'Just communicating': Browns secondary looking to fix what led to Carolina's big plays
BEREA − The little things can turn into really big things in a hurry if they're not corrected. Just like a couple of little things, especially in the back end of the defense, prevented the Browns from maintaining a comfortable margin in Sunday's opening win at Carolina.
Three plays may have been the difference between the Browns winning big and them needing a 58-yard Cade York field goal with eight seconds left to rally past the Panthers. The secondary, in particular, took those three plays to heart, both in the moment and in the time since.
"We just got into the meeting room now and just went over our assignment and where guys are supposed to be and communication and what we should have done," cornerback Denzel Ward said a day after the 26-24 win. "So that's what it's all about. Just getting in, correcting it and then once we get throughout the week for practice, going out there and fixing it on the field."
A look back at the Browns' win shows four specific big plays which opened the door for the Panthers to get back into the game. Each play led, either directly or indirectly, to the Panthers being able to turn a two-score game into a one-score one.
In all of them, there were just little breakdowns in fundamentals which turned what could've been small gains, or even losses, into game-changers. Those are the little things the Browns are zeroing in on as they prepare for Sunday's home opener against the New York Jets.
No deep help sets up Carolina's first touchdown
The first one came with three minutes left in the second quarter and the Browns ahead 14-0. On first down from their own 48, the Panthers ran a basic pop pass to a wide-open Ian Thomas that turned into a 50-yard gain to the Cleveland 2, setting up Carolina's first touchdown.
On the play, safety Grant Delpit lined up at linebacker depth off of Thomas, but doesn't have much help deep due to the coverage. Safety John Johnson III, who was splitting the difference between the slot receiver and the ball, and Ward, who was providing help on the outside receiver, were lined up on the other side of the formation. Cornerbacks Martin Emerson III and Greg Newsome II were pressing the outside receivers.
Thomas just ran straight between Delpit and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and it becomes an easy catch-and-run when quarterback Baker Mayfield hit Thomas in stride. Johnson had to come over from the opposite side of the field to make the touchdown-saving tackle.
"When we do our job, we win and those two plays, guys got caught [not] doing their job," Johnson said after the game. "For whatever reason it was, it was everybody across the board, it wasn't just one or two guys, so when everyone does their job, we can be a dominant defense. Majority of that game we saw that."
Bad luck and missed tackles on Panthers' bad snap
The Panthers' second touchdown was set up by a huge break when Christian McCaffrey picked up a muffed first-down snap by Mayfield and ran 28 yards to the Browns 36. That set up Mayfield's 7-yard scoring run that pulled the Panthers within 20-14 with 12:58 remaining.
This simply looked like a combination of bad luck and a bit of bad tackling from the Browns. Both Owusu-Koramoah and Delpit crashed into the backfield when the snap hit the ground, but were a bit off balance to square up and slow down McCaffrey when he got going.
"To give up 75 yards, 50 yards and even on the fumbled snap they pick it up and get 28 yards, that is a lot of yards on three plays," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said Monday. "Those were just moments for us just not doing our job. Yes, there are miscommunications, but those type of things should not happen, and we will get it fixed.”
Communication breakdown leads to Robbie Anderson's long touchdown
The Browns built one more two-score advantage, going ahead 23-14 on York's third field goal of the day with 6:17 remaining. It took the Panthers just four seconds to make it a two-point game.
Robbie Anderson, lined up on the outside to the left, ran past Newsome on a post route and caught a 75-yard touchdown to make it 23-21 with 6:13 left. On the play, Johnson, the deep safety to the left, actually tried to jump the underneath out route by the inside receiver, D.J. Moore, leaving no one behind to help Newsome.
"Just communication," Newsome said in the postgame locker room. "That’s what it comes down to. I’m gonna stay on top of the post. I should have known the situation that was coming, obviously they gotta try to take a shot. So, um, next time just stay on top. I just gotta stay on top and just trust everybody else to win."
The Browns were in a traditional 4-3-4 base look, with Ward and Delpit the other two defensive backs on the other side. It was also their starting linebackers, Owusu-Koramoah, Anthony Walker Jr. and Sione Takitaki, the latter of whom was in coverage on the running back coming out into the left flat.
That group of four in the secondary was the Browns' typical starting four a year ago as well. While Ward and Newsome only had a couple of weeks in the preseason − and no preseason game action − working together due to injuries by either, Ward refused to blame that for the miscommunications.
"We played together all last year, and we got a lot of reps together this year as well during camp," Ward said. "We played a lot of ball together. So I mean, it happens, it's football. It was just a play that it was just a miscommunication on the play, and so we're going to get it fixed and hopefully have a different result next time."
Christian McCaffrey's screen pass capitalizes on missed tackle
There was one final big play to set up the Panthers' go-ahead field goal late. On second-and-6 from the 50 with 1:33 remaining, Mayfield hit McCaffrey on a screen to the right, and he raced 21 yards before Johnson horse-collared him to the ground, adding 15 more to the gain.
There was a chance to slow down McCaffrey after a smallish gain. However, Jadeveon Clowney, who actually dropped into pass coverage on the play, missed on a tackle to give the Panthers star a clear lane for the big gain.
"You definitely never want to just give guys anything easy because the NFL, it's hard to win within itself," Ward said. "So you definitely don't want to give anybody any gifts. So we did that on a few plays and just gave them some. So yeah, we just had to go and correct some things and I'm sure we'll get it fixed though."
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