The Browns should have won Sunday's game. They absolutely should have.
The fact that I'm sitting here writing about a ninth straight loss to the Steelers has a lot more to do with the Browns than anything the Steelers did to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The record will show Ben Roethlisberger carried his team to a win with 278 yards passing and a several momentum-swinging third down scrambles. The talking heads on TV will wax poetic about Big Ben's poise under pressure, his toughness and his big-play arm.
I'm here to tell you that anything Roethlisberger did to beat the Browns takes a backseat to the things the Browns did to beat themselves.
Cleveland's descent from a 21-6 second-quarter lead to a loss can be attributed to four main areas in my book: the second-half play of Derek Anderson, the failure of Jamal Lewis to show up as a feature back, the cushy-soft interior of the Browns defense and one famously-bad replay challenge sequence that cost the Browns two time outs. Here are some takes on each of them:
1. Preseason Derek Anderson came out of the locker room after halftime.
Maybe Anderson had time to meditate on the fact that he held a 21-9 halftime lead, on the road, against a hated division rival his team had not defeated in four years. Whatever happened between the first half and second, Anderson played extremely tight in the second half, and looked every bit as bad as he ever looked while losing the starting quarterback's job to Charlie Frye in the preseason.
Anderson's 16-for-35 and 123 yards looks unimpressive enough, but when combined with the fact that he was never sacked and rarely touched by a Steeler pass rusher, it looks downright pathetic.
Again, I'm sure a lot of credit will go to the Steelers for making the necessary halftime adjustments, but the bottom line is that Anderson's throws in the second half were terrible. The short-pass touch he had worked so hard to master since becoming the starting QB two months ago was completely gone, replaced by the adrenaline-intoxicated version of Anderson who forces passes into triple coverage and throws toe-high lawn darts at his receivers.
All in all, Anderson reminded me of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona in the ALCS. All three were inexperienced youngsters who suddenly found themselves on the big stage, and tossed their proverbial cookies when the spotlight was the brightest.
2. Jamal Lewis played like the guy the Ravens thought they were tossing aside last spring.
Thirty-five yards on 16 carries, two fumbles, one lost. An afternoon spent chugging futily for one and two-yard gains against the brunt of the Pittsburgh defense.
If anyone knows about playing the Steelers, it's Jamal Lewis. Like Trot Nixon coming up with a clutch hit during a playoff game at Fenway Park, Lewis might be past his prime, but should still have the knowhow to make things happen against an opponent with which he is all-too-familiar.
Instead, the Steelers seemed to read Lewis like a book. By the second half, the running back who helped energize the Browns during their come-from-behind win against the Seahawks the week previous looked like he was on retirement's doorstep. Lewis lacked any explosiveness as he hit the line, and his north-south, pile-driver rushing style looked to be taking a toll on both his arms and legs.
Pittsburgh's plan to stop Lewis seemed to consist of boxing him in and letting him tire himself out by forcing him to keep his legs moving. It worked way too well, and now we all get to concern ourselves with the possibility that Lewis is going to end the year with an exhausted thud.
3. Todd Grantham might be coaching his way out of job.
If you want to pin the Browns' defensive woes this season on a lack of speed and talent on the defensive line, you need to take a step back and view the bigger picture.
The Browns actually had a pass rush Sunday. The defensive front neutralized the often-celebrated Steeler offensive line, reached the backfield regularly and paved the way for four sacks of Roethlisberger. That's right, four sacks.
The problem was, if the suddenly-effective defensive line got into the backfield, it tended to leave a massive, crater-sized hole in the coverage, which led to Roethlisberger's Elway-esque scrambles to keep drives alive.
Usually, the huge soft spots occurred because defensive coordinator Grantham eschewed any form of blitzing in favor of deep coverages (the so-called "prevent defense") in the second half.
