Banged-up Browns defense fails to do 'multitude of things' in failing to stop Justin Herbert, Chargers
While Justin Herbert is a fine young quarterback, the hype was enough to make Browns fans' heads hurt.
Could Cleveland's defense smash some perspective into the picture?
The answer became an excruciating no after Herbert threw for a career-best 398 yards, exploited Browns injuries, and turned a two-touchdown deficit into a 47-42 Chargers win.
"Not a great showing by the defense," Myles Garrett said.
Chargers head coach Brandon Staley threw old school in the ocean, routinely going for it on fourth down. Is this where the modern game of football is headed?
"The defensive coach in me would say I hope not," head coach Kevin Stefanski said. "We've got to find ways to get stops."
The Browns didn't blame the outcome on a few of controversial calls, although Baker Mayfield alluded to this when he said, "We left the game in the hands of somebody else."
Also, safety John Johnson mentioned a late pass interference call that resulted in a huge fourth-down conversion.
"I got on the phone, and one of my buddies said, 'You're going to throw up on that call,'" Johnson said.
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CBS anaylst Boomer Esiason, a former NFL MVP, hopped on the Herbert bandwagon pregame while flinging a dismissive thought at Mayfield: "The Browns need to give some help to their young quarterback."
Pivoting to Herbert, Esiason said, "He's a MAN. It's unbelievable how he moves within the pocket."
A year ago at this time, Herbert was in 2-9 slump. He and his team emerged from that quite nicely, entering Sunday's game on a 7-1 hit streak across two seasons.
Herbert made the recent segment seem like the real him, leading Los Angeles to four fourth-quarter touchdowns.
"He got the ball out of his hand," Stefanski said. "He made plays with his feet. He was outstanding on fourth downs."
Stefanski said "a multitude of things" allowed the Chargers to keep scoring.
"I hate to mention injuries because they're part of game, but they were into our depth," he said.
Cleveland's defense attacked an offensive line whose two best players are center Corey Linsley, a 30-year-old ex-Ohio State Buckeye, and rookie left tackle Rashawn Slater. The left guard is free agency pick-up Matt Feiler, a three-year Steelers starter.
The weak spots were stopgap right guard Oday Aboushi and at right tackle Storm Norton, who spent part of 2020 in the XFL.
Herbert made the group work. Mayfield, who finished the game with backups at right and left tackle, couldn't quite keep up with Herbert.
Takk McKinley started at left defensive end in place of injured Jadeveon Clowney for the Browns and their pass rush affected Herbert on his first two throws.
Garrett set the tone with an inside spin move that worried Herbert into a hurried incompletion. The Chargers went three and out, enabling the Browns to drive to a 3-0 lead.
Herbert started scrambling. He never stopped. Things got chaotic for the defense at times.
"It's hard to explain (some of) those plays," Johnson said. "They are plays we make in our sleep. We've got to go to the tape and see where we went wrong."
Blown coverages change games.
"It's tough to get there (as a pass rusher) when the quarterback spots someone and no one is on him," Garrett said.
The biggest early down was a third-and-8 at the Cleveland 30. An illegal contact on Troy Hill kept the Chargers in business.
L.A. offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi mixed runs and screens with quick passes. With Clowney out, Herbert became more dangerous as a runner.
On a third-and-10, Lombardi drew up a beauty. Mike Williams ran a post against cornerback Greedy Williams. Grant Delpit broke toward the wrong receiver. Mike Williams beat Greedy Williams by a lot and scored on a 72-yard play.
A key note on the play: Herbert wasn't bothered by a rush.
The next time he had the ball, he was.
On third-and-10 from the Chargers 17, Garrett and defensive tackle Malik McDowell made a looping cross. It drew attention to Garrett on the inside and led to an outside rush by McDowell.
CBS' Kevin Harlan drew a belly laugh throughout Northeast Ohio when he exclaimed, "Oooh, that's a big load" as McDowell squashed his 325 pounds onto Herbert.
The Browns drove for a touchdown and 17-13 lead in the final minute of the half.
Perhaps the McDowell sack was in the Chargers' heads. An offensive holding flag came out on first down. It didn't matter. Greedy Williams' hit caused Austin Ekeler to fumble. McDowell recovered. The big man carried the ball to the bench as if he was going to keep going all the way to the Nevada state line.
The play set up a field goal and a 20-13 halftime lead, which swelled to 27-13 when Nick Chubb opened the second half by running 52 yards for a score.
The defense got the Chargers in a fourth-and-2 at inside their own 30 when Staley opted to go for it. Perhaps Stefanski should have gotten a timeout. A run up the middle was wide open for a first down.
Or maybe Stefanski should have called a timeout on fourth-and-7 near the red zone.
The closest Stefanski came to the topic was to say, "There were certain things where I was really disappointed with what I did in the game. I've got to come through."
The rush was light. Keenan Allen was open for a catch that made it first-and-goal.
Or maybe the Browns were just going to scramble with a patchwork secondary on the field, after Denzel Ward left early with a neck issue.
Herbert scrambled for an easy touchdown. After a 2-point conversion closed it to 27-21 and the offense stalled, the defense needed a play. Garrett delivered a sack.
Herbert didn't stay down for long.
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