CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Browns opened their season at home against the New York Jets on Sunday, and through most of the game, things looked promising—until a total meltdown in the last two minutes. It was an ending no one could have predicted, even in Cleveland.
First, it's important to preface what went right on Sunday. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett came out hot, firing on all cylinders. The Browns saw Brissett spreading the ball around, getting tight ends David Njoku and Harrison Bryant involved in the pass game early and making a connection with wide receiver Amari Cooper. That in turn helped the Browns continue their dominant run game.
"We just kept at it, we didn't go away from it. Jacoby started off the game real hot, Amari was making a lot of plays for us in the passing game, that kind of opens up the running game for you," said guard Joel Bitonio.
The Browns leaned into that with Nick Chubb rushing for 87 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries with 26 receiving yards to boot. Kareem Hunt notched 58 rushing yards as well. Meanwhile, Cooper broke the 100-yard receiving mark and scored a touchdown.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski put together a good offensive game plan with offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, and like in Week 1, saw receivers getting open all over the field—this time with Brissett able to connect with them often.
With the offense looking comfortable together, the Browns put up 30 points and looked good doing it most of the day.
But that's about all that went right for the Browns Sunday.
"We didn't finish. As a team, we didn't finish. Whole lot of things went wrong. We've got to find a way to win the game at the end of the day, no matter how you get it done. Just didn't go our way," said linebacker Anthony Walker Jr.
Even before the catastrophic meltdown, the Browns secondary struggled. The defense—save for Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney before the injury, the rotation within the interior defensive line, and Walker and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who both had solid games—was the weak point Sunday.
The miscommunication issues and blown coverages of Week 1, which occurred on a much smaller scale against the Panthers, carried in and escalated against the Jets. Rookie wide receiver Garrett Wilson carved up the defensive backs, garnering 102 receiving yards with two touchdowns, while wide receiver Corey Davis brought in 83 yards and a touchdown himself.
'We've got to hold each other accountable. That's two weeks in a row and that's not acceptable. That's not the brand of football we play. That's not what we talk about being the best defense in the NFL. We've got to be better," said cornerback Greg Newsome II. "I think it's surprised us. I feel like we had a great camp, I feel like in practice we communicate. But obviously we need to over-communicate now and we'll find a way to fix those things."
The miscommunication, according to safety John Johnson III, isn't something that is for lack of effort. He said the defense is communicating, but they need to take it to another level because the execution just hasn't been there many times.
"That’s the thing I’m going to keep harping on – sending and receiving. Guys are out there talking. It’s not like we aren’t communicating but we have to receive and we have to make sure we see it, like ‘I got you,'" Johnson said. "Say it back...lock eyes. It’s that extra step to make sure stuff like that doesn’t happen again.”
Unfortunately, the communication issues were the main part of the meltdown Sunday. With a 13-point lead and less than two minutes to play—1:55 to be exact—the defense fell apart. In just two plays, the Jets were in the end zone, getting there on a 66-yard bomb from Flacco to Davis. It appeared that Denzel Ward or Grant Delpit mistook their coverage responsibilities on the play, which left Davis wide open to catch the ball along the sidelines and trot into the end zone easily.
"When we do not do our job as one person, it is a reflection of the entire defense. We just all have to be on the same page and really just all understand the moment of the game, having awareness of what is going on in the game," Stefanski said of the play, making sure not to point fingers at any one player.
Special teams travesties
Still, that made it a six-point game with just 60 seconds left on the clock. The Browns should have gotten the ball after the kick and called it a day. Unfortunately, the special teams unit joined in on the meltdown.
The Jets needed the ball back to score, and the only way to ensure that was to attempt an onside kick. It was something the Browns knew was coming but couldn't prevent.
Jets kickoff specialist Braden Mann had a solid onside kick, but it went right to Cooper along the sidelines. It seemed as if he made a dive on the ball, the game would be over and the Browns would have been able to come out on top. But he didn't fall on the ball, encroaching on it slowly as the Jets dove to get possession.
"I think we all know there are more plays in the game than the onside kick," Brissett said.
Cooper knows how tough the game overall was, and while the kick coverage was one of the pain points in the meltdown, it's another thing to learn from.
