A crucial, must-win game. Against a hated rival. A rival who happens to be fielding a starting offense full of backups.
It’s the kind of situation most teams in the NFL know how to take advantage of. It’s also the type of situation these Cleveland Browns have become known for blowing.
With that in mind, what we saw in their loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers today isn’t that shocking. However, it doesn’t make it any less frustrating.
The Browns, desperately needing a victory to save their season, instead spent the entire day showing the same lack of focus they’ve displayed all season long. A lack of focus which, frankly, has become a calling card of coach Freddie Kitchens.
For a minute there, it did seem as though Kitchens’ rocky rookie season was starting to calm down.
The Browns had rallied off three straight wins, suddenly finding themselves in the hunt for a playoff berth. The victories weren’t always pretty, but it was much-needed progress after watching Kitchens struggle mightily during the first half of the year, continually keeping his team stuck in the mud.
Said streak also created extra incentive for today’s rematch against Pittsburgh. Win, and Cleveland keeps its playoff hopes alive. Lose, and essentially commence mock draft season.
The Browns took the latter route, in part because their coach is still has no idea how to keep them focused on what matters most.
Cleveland lost to a Steelers team starting undrafted Devlin Hodges at quarterback. Hodges took the field without his top running back (James Conner) and wideout (JuJu Smith-Schuster), yet still proceeded to effectively end the Browns’ season.
Of course, you can’t give all the credit to Hodges in this one. Pittsburgh was also able to come out on top because, once again, the Browns took the field assuming minimal effort was required.
In Week 13, this Cleveland team is still playing under the assumption wins occur on paper. The Browns still believe an early lead – 10-0 in this instance – is enough of a cushion to merit easing off the gas. As a result, they found themselves reeling and caught off guard when the Steelers suddenly scored 20 unanswered points.
Browns went up 10-0 and acted like the game was over. now they're getting out-schemed and outmuscled and it feels like a direct reflection of coaching
— Jordan Zirm (@clevezirm) December 1, 2019
It’s the same thing we saw from Cleveland when they lost to the Denver Broncos and the Tennessee Titans. The team assumes it has the upper hand before coin toss, and only gives on-field effort in spurts.
That it happened once is inexcusable. However, that it’s still occurring, and occurring in a must-win game this late in the year, is a sign Kitchens just doesn’t know how to keep his team focused.
The Browns have been humbled enough this year. Their 30-point loss to the Titans, losing to a Denver team led by the unknown Brandon Allen, this should’ve been all the proof these players needed to realize they have to give 100% every single game.
Yet, here we are, asking why the Browns phoned it in after taking a two-score lead in the second quarter of a game with this much importance.
Here we are asking why Cleveland doesn’t seem prepared when opponents make in-game adjustments.
Here we are watching the Browns’ secondary get diced by a third string QB, in part because one of the players was benched after seeing no issue in skipping practice earlier this week.
— Jake Burns (@jake_burns18) December 1, 2019
This has now become an unsettling habit for Kitchens. He’s failed, miserably at times, to ensure the Browns avoid playing as if their talent alone is enough to win games. He’s been unable to keep their attention on the task at hand, instead watching as they get caught up in unnecessary distractions.
These are all things Kitchens acknowledged during training camp, insisting his team was going to be able to ignore the outside noise this year.
Five months later, the Browns still have no idea how do to that. Instead of fixing their inability to ignore distractions, Kitchens instead decided to be the one to create the latest round.
The Browns didn’t lose today because of a t-shirt today (duh), but that Freddie wore it in public in first place epitomizes what’s been wrong with this team all season, in more ways than one.
— Ben Axelrod (@BenAxelrod) December 1, 2019
There were plenty of other warts displayed by Cleveland’s coach in today’s loss, warts we’ve seen all season long. Odell Beckham Jr. was ignored again, while Kitchens essentially ditched the ground game in the second half despite never trailing by more than ten.
However, it’s the blatant failure to keep his team disciplined and focused which was the most glaring. It’s been apparent all year, and today, it essentially brought a season full of hype and hope crashing to the floor.