They had it.
For the entire first half and a majority of the third quarter, the Cleveland Browns were staring opportunity in the face. A second-straight primetime win, this time against the reigning NFC champion Rams, and a boost to 2–1 was in their hands. They were doing what they needed to do, putting forward a determined defensive effort and an offense that controlled the ball.
But then the shootout started. Sean McVay’s play designs got confusing. The pressure up front started mounting. And with 33 seconds left to tie the game, on a fourth-and-4 from the Rams' 4-yard line, the Browns did what they knew they couldn’t during their biggest test of the season thus far: They failed, falling to the still-perfect Rams on Sunday night, 20–13.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the loss, but none of it will be aimed toward the Browns’ defense. In what was the perfect chance to prove they were for real following their 23–3 primetime victory over the Jets in Week 2, the unit did its part, holding the Super Bowl runner-up Rams to just 149 yards and eight first downs in the first half. Todd Gurley, whose performances of late have resurfaced questions around his health, only managed 43 yards on 14 carries on the night.
The injuries the defense suffered coming into the night made the outing even more impressive. Yes, there were breakdowns in pass coverage. But they were hitting hard, prepared for the various formations used by the Rams. They were knocking the ball out and getting to Jared Goff, picking him off twice––all without five of their starters, including all four members of their usual starting secondary. It was enough to give Cleveland a 6–3 lead heading into the halftime locker room.
That’s when the jabs started––and when Cleveland’s offense, the real source of the team’s shortcomings, couldn’t keep up.
After Goff and the Rams capped a 10-play, 75-yard drive with a touchdown to start the third quarter, Baker Mayfield and the Browns responded with a 75-yard drive of their own to go up 13–10.
But while the Rams continued to run with pace and quick snaps to give Goff more opportunities, the Browns continued to look lost. The offensive line broke down. Mayfield (195 yards, one touchdown and one interception) couldn’t find any comfort, even in a clean pocket. The playcalling became inexplicable (a draw on fourth-and-9 from the Rams’ 40-yard line?!) and the creativity was lacking.
And even when the defense gave them another chance, intercepting Goff with a little over two minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Browns still couldn’t take advantage and capitalize on the opportunity. Mayfield, when faced with immediate pressure from an aggressive Rams front, retreated before launching a desperation heave in the endzone. The pass was intercepted. The comeback bid was over, and the Browns fell to 1–2.
It may start with Mayfield, who said as much after his pedestrian performance. It may be the offensive line, which has given up 11 sacks in three games so far this season. It may be Freddie Kitchens, whose game plans and play calls haven’t worked when they needed them most.
Whoever is to blame, the fact remains the same: Cleveland’s offense is in desperate need of some soul-searching––some effective, permanent changes––and it needs it quickly. The Browns have too much talent for them to remain unimaginative. Too much potential to continue to stumble.
Too much at stake to continue to fail.