Second Thoughts: Browns Real Season Begins With First Division Game Against Pittsburgh

Kevin Stefanski's defense had communications problems, and so did he. (Cleveland Browns)

Kevin Stefanski's defense had communications problems, and so did he. (Cleveland Browns)

Second thoughts: Browns real season begins with first division game against Pittsburgh

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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for and 850 ESPN Cleveland. He has covered the Browns since 1984.

Second thoughts on Browns’ 31-30 loss to the New York Jets …

1. The Browns have won a game they should have lost and lost a game they should have won. At 1-1, they’re no worse than Pittsburgh and Baltimore and a game up on Cincinnati. Guess what? The season truly begins Thursday night with the first AFC North game against the Steelers. As usual, the direct path to the playoffs is WINNING THE DIVISION. Their rivals always have grasped that fact. Over the past 10 seasons, the team that won at least four division games (out of six) has claimed the division title nine times. Two times in that period, a second team went 4-2 in division games and sneaked in as an AFC wild card. The Browns have never won four division games in a season in their expansion era. Each time they fell short and went 3-3, it cost them the division title. In 2007, they lost a key game to Cincinnati in Game 15 and finished 10-6 overall, tied for first with Pittsburgh, but they lost the tie-breaker by losing both games to the Steelers (5-1 in the division). In 2020, a 3-3 record cost them first place to the Steelers (4-2), though the Browns won the wild-card meeting in Pittsburgh. In 2021, going 3-3 with two losses to the Steelers cost them from making Game 17 against the Bengals effectively a division title game. As it was, the Bengals already had it wrapped up and took a loss when they chose to rest the majority of important starters. The AFC is so competitive this year, the Browns should not count on wild-card tie-breakers to dictate their post-season fate. The Bengals won the division last year with a 10-7 record because they were 4-2 in the division. I can see the winner of the AFC North going 9-8 overall this year – as long as it wins at least four games in the division. The moral of this story: Win the division. Nothing else matters. The season starts Thursday night.

2. Once again, the Browns are the recipient of fortuitous scheduling. Pittsburgh, at home, on a short week is the perfect remedy to shake the Browns, and their fans, from that 31-30 nightmare. If the Browns defeat the Steelers, they will be 1-0 in my season-in-a-season scenario and the loss to the Jets will fade from the rear-view mirror. The loss to the Jets, being an AFC game, hurts in overall record and in potential wild-card tie-breakers. It has less bearing on the division race. Win the division.

3. Communication problems have undermined the high talent level of the Browns’ secondary. Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome, Grant Delpit, and John Johnson are quality players. There is a systemic problem with the defensive calls made in the two egregious breakdowns the last two games – the 75-yard TD to Robbie Anderson in Carolina and the 66-yard TD to Corey Davis against the Jets. Delpit, who appeared to play the wrong coverage on the Davis TD, said, “It was a two-call play, and [we] had a formation we play either one when we get the call. So, communication error.” My problem is this: Why give the safeties the option of two plays based on the formation or the route of the receiver? The safeties have to keep the play in front of them. There should be no other option for the safeties than to play deep. The Jets had no timeouts. A 20-yard reception in the middle of the field does not lose the game, as long as the receiver is tackled in the field of play. Why not position two safeties deep – even one safety real deep, the Gregg Williams “angel” formation – would be better than what they’ve tried to do. I asked Kevin Stefanski about just playing the safeties deep – at least until they get their communication breakdowns ironed out. He answered, “I think there are definitely solutions to that problem. We have talked about it as a staff. We will put our guys in position to not let that happen again.”

