The Browns’ flirtation with being a second half team probably ended last week in St. Louis, but the Arizona Cardinals hammered the nails into it with 24 unanswered second half points to dismiss the Browns 34-20 on Sunday.
In the last two games, the Browns have managed just 3 total second half points after scoring the majority of their points in the second halves of their first five games. On Sunday, The Cardinals erased a 10 point halftime deficit and made Cleveland fans forget Josh McCown’s 3 first half touchdown passes and the Cardinals’ 3 first half turnovers by the end of the third quarter. Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer torched the beleaguered and banged-up Browns’ secondary for 374 yards and 4 touchdowns on the day, 3 of which came in the second half. Chris Johnson became just the latest running back to eclipse the 100 yard mark against Coach Pettine’s 32nd ranked run defense. The Cardinals converted 13 of 16 third downs on the day on their way to 491 total yards.
Browns running backs rushed only 14 times for a meager 20 yards. Duke Johnson was the only one to average more than 1.5 yards per carry and he rushed only once, though he was the team’s leading receiver on the day. Tight End Gary Barnidge caught 7 passes for 53 yards and a touchdown, his 6th of the season so far, to continue his breakout season. Wide receiver Brian Hartline caught his first 2 touchdowns in a Browns uniform. The Browns turned the ball over twice in the second half on a McCown interception and a mishandled exchange between McCown and Halfback Robert Turbin.
With the Browns ahead 20-7 and 1:21 remaining in the first half, the Browns faced 3rd and 5 from their own 13 yard line. Needing only to get one first down to go into halftime with the lead intact, Coach Pettine opted to keep the ball on the ground, which was predictably stuffed. The Browns punted and the Cardinals took advantage, moving the ball 31 yards in 24 seconds to set up a final play field goal that cut the lead to 20-10.
The turnaround was particularly demoralizing after the Browns had seemingly avoided giving up points just before halftime when the prior Cardinals’ drive ended with their third turnover of the half at the Browns’ 8.
Other key plays:
– On 2nd and 9 from the Arizona 27 yard line and the Browns trailing 24-20, McCown’s pass to the end zone was intercepted by Safety Rashad Johnson. Just two plays prior to that, Chris Johnson fumbled the ball away to the Browns at the Cardinals 28, appearing to keep Cleveland’s upset hopes alive.
– On 1st and 10 from the Arizona 40 on the Cardinals first possession after halftime, Palmer threw a 60 yard bomb to WR Michael Floyd to cut the Browns lead at the time to 3.
Keys to the Defeat:
– Pettine. Along with the ill-fated decision to try to kill the clock and sit on the lead before haltime, Pettine squandered a timeout with an ill-advised challenge in the first half. In the second half, he did not pull McCown, even when it was obvious the battered quarterback’s injuries were contributing to the team’s collapse.
Additionally, for a defensive-minded coach, the defense of this team is ineffective to put it kindly. The team has been last against the run since his arrival and, with the collapse of the secondary this season, the pass defense has not fared much better. Combined, this leads to a team that gives up near 500 yards a game with frightening regularity.
– No Running Game. The only NFL team that might win with its running backs gaining only 20 yards on the ground is the New England Patriots. Isaiah Crowell has gained 23 yards on 19 carries over the last two games. Perhaps it is time to reduce the platoon of running backs to just Duke Johnson and Robert Turbin. Johnson continues to be a weapon in the passing game and even though Turbin has been less than impressive, he has at least produced more than 1 yard per carry.
– McCown. Even though he has played well for the Browns, at 2-6, the team is not in contention for anything and it is obvious he was not at his best once he started to get battered by the Cardinals’ pass rush. Part of being a leader is knowing when you cannot play effectively and it was obvious that his injuries contributed to the Browns’ collapse in the second half.
The Browns travel to Cincinnati for a Thursday night matchup against the division leading Bengals, who eaked out a sloppy win over the Pittsburgh Steelers to extend their division lead to 3 1/2 games at the midpoint of the season. The Bengals have historically not performed well in primetime matchups, but it is difficult to envision this version of the Browns duplicating last year’s effort and winning on the bengals’ home field with only 3 days to prepare.