CLEVELAND – Steady rain provided the backdrop for another opener at FirstEnergy Stadium. And lightning struck, too — sort of.
No, the Cleveland Browns didn’t win.
Yet the Browns didn’t lose, either, achieving the rare NFL tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers at 21-21.
Hey, the Browns had their chances. They rallied from a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit. They forced six Steelers turnovers, including a Ben Roethlisberger interception in overtime that nearly provided a miracle.
Then Zane Gonzalez had his 43-yard field goal blocked by Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt.
Still, after going 0-16 last season, a tie is better than kissing your sister for the Browns. It’s a measure of progress.
Three other things we learned:
Welcome to the NFL, rookie: Denzel Ward’s NFL debut was highlighted by two interceptions of Ben Roethlisberger, but the first-round Cleveland cornerback was also taken to school by Antonio Brown for the 22-yard third-quarter touchdown that was the Steelers’ final score. The Browns dared to put Ward in single coverage on the outside, allowing Brown to squeeze up the right sideline. The coverage was tight, and the pass from Roethlisberger was even tighter. Brown adjusted at the right time, slowing and turning back to snag the precise throw. Bet they’ve worked on this timing route hundreds of times. Then there were the feet. Brown had maybe six inches to spare, just pass the pylon, to stay inbounds. The lesson for Ward: You can have the NFL’s best receiver covered like a blanket … and he’s still open.
Run-(No) Pass Option: It’s not typical for a team to rush for 177 yards and still get spanked. But that’s what happened to the Browns, playing with an imbalanced offense that couldn’t pass the gravy or the football – especially when they needed to throw in crunch time. Sure, they tried. But Cleveland totaled just 150 passing yards while quarterback Tyrod Taylor led the team in rushing with 77 yards. The issues ranged from Taylor’s struggles on downfield throws, ill-timed drops, a collapsing pocket and a few near misses. And forget the idea of executing a crisp, hurry-up offense for specific situations.
With all of that, there are still positives with Taylor. He found Josh Gordon for a game-tying 17-yard TD late in the fourth quarter. He generally protects the football well, although he was intercepted by Steelers cornerback Cameron Sutton just before the end of regulation. He can sometimes hold onto the football too long (which contributed to seven sacks), but he also avoids takedowns by running away from trouble. That was the case on Cleveland’s first TD, when Taylor scampered 20 yards around left end on a broken play. The net impression of the Browns offense makes me wonder: Maybe Baker Mayfield is Taylor with a big arm.
No Le’Veon, no problem: This was not a game to help Le’Veon Bell’s negotiating position. Maybe a star was born with the emergence of fill-in running back James Conner, who had a monster day that suggests the Steelers could be fine without their high-profile holdout. That’s no knock on Bell, the workhorse who was second in the NFL last season in yards from scrimmage. And yes, Conner’s fourth-quarter fumble gift-wrapped a Cleveland touchdown that helped spark the comeback. But for at least one opening day, the numbers didn’t lie. Connor rushed for 135 yards, caught five passes for 57 yards and scored two TDs.