Kevin Stefanski believes this 23-20 loss is on him, and he's right. (Associated Press)
Browns give away another game, but Kevin Stefanski says results won’t change the team’s decision process
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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland. He has covered the Browns since 1984.
Another blown opportunity by the Browns caused their coach to say this after a 23-20 loss to the Atlanta Falcons:
“I need to own a large part of that.”
Indeed he does.
Kevin Stefanski and his staff diagram wonderful, beautiful plays. But when the time comes for old-school football to take over, they keep letting analytics get in the way of sound football judgement.
Stefanski eschewed a short field goal on the Browns’ first series and came up with zero points. And that was the beginning of another adventure in how to lose a game to a team that didn’t deserve to win.
The Browns held Marcus Mariota to seven completions in 19 attempts. They held Cordarrelle Patterson, the league’s No. 3 rusher at the start of the day, to 38 yards on nine carries. They held the twin towers of Kyle Pitts and Drake London to three catches on 11 targets, one of which was intercepted by Denzel Ward.
In the end, the Browns’ defense was scorched by the likes of unknown backs Tyler Allgeier (84 yards on 10 attempts) and practice squadder Caleb Huntley (56 yards and one TD on 10 attempts), and receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, who became the latest beneficiary of blown Browns coverage. Zaccheaus made a catch for 42 yards to set up Atlanta’s winning field goal with 2:28 to go.
Like his finish in the other Browns’ loss against the Jets, Jacoby Brissett moved the Browns close to field-goal range – all the way to the Falcons’ 41 – but the game ended on a Browns penalty, a sack and an interception.
But everything started with that first decision to run a play on fourth-and-3 from the Falcons’ 4 instead of taking the easy three points.
The previous play, Nick Chubb was stuffed for a 2-yard loss. On fourth down from the 4, Brissett drifted to his right, failed to release the ball to anyone open, and then had a brain cramp. He threw the ball out of the end zone, as if he had another down.
“I felt comfortable with the play call,” Stefanski said of his decision. “Trying to get seven points down there as opposed to three. I understand the question, but felt good about the play. We wanted to score seven from the red zone. We tried to run it on third down and got knocked back. Just didn’t come away with it. That falls squarely on me.”
So did other annoying decisions.
On the Browns’ second series, a convoluted flea-flicker screen pass to David Njoku resulted in a lost fumble. Stefanski pointed out the play gained 20 yards before the fumble. Still, that kind of play has a lot of things that can go wrong, and that was one of them.
On their fourth series, the Browns had first-and-goal from the Atlanta 1 and couldn’t punch it in because they threw three times in a row.
Chubb led a 177-yard ground game with 118 yards and a touchdown run of 28 yards. Brissett had 4-yard touchdown run. Yet the Browns threw the ball five times from the 11-yard line or less and completed one.
“A lot of things you wish you could take back, but woulda coulda shoulda. We’re a 2-2 football team,” Stefanski said.
“It’s very frustrating. These guys put so much into these games and give you so much during the week. The losses are very, very disappointing and frustrating. We just got to learn from it.”
Does that mean Stefanski has learned to kick the field goal inside the red zone, at least on the road?
“I think I’m always trying to do what’s best for the team,” he answered. “There’s always opportunities to grow and get better as a coach, as a player. But I’m not going to be results-based. I’m going to always fall back on our process and try to put us in position to succeed.”
As you may expect, the offensive players applauded Stefanski’s “trust” in them to gamble on fourth down.
“For sure,” said Brissett, who had a 101.9 first-half passer rating disintegrate to 68.0 by the end of the day.
“[Joshua] Dobbs was saying hindsight is 20-20. Obviously, we’re behind an aggressive play. That’s us, and we live with the results and go on to the next play. We respect Kev for giving us that trust. They trust us to go for it, hey, we have to convert, and we will.”
Receiver Amari Cooper, who had a quiet day (1 for 4 targets, for 9 yards), also backed his coach.
“I will say this. You don’t really win games with field goals, from the time I’ve been in the league,” he said. “You would much rather have seven down there. That’s why teams are trying to score as much as they can. Offensively, in general, most offenses struggle in the red zone. The few teams that don’t struggle are going to beat you. We just got to do better.”
Defensively, the Browns didn’t feel the absence of ends Myles Garrett and Jadevon Clowney that much, until the defense was mashed for 75 yards on the ground on 10 consecutive carries – eight by Huntley, who scored the TD from five yards.
That score started a tug-of-war in which the scored changed from 17-13 to 20-17 and then to 20-20.
The winning drive by Atlanta started when Brissett threw just out of the reach of tight end Harrison Bryant on third-and-6 from the Falcons’ 44. After an excellent Corey Bojorquez punt downed at the Falcons 9, the defensive breakdown on Zaccheaus for 42 yards was compounded by a 15-yard face-mask penalty on Ward.
“We were in cover three, and once I got my eyes on it, I just see the ball coming towards me and was trying to get it down,” Ward said. “I was trying to go for the ball and I ended up getting my hands too high and got the face mask.”
So the Browns drop to 2-2. This loss to an NFC foe wasn't catastrophic. The AFC North is a turtle race. The Browns are still on top at 2-2, thanks to their 1-0 record within the division.
Now they embark on the meat of their schedule, beginning Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers in FirstEnergy Stadium.
“For us to look at the remainder of the schedule and say this, that and the third, that’s just not who we are, and we won’t do that,” Brissett said. “We just gotta go learn from this one and then get ready for next week.”
And take the points, whenever you can.