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What Went Wrong - 4 Takeaways From The Browns Loss

Posted Sep 23, 2013

It looked like things were coming together for the Vikings as they entered Week 3 looking for their first win of the season. Cleveland came in with a 0-2 record, was playing its second consecutive road game, was down to its third-string quarterback and had just traded away last year’s first-round pick – running back Trent Richardson. And as the game wore on and the teams exchanged mistakes, the Vikings remained in position to win, holding a three-point lead and possessing the ball with 4:22 to play in the game after forcing Cleveland to punt for a seventh time.

But then things came apart. After the Vikings offense couldn’t seal the deal on a pair of 4th quarter drives with the lead, that third-string quarterback drove the Browns offense down the field on an 11-play, 55-yard drive to score the go-ahead and eventual game-winning touchdown to send the Vikings to 0-3 and off to London still in search of the season’s first win.

So what went wrong? Here are a few ideas…

Couldn’t close
What’s more frustrating than when a specific problem arises that prevents you from winning a game? Try having that specific problem prevent you from winning a game in consecutive weeks. That’s what the Vikings are dealing with, as an ability on both defense and offense to close out the game cost them against the Browns. The Vikings offense had a three-point lead and took possession twice late in the 4th quarter with a chance to put together a time-consuming drive to win the game, and both times they went three-and-out. The Vikings defense, just as it was last week in Chicago, was on the field and needed only to stop a touchdown drive from happening to avoid another last-second loss. Last week it was Jay Cutler who daggered them with a late score, but this week it was Brian Hoyer who drove his offense 55 yards in 11 plays and 2:30 to score the game-winning touchdown with only moments to play.

Browns got tricky on special teams
Twice on Sunday the Browns special teams group had a “Gotcha!” moment against the Vikings. The first came midway through the 2nd quarter with Cleveland looking at a 4th and 1 from their own 38. The Browns were lined up in punting formation, but the personal protector (defensive back Josh Aubrey) took the direct snap and sprinted down the middle of the field for a 34-yard gain to the Vikings 28, which setup a Billy Cundiff 38-yard field goal just three plays later. The second moment came on Cleveland’s next drive. The Browns had a 4th and 4 from the Vikings 11 and lined up in field goal formation. Punter Spencer Lanning holds for the Browns, and when he took the snap he stood up and lofted a pass to the right sideline, where tight end Jordan Cameron was waiting unguarded after pretending to leave the field following the Browns failed 3rd-down attempt. Rather than leave the field, though, Cameron stopped short of the sideline and waited for the snap and the pass to come his way. The play resulted in a touchdown, extending the Browns lead to 24-14.

Those bold special teams plays netted the Browns an additional seven points – a field goal on the fake punt and then a touchdown rather than a field goal on the fake field goal. In a four-point game, that seven-point swing on special teams is significant.

Came up just short in the big moment(s)
In most games, there are several big moments where the outcome of that moment has a profound impact on the game. The Vikings came up short in many of those big moments against the Browns. A few examples…

-- The two fakes on special teams by Cleveland that are detailed above.
-- Late in the 2nd quarter with the Vikings trailing 24-14, Jeff Locke punted and Browns returner Travis Benjamin muffed the return attempt. The muff was recovered by Larry Dean at the 26, and Dean proceeded to return the muff to the end zone. The officials properly ruled the ball down at the 26 and awarded possession to the Vikings (you cannot advance a muffed punt return). But the Vikings challenged the play, and since that is an unchallengeable play the Vikings were penalized for throwing the red flag. The penalty should’ve been the loss of a timeout, but the officials marked off a 15-yard penalty instead, which put the Vikings back on the Cleveland 41 instead of the 26. Faced with a 1st and 25 from the 41 rather than a 1st and 10 from the 26, the Vikings wound up kicking a field goal to salvage the drive, but you have to wonder if a touchdown was in order had the Vikings not attempted to challenge the muffed return-touchdown play.
-- Any time you get in the red zone, it’s a big moment. The Vikings were in the red zone five times on Sunday and came away with just three touchdowns. Even a four of five mark in the red zone on Sunday would’ve resulted in a win.
-- At the end of the game, with the Vikings trailing by four and driving down the field for a last-second touchdown to steal victory from the jaws of defeat, Ponder lofted up a pass in the middle of the field and the attempt came down right on top of the goal line. Out of nowhere, Jerome Simpson left his feet, elevated above everyone else and got his hands on the ball. Mired in traffic and a pile up of bodies in mid-air, Simpson was unable to come down with the ball. But for a split-second it looked as if Simpson was going to secure another improbable Week 3 Vikings victory (think: Favre-to-Lewis) by making a miracle catch at the goal line.

Running game is grounded
The bread-and-butter of the Vikings offense is their ground game. But for some reason the Vikings can’t get their ground game rolling. Sunday was another frustrating day for NFL MVP Adrian Peterson, as he gained just 88 yards on 25 carries, and his longest rush was nine yards. So much of what the Vikings do offensively is predicated on a productive ground game. Play-action, bootlegs, power personnel groupings – none of those tactics are effective if a team isn’t gaining yardage running the ball. Not being able to run the ball has taken the Vikings main big-play threat away and it’s also caused them to fall behind schedule in the down-and-distance department, which is putting too much pressure on the passing game.