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4 Turning Points: Multiple opportunities slip through Browns’ grasp in 4th quarter

PITTSBURGH -- Analyzing four key moments from the Browns’ 28-24 loss to the Steelers…

  1. The Browns were in the kind of hole they couldn’t fall into. Pittsburgh’s lead was 14-0 after Landry Jones found JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 20-yard touchdown pass less than two minutes into Sunday’s second quarter.

A previously inept Browns offense that didn’t pick up a single first down on its first three drives rattled off two big plays to make a game of it by the end of the second quarter.

The first came on the ensuing drive, as DeShone Kizer found Josh Gordon for a 54-yard pass down to the Steelers’ 2-yard line. Duke Johnson Jr. followed with a 2-yard touchdown run to slice Pittsburgh’s lead in half.

The second came after Pittsburgh extended its lead back to 14 with another touchdown. On the second play of the ensuing drive, Kizer found Rashard Higgins for the longest pass of his NFL career, a short throw across the middle that Higgins took 56 yards into the end zone. The touchdown was the first of Higgins’ career and made the score 21-14.

Kizer completed just five passes in the first half but registered 131 yards because of the two big plays.

  1. When the Browns committed an offsides penalty on a first-quarter Steelers field-goal attempt, they dodged a bullet and came away unscathed by stuffing Pittsburgh at the goal line. They weren’t as fortunate on another costly third-down penalty, which set up the Steelers’ third touchdown of the game.

Facing a third-and-2, Jones overthrew Eli Rogers in the left corner of the end zone to conceivably set up a field goal attempt. But a penalty flag changed everything, as Myles Garrett was flagged for roughing the passer.

Pittsburgh found the end zone one play later on a Stevan Ridley touchdown run to make the score 21-7.

Garrett made up for the play later in the half, when he strip-sacked Jones to stop another potential scoring drive. He finished his rookie season with a team-high seven sacks.

The Browns play the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 17.

  1. The Browns began the third quarter with the kind of methodical march they needed. It was a long drive that ended with a touchdown and tied up the score, 21-21.

The lead lasted just a few minutes. Smith-Schuster took the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown -- the second Steelers’ special teams touchdown against the Browns this season -- to give the lead right back to Pittsburgh.

Back to the drive: After getting to the Steelers’ defense with big plays in the first half, the Browns were measured on a seven-play, 68-yard drive that took a little more than 4 minutes to unfold. The biggest play came on second-and-3 from the Steelers’ 43, when Kizer found tight end David Njoku for a short pass the rookie was able to turn into a 34-yard gain after shaking former Browns defensive back Joe Haden and scampering down to the 9-yard line. The drive was capped on third-and-goal, when Kizer found Higgins in the end zone for the second time.

  1. The Browns had three opportunities to take the lead during Sunday’s fourth quarter. All three possessions ended in unfortunate, familiar fashion, as Cleveland committed two costly turnovers and came up short in Pittsburgh territory on the final one en route to their 16th and final loss of the season.

Faced with a third-and-long early in the quarter, Kizer found Johnson on a screen pass that appeared poised for the kind of big play Cleveland needed. Johnson ran 32 yards but was stripped on his way to the ground by Pittsburgh’s William Gay.

Still trailing by just four, the Browns took over at their own 15-yard line with a little more than 9 minutes to play. After a defensive holding call gave the Browns a first down at the 31, Kizer, staring down a blitz, underthrew Njoku and was intercepted by Sean Davis. The pick was Kizer’s 22nd of the season.

The season effectively came to an end shortly after the 2-minute warning. Faced with a fourth-and-2 at the Pittsburgh 27, Kizer evaded a swarm of Steelers and rolled out of the pocket. He located a wide open Corey Coleman, but Coleman let the ball slip through his hands for a costly drop. The Steelers took over on downs and took one last knee to put an end to the Browns’ season.

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