T. Hassell, who was on the practice squad a few days ago.

Still, the Browns expect to be better against the deep ball, no matter who is playing or who’s at quarterback for the other team.

“A middle safety’s not going to do any help,” Kitchens said. “Middle safety’s not making those plays on the sideline. They were throwing at our corners.”

Check out photos of the Browns in action against the Steelers

2. Mayfield vows he’ll be back after injury scare

Baker Mayfield rushed to the sidelines holding his throwing hand after a long pass attempt to Odell Beckham Jr. with seconds remaining in the second quarter. It was bad enough to take him off the field for the final two plays of the half, but it wasn’t enough to keep him from playing the entire second half.

Mayfield wore a glove on his throwing hand during the second half after banging it off the facemask of Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree. Though Mayfield and the Browns offense scored just three points, the injury didn’t appear to bother the second-year quarterback much, as he finished 18-of-32 for 196 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

Mayfield, who also took a hard hit to his throwing elbow from T.J. Watt midway through the second quarter, did not use the injury as an excuse, saying it didn’t affect his throwing ability whatsoever.

“X-Rays were negative, so that’s good news,” Mayfield said. “It got a little numb, took some medicine and went back out there so we’ll see.”

Mayfield wore a wrap on his hand as he conducted his post-game press conference. He vowed to be ready for next week’s game against the Bengals.

“I think he was fine and I think he found through whatever it was,” left guard Joel Bitonio said. “He’s a tough guy, so he battled.”

3. Playing from behind in Pittsburgh is less than ideal

The moment Pittsburgh took the lead early in the third quarter, everything changed for Cleveland’s offense.

Pittsburgh’s defense already ranks among the best in the league in turnovers and sacks, and the numbers really jump when they’re focused on just the home games. Against a Browns offensive line that was without starting left tackle Greg Robinson, Pittsburgh’s ends were able to increase the heat on Mayfield throughout the second half, and that meant trouble for some of the team’s longer developing plays.

“The types of plays we had drawn up require a little bit of time,” Mayfield said. “We talked about it earlier in the week. They play well at home, that defensive front, and they did it again today. They made the plays when they needed to, so we weren’t able to get the ball down the field like we expected.”

Mayfield was sacked five times and hit on seven occasions. When the teams squared off less than three weeks earlier, he was sacked just once.

The deficit also forced Cleveland out of what was working so well in the first half, when it controlled the game with a methodical running attack and a handful of third-down conversions. The Browns rushed 18 times for 91 yards in the first half compared to just eight carries for 15 yards in the second. Cleveland did not convert a third down in the second half.

“When you can run the ball, it slows them down a little bit,” Bitonio said. “When you have to pass the ball and try to come back, they pin their ears back and try to get after it.”

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