"I mean shoot, it's tough. Especially when it's a game like this, a game you should have one, a game you had in the bag," Cooper admitted. "But we just have to go back to the drawing board and try to practice well so we can go out the next time we play and play a 60-minute game."
The onside kick was one of the later issues that saw the Browns spiral, but not the only special teams problem that arose Sunday. A missed extra point from rookie Cade York, who has been automatic through camp, preseason and his first NFL regular season game—even winning the game last week on a 58-yarder.
While the missed PAT came at the start of the meltdown and certainly should not have been the reason the Browns lost with a 13-point lead, it's something the rookie is holding himself accountable for but didn't see coming at the time.
"I don't know what happened, I'll have to go back and look at it. Thought I hit it well, it just didn't go in," York said. "I was upset that I missed, but again, I though I hit it well off the foot. I really don't know why it took off right on me. Definitely wasn't in the thought but...just can't get ahead of yourself in the NFL. Games are so close, got to make everything you can."
The rookie was bound to miss an extra point or field goal, and will certainly miss more in his career, but his teammates are confident the weight of this miss with the way the rest of the game played out won't be too much for York.
"I think it's a learning moment for him. I think you make a game-winner one week, you miss a PAT the next week. It's just kind of part of the NFL. It's about how consistent you'll be from a week-to-week basis, and I think he'll grow from it and be ready to kick on Thursday," Bitonio said.
Final drive falls flat
York wasn't happy with the missed PAT, but he did think he was going to have his chance for redemption after the Jets took the 31-30 lead after scoring a touchdown on a nine-play drive spanning 53-yards after getting the onside kick with a minute left.
The Browns received the ball back down one with 22 seconds on the clock and one timeout. Brissett came out on the drive with a big play, scrambling and rushing for a gain of 21-yards to get them just shy of the 50-yard line.
York has hit more than 60 yard field goals in warmups and his 58-yarder last week looked good from nearly 70. The field position wasn't ideal but it was something York's leg had the distance for, and with a timeout it seemed like they could get a little closer for him to give it a go.
Unfortunately, Brissett threw a pick straight into the arms of Jets safety Ashtyn Davis, sealing the fate of the Browns and concluding the utter meltdown that was the final two minutes of the game.
As the Browns walked off the field, they were showered with boos from the fans, who were shocked and infuriated having watched the meltdown helplessly from the stands.
While the game didn't go the way they intended, Garrett for one hopes that the fans don't give up on them just yet.
"The more disappointing thing was the booing at the end. It was not the most optimal ending that we’d want. Of course we’d want to win. Of course we wanted to play out the game and it end 30-16 or 30-17 or whatever it was, we get a pick or a strip sack and end the game. But that's not always how it goes. These guys are still putting their a**** on the line and playing as hard as they can, and they should be respected as such," Garrett said. "It’s two games and we have plenty more games to play, especially this next one coming up with the home crowd. We have a lot of time to correct what we're doing, so we don't want to see this crowd, this stadium give up on us this early. We want to see them completely behind us."
The Browns are holding themselves accountable as a whole for the meltdown, refusing to put the blame on anyone person—and for good reason since it was more than one failure that led to the stunning upset.
“We win as a team; we lose as a team. We lost. We got beat. Did not play a 60-minute game. It's really frustrating – frustrating to me, to our players in the locker room and I'm sure to our fans. It's not how we play," Stefanski said. "We have to finish and do the things that allow you to win games, and we didn’t do that. Everybody's going to want to point fingers and say, ‘Whose fault was this?’ Put it on everybody. It's all of us, me, coaches and players. It's everybody."
But even though the loss stings—maybe more than most considering NFL teams had won the last 2,229 consecutive games when leading by at least 13 points in the final two minutes, according to ESPN Stats & Info—the message moving forward this week as the Browns prepare for a short turnaround and divisional matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night is one of positivity.
"It's the second game of the season. We have 15 now because it's a 17-game season. We have a ways to go. We have a lot of leaders in that room. We have a lot of good players in that room and a lot of good teammates. I understand that me being one of the ‘older guys’ – I'm still young but one of the older guys – not to bump our people with words and let guys figure things out," Brissett said. "I think we have the right guys, the right men in that room to do that. I think they will. The sun is going to come up tomorrow. I think the guys understand that, and we have to get ready to go on a short week.”
Camryn Justice is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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