4. Stefanski had his own communication problems in the game that resulted, once again, in poor clock management in a crucial situation. The Browns’ offense took over at the Jets’ 42-yard line after a punt and roughness call on the Jets. There was 2:30 to play and the Browns were up, 24-17. I mean, what more do you want? The situation calls for possessing the ball and grinding the clock. Scoring a touchdown there is not necessarily the top priority. The Browns correctly handed off on first and second down to Kareem Hunt, causing the Jets to burn their first two timeouts. After a safe screen pass to Hunt netted the important first down, another handoff to Hunt caused the Jets to burn their final timeout with the Browns at the Jets’ 24. Now, this is where the Browns blew it. On second down, the Browns called a counter run to the left side. Hunt cleared the left edge and turned up the sideline for a 12-yard gain to the 12. But he failed to stay in bounds and the clock stopped at 2:02. Stefanski should have been calling plays in the middle of the field. Again, the Jets were out of timeouts. Stefanski also should have instructed his players to stay in bounds. Then on first down from the 12, Nick Chubb bounced a run to the left sideline – again, the left sideline! – and cut into the end zone. You can’t blame Chubb for scoring. Nobody told him the right thing would be to fall down and let the clock run down. That’s on Stefanski. “That is something that is my responsibility to communicate to that huddle,” he said on Monday. “[But] putting yourself up potentially 14 points inside of two minutes, you should close out that game. Yes, I wish I had said that to Nick and Nick would have done it, but it does not change the fact that we had plenty of opportunities to win that game.” Stefanski pointed out, “That is what we have done in the past, yes.” He was referring to the game in 2020 against the Houston Texans in which Chubb stepped out of bounds 1 yard shy of the end zone, so that the Browns could take two kneel-downs and preserve a 10-7 win without any further histrionics. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett could have relayed the message in the huddle, but Stefanski failed to communicate it to Brissett via the helmet device. “No, I did not,” Stefanski said. “I absolutely could have told him in that situation.” This was a big error that the Jets immediately noticed from their sideline. Game management remains poor on the Browns’ sideline.

5. After the Jets took a 31-30 lead, they almost gave the Browns a chance to pull out victory from the throes of defeat. The Jets kicked a touchback, giving Brissett the ball at the 25 with 22 seconds left. On first down, Brissett scrambled 21 yards to the left sideline, stopping the clock with 12 seconds left. The Browns had a timeout left to set up another long game-winning field goal try for Cade York. If they followed their “get me to the 40” directive from the previous week, Brissett needed only a 14-yard gain to set up a 58-yard field goal. A few yards less than that would have made for a longer try, of course. But the key was getting one last try. After all, York has shown the distance to make from 65+ yards. A little screen pass, which was effective all day, could have netted 10 yards. Brissett, however, threw for Amari Cooper 20 yards downfield, and the pass was intercepted at the Jets’ 35. Wasn’t that too deep of a pass attempt in that situation? “No, I do not think so,” Stefanski said. “It was into the Dawg Pound [end zone]. I do not think it is safe to just always get to the 40 with your kicker. I think we are trying to get as close as we can to kick a shorter field goal.” This was a total contradiction to what was said the week before. Yes, the Dawg Pound end zone can be problematic, but the weather was ideal – sunny, 80 degrees and negligible wind.

6. Ironman of the game: For the second game in a row, Delpit played 100 percent of the defensive snaps, 70 in all. Johnson did the same. On offense, tight end David Njoku played 63 of 67 snaps (94 percent) and had three catches on five targets – with one drop -- for 32 yards.

7. Second guess: I couldn’t figure out what special teams coach Mike Priefer was doing on kickoffs. Jets return specialist Braxton Berrios led the NFL in kickoff return average last season. The Browns had six kickoffs. Three times Priefer called for York to boot the ball out of the end zone for touchbacks. The other times, York was instructed to kick short. The first one was fielded by Berrios at the 9, and he returned it to the 31. The second one was fielded at the 4 and returned to the 30. The last one was fielded at the 4 and returned to the 32. Now, none of the returns resulted in Jets points. Jadeveon Clowney’s strip and recovery inside the Browns’ red zone saved one score, for sure. Why give Berrios the chance to break one?