Cleveland Browns second-guessing: Why'd Nick Chubb score? Why not bat onside kick vs Jets?

Marla Ridenour
Akron Beacon Journal

Browns All-Pro left guard Joel Bitonio was drafted in 2014, so he has survived some of the most miserable losses in franchise history, including a 1-31 stretch.

But he still called the stunning collapse in Sunday’s 31-30 loss to the New York Jets in the home opener at FirstEnergy Stadium one of the most disappointing defeats of his career.

“It’s up there. We have had some frustrating ones,” Bitonio said Monday on Zoom. “It was one of the rarest ways to lose, so it is definitely up there.”

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The Browns led 30-17 with 1:55 remaining only to allow Jets quarterback Joe Flacco to throw two touchdown passes in the final 1:22. NFL teams had won the past 2,229 consecutive games when leading by at least 13 points in the final two minutes, dating back to the Browns’ loss at the Chicago Bears in Week 9 of the 2001 season, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

The game was rife with moments to second-guess. Here’s what Browns coach Kevin Stefanski and his players had to say about them.

Why didn’t Browns coach Kevin Stefanski tell Nick Chubb not to score?

Browns running back Nick Chubb runs against the New York Jets during the second half, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022, in Cleveland.

Three-time Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb scored on a 12-yard touchdown run with 1:55 to play for the 13-point lead, and rookie kicker Cade York missed the extra point. But the latter shouldn’t have mattered. The Jets were out of timeouts. If Chubb had picked up the first down but failed to score, the Browns could have knelt three times to kill the clock.

Before the first-and-10 play from the Jets 12, Stefanski said he should have told quarterback Jacoby Brissett to emphasize to the offense to get the first down, not the touchdown. Stefanski also had the chance on the sideline to tell Chubb himself, with Kareem Hunt the running back on the previous play. In a 2020 victory over the Houston Texans, Chubb did just that, heeding Stefanski’s “no mas” command to preserve a 10-7 triumph.

Asked if he told Brissett in the headset not to score, Stefanski said Monday, “No, I did not. I want to be clear on this one. I absolutely could have told him in that situation.

“Obviously, with retrospect, you want to do anything to secure the win. That is something that is my responsibility to communicate to that huddle. Putting yourself up potentially 14 points inside of two minutes, you should close out that game. Yes, I wish I had said that to Nick and Nick would have done it, but it does not change the fact that we had plenty of opportunities to win that game.”

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Even though Chubb ran the “no mas” correctly in 2020, Bitonio did not fault Chubb for scoring.

“I think the touchdown one is a tough ask,” Bitonio said. “We’re trying to get a first down at the 2. You’re getting tackled, you make a move to try and get a touchdown to go up by two scores. Obviously if we found a way to take a knee there or get down, we can win the game kneeling it out.

“But it wasn’t like a breakaway 100-yard run where he can easily take a knee and win the game. I’m sure we’re going to go over it and learn from it so next time we’re in that situation we’ll try and stay inbounds a little bit better. But those are tough, tough plays, bang-bang plays where you’re not going to fault anybody for those situations.”

Why run a Kareem Hunt sweep to the left sideline vs. Jets?

Browns running back Kareem Hunt gets away from D.J. Reed  of the Jets in the fourth quarter, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022 in Cleveland.

The Jets used their final timeout with 2:09 remaining. The next play, on second and 6 from the Jets 24, Hunt ran a sweep to the left sideline and gained 12 yards before being pushed out of bounds with 2:02 to go. If he had gone down in bounds after gaining the first down, the Browns could have used three kneel-downs after the two-minute warning to run out the clock.

To try to kill more time off the clock and avoid going out of bounds, why didn’t the Browns run to the middle of the field?

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“The play was a counter play to the outside,” Bitonio said. “They’re stacking the box and running a jam front with interior line coverage, so it’s kind of hard to run inside.”

Why didn't Amari Cooper bat the onside kick out of bounds?

New York Jets punter Braden Mann (7) reacts after his successful onside kick against the Browns, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022, in Cleveland.

After miscommunications on defense led to Flacco’s 66-yard touchdown pass to receiver Corey Davis and Greg Zuerlein’s PAT cut the deficit to 30-24, the Jets perfectly executed an onside kick. It was punter Braden Mann who made the boot, and cornerback Justin Hardee recovered at the Jets 47.

The Jets needed only a minute to score again on Flacco’s 15-yard toss to receiver Garrett Wilson.

On the onside kick, Browns receiver Amari Cooper was in position to knock the ball out of bounds, but waited for it to get to him instead of charging and catching it.

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“We just have to find a way in those situations to make a play, find a way to get the ball out of bounds on a kick and those types of things,” Stefanski said. “We’ve got to just continue to just put our guys in position to do their job … and then have our players come through in those moments.”

Browns free safety John Johnson III was right over the ball on the onside kick team and wanted to see the replay. But he voiced his frustration on that failure, among others, after the game.

“There’s a tool, you can bat the ball out of bounds if you need to. I think we probably should have used that tool,” Johnson said Sunday.

Why was Browns quarterback Jacoby Brissett’s last pass so deep?

Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski watches as his team plays against the New York Jets during the first half, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022, in Cleveland.

The Browns got the ball back at their own 25 with 22 seconds remaining and Brissett, playing on an injured ankle, scrambled for 21 yards to the Cleveland 46 with 12 seconds to go.

After York kicked a game-winning 58-yard field goal in 26-24 season-opening victory at Carolina on Sept. 11, Stefanski said to get to the 40 was his mindset with York’s big leg.

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But York’s missed extra point, which came in the swirling winds of the Dawg Pound end, played a factor. Brissett’s next throw intended for Cooper was intercepted by safety Ashtyn Davis at the Jets 36.

Asked if they went with too deep of a throw, Stefanski said, “No, I do not think so. It was into the Dawg Pound. I do not think it is safe to just always get to the 40 with your kicker. I think we are trying to get as close as we can to kick a shorter field goal.”

Marla Ridenour can be reached at mridenour@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.