Browns' second-half comeback cause for optimism


Brian Hoyer impressive in hurry-up offense

PITTSBURGH – Here are my takeaways from the Cleveland Browns' 30-27 season-opening loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field Sunday:

For one half, this was shaping up as one of those nothing-good-ever-happens-to-the-Browns-in-Pittsburgh games. The Browns seemed to be haunted by the ghosts of those ugly season-ending losses the past two years on the way to falling behind, 27-3, at halftime. Then, amazingly, they transformed into an entirely different team and ran off 24 unanswered points through the final two quarters.

The spark came largely from a hurry-up offense that caught the Steelers off-guard and quickly wore them down before they were able to recover just in time for Ben Roethlisberger to lead a five-play, 33-yard drive in the final 47 seconds that ended with Shaun Suisham's winning field goal from 41 yards as time expired. Coach Mike Pettine was absolutely correct when he said that his biggest takeaway from the game was that the Browns were 0-1 and that "this is a pass-fail league; we failed" and "there are no moral victories." But there were more than a few things to like about the Browns' rally, especially what it showed about the resilience character of the players who staged it. That was particularly true for the defense, which rebounded from an embarrassing 30 minutes by sacking one of the NFL's most difficult quarterbacks to sack, three times after getting him to the ground only once in the first half.

Consider this: the Browns managed this rally without their best offensive player for the entire game (suspended wide receiver Josh Gordon), their second-best offensive player for part of the game (tight end Jordan Cameron, whose day ended prematurely because of a shoulder injury), and their starting running back (Ben Tate, who left the game late in the first half with an injured knee).

About that first half. The Browns' defense was stunningly bad. A combination of missed tackles, blown coverages, and an ineffective pass rush allowed the Steelers to pretty much do as they pleased. The biggest problem, though, was the missed tackles. For whatever reason, the Browns seemed unprepared to play. They looked sluggish and confused. Apparently, they were merely awaiting the wake-up call they would get the moment the second half began. Still, the poor play of what is supposed to be the team's biggest strength was beyond disappointing.

Some veteran players displayed much-needed vocal leadership at halftime. Quarterback Brian Hoyer and offensive tackle Joe Thomas were particularly vocal in the locker room, as were safety Donte Whitner and linebacker Karlos Dansby. Coach Mike Pettine said he didn't give any "fire-and-brimstone" speech; he simply pointed out that the team was "playing well below our standards and we need to start playing like us, like we know how, settle in."

You wouldn't think that, after losing starting running back Ben Tate to a knee injury late in the first half (after a 25-yard run), the Browns would be highly effective on the ground the rest of the game. But they were, thanks to the combined efforts of rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. After struggling through the preseason, West returned to the highly impressive form he had shown through offseason and training-camp practices when he would routinely slip defenders and glide for big gains. He finished with 100 yards on 16 carries, ripping off one gain for 29 yards in the second half. Crowell ran for back-to-back touchdowns of three and 15 yards in finishing with 32 yards on five carries. The argument could be made that the Browns should have done more running in the second half, because of the distinct possibility of West or Crowell going the distance (or at least having a long run) at any time. Another consideration was, when the Browns took over at their 20 with 1:53 left and the score tied, 27-27, trying to run out the clock with three running plays rather than three pass attempts that resulted in a sack, an incompletion, and a loss of five yards before the Steelers called a timeout with 59 seconds left.

Brian Hoyer did an exceptionally good job of running the no-huddle, hurry-up offense. He showed excellent command in making sure everyone was in the right position, getting the proper plays called, and making the necessary adjustments based on what the defense showed. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan utilized a pistol, read-option formation that enhanced the Browns' ability to run the ball because the defense, weary from the offense's stepped-up pace, could never be certain whether Hoyer was going to hand off, fake a handoff and run himself, fake a handoff and throw, or just throw.

Hopefully, Hoyer's showing goes a long way toward at least reducing the number of times media and fans ask, "When is Johnny Manziel going to play?" The better question is, "Will there be consideration to having Hoyer run the hurry-up offense on a full-time basis?" Why not? Hoyer clearly learned plenty by watching one of the no-huddle masters, Tom Brady, during Hoyer's time as a backup with the New England Patriots. Running that offense well requires the poise, thorough understanding of the offense and of opposing defenses that Hoyer possesses and Manziel doesn't at this point.

I don't have a problem with Pettine opting to punt rather than having Billy Cundiff attempt what would have been about a 52-yard field goal with 4:37 left in the game and the score tied, 27-27. The distance was just a bit out of the range of Cundiff, who is outstanding at long kickoffs but doesn't have great accuracy on long-range field-goal tries. And a miss there would have given the Steelers the ball near midfield. The Browns thought they would be able to pin the Steelers deep in their own territory, but the attempt to down Spencer Lanning's punt inside the 1-yard line failed and the kick resulted in a touchback. >>Be sure to tune in Monday through Friday, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. ET, for "Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford" on ESPN 850 WKNR or catch the live stream right here on We take your questions at 216-578-0850 and via Twitter @Browns_Daily.

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