I hate the prevent defense. Let's get that out of the way up front. You force mistakes at the front end of the play by harassing the quarterback, not by choking off the receivers at the back end. Even though at least one sack of Roethlisberger could be attributed to good coverage, when you're facing a big, mobile QB like Roethlisberger, you always give him the option of scrambling when he sidesteps a minimal pass rush and finds no defenders in front of him for 20 yards.
It appeared that Grantham and Romeo Crennel seemed content to try and sit on a 21-9 halftime lead, which is a bad idea. You're not going to kill the clock for 30 minutes. In the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh caught on and began running no-huddle sets aimed at keeping the Browns' linebackers and secondary huffing and puffing around their coverage zones. For some reason, constant backpedaling seems to take more out of a defense than trying to blast into the backfield.
All in all, it reeked of the 2002 playoff loss in Pittsburgh, when Butch Davis called off the Dawgs after halftime, resulting in a similar collapse.
4. Run that by me again ... you burned a timeout to figure out whether or not you should burn a timeout?
Romeo Crennel has done a lot in a short time to douse any brush fires concerning his job security. About the only thing that would kick the flames back up would be a massive tank job over a stretch run that features a squishy schedule. Unless Crennel figures out a way to take the Browns from 5-4 to 6-10, there should be no doubt he will be this team's coach in 2008.
But that doesn't mean there aren't still some serious questions about the way he handles game-day activities from the sideline. They're the kind of issues that don't matter so much when your team is below .500 and developing players is the priority. But when you're contending for a playoff spot, they're the kind of issues that can decide the fate of a season.
Chief among the knocks on Crennel is his ability to make sure everybody on the field and in the booth are on the same page.
In the first half, an obviously-agitated Crennel almost failed to throw the red challenge flag on the field before the Browns lined up for a field goal attempt. The subsequent review that almost never was reversed a call and gave a touchdown to Braylon Edwards. The nearly-fatal delay in throwing the flag suggested either a case of indecision or a clogged communication pipeline existed between Crennel and the people he consults on such matters.
That sequence foreshadowed what would happen in the fourth quarter, when Roethlisberger found tight end Heath Miller in the end zone for what would prove to be the winning touchdown.
Maybe it was an act of desperation brought about by watching the game slip away, but according to The Plain Dealer, Crennel conferred with personnel director T.J. McCreight, who advises the coach on whether to challenge plays. After talking it over, the two decided that Miller's bobble of the ball as he hit the ground was significant enough to warrant risking a timeout to challenge the on-field ruling of a touchdown.
The trouble is, someone (unknown to Crennel according to his postgame comments) had already called a timeout, during which Crennel and McCreight discussed whether to put another timeout on the line with a challenge.
Video replays of Miller's catch didn't show a clean, bear-trap grab. Miller did bobble the ball a bit, but maintained control. The replay rule is supposed to give teams an opportunity to challenge calls where there is irrefutable evidence that the officials made a mistake, as in the Edwards touchdown pass, when replays clearly showed Edwards' toes dragging in the end zone grass as he fell out of bounds.
If there isn't irrefutable evidence, you aren't supposed to challenge the call. That's why teams lose a timeout for an overruled challenge. In the case of Miller's catch, with an absence of definite proof that he lost control of the ball on the way down, and with a timeout already having been spent moments before, the wise move would have been to regroup and concentrate on putting together a last-ditch drive to tie or win the game, which is what it came down to anyway.
Instead, Crennel and McCreight used the challenge as the coaching equivalent of a Hail Mary pass, a desperate shot-in-the-dark that helped complicate matters in a game that was already slipping away.
If there is any air of desperation to be had, it's the fact that Crennel desperately needs to sand and polish his approach to in-game management, and weed out any people who might be giving him bad advice.
These situations will present themselves again, particularly if the Browns find themselves playing meaningful games in December and January. If game mismanagement costs the Browns a shot at the playoffs -- or worse yet, a playoff game -- that might be the quickest route back to the coordinator ranks for a coach who has worked way too long and way too hard to blow this opportunity.