By Tony Grossi
The Indianapolis Colts put on a clinic here on how to manage a game to victory when out-manned. You would expect somebody for the Browns was taking notes, like the obviously perturbed guy in the visitor's owner’s box.
The Colts surprised the Browns early by using an effective running game to set up pinpoint passing by Andrew Luck. And they were stout enough on defense to scare the Browns into pass-pass-pass mode.
Ultimately, the Browns will lament a dropped touchdown by Josh Gordon at the 6:38 mark, and five painful miscues on special teams. But make no mistake, they lost this game, 17-13, because, left to its own devices, this young team will struggle to make every play.
Down by 14-6 at halftime, the Browns decided to shut down running back Trent Richardson, whose rib cartilage injury limited him to eight yards on eight carries.
“It’s worse than people think,” Richardson said of his injury. “I’m not myself out there, not running hard like I do.”
Instead of maintaining some semblance of balance with Montario Hardesty, the Browns elected to throw-throw-throw.
“Let’s face it,” said left tackle Joe Thomas, “we’re a pass-first team. We’re going to air it out most games.”
In the second half, the Browns threw 22 times and ran six times. This against an Indianapolis defense that was gashed for 252 yards on the ground by the Jets last week and were missing four starters on the day.
Brandon Weeden was matching Luck all game. In the end, Gordon’s drop on third-and-1 was fatal. He had cornerback Jerraud Powers beat by two yards as the ball deflected off his hands at the 3. Gordon had beaten Powers in the third quarter on a stutter-go route for a 33-yard touchdown in the third quarter – his fourth scoring catch in three games.
Gordon would not blame the bright sunshine beaming through the open roof of Lucas Oil Stadium for the drop.
“Just one of those make-or-break plays,” he said. “I didn’t capitalize. No sun. I just dropped it. The ball hit my hands. No excuse.”
The Browns were in position to steal the game because cornerback Sheldon Brown completed the hat trick on a Colts’ third-down play. He strip-sacked Luck on a blitz and scraped the ball off his chest for a fumble recovery at the 50.
There was 7:25 to play in the fourth quarter. The momentum of such a crucial takeaway can often empower an offensive line to man-up and take the game in its hands.
The line had not run-blocked well all game, however, and coach Pat Shurmur and coordinator Brad Childress had no confidence in it. They dialed up three straight passes – 9-yard catch by Travis Benjamin, a misfire on a deep pass for Benjamin, and then the on-the-mark drop by Gordon.
On fourth-and-1, Weeden tried to collect his team to the line of scrimmage, but he had to call time with three seconds on the play-clock. During the timeout, Shurmur decided to punt. There was 6:31 to go. Weeden didn’t argue, he said.
Punter Reggie Hodges then angled the ball out of bounds with a kick all of 21 yards to the Colts’ 20.
“They wanted the ball kicked out of bounds,” said Hodges.
Understood, but didn’t they want it deeper?
“The call was to get it out of bounds,” Hodges repeated.
The Browns’ defense forced a punt in three plays, validating the controversial decision in the coaches’ minds.
Weeden took over with 4:08 to play at the Browns’ 31. He threw for two quick first downs, but then overthrew Greg Little on third down and misfired for Josh Cooper on fourth-and-6. Little had been six for six on targets up till then, including a wonderful, juggling grab of a Weeden bullet in the back of the end zone that withstood replay review for the Browns’ first touchdown.
Weeden eventually got one more play from the Browns’ 20 with one second left. The infinitesimal-chance, catch-and-lateral play lasted five laterals before blowing up and ending the game.
“It’s safe to say it’s a team loss,” Shurmur said. “We go back to work tomorrow, like half the teams in the league.”
The Colts, who were missing starting back Donald Brown, surprised the Browns with a balanced mixture of runs and pass the first half to build a 14-6 lead on two long drives by Luck, who scored both TDs on keepers of 3 and 5 yards.
“We watched the film of them during the week and didn’t anticipate them running,” said Sheldon Brown. “We thought they’d throw all day.”
So the Colts caught the Browns in some pass alignments and ran for 60 yards the first half, with Vick Ballard and Delone Carter of Akron Copley High taking up the slack. Their offensive line controlled the Browns the first half.
Indianapolis finished with 37 rush attempts for 148 yards and a 4.0-yard average. The Browns rushed 17 times for 55 yards (3.2).
Shurmur said, “They had one extra guy in there all the time (to stop the run). That wasn’t necessarily the case last week for them. That’s why when you go into games, games are played differently depending on who your opponent is, and so you start to throw the ball and then you loosen them up and the runs become effective again in the third quarter.”
The Browns compounded their strategic blunders by imploding on special teams.
Hodges botched the hold after the first TD and cost them the point after. He said the ball just slipped out of his hands. Ray Ventrone and Tank Carder had penalties on three of Josh Cribbs’ four return opportunities. That’s taking one of your best players right out of the game.
The Colts’ ability to run limited Luck to 16 of 29 passing for 186 yards. He had averaged 44 passes a game – an NFL season-record pace.
“We have to stay that way,” said interim coach Bruce Arians. “We can’t be one-dimensional and we don’t want to be. It leads to chucks (of yards) for us where we can run the ball and have the hard play-action and Andrew will live longer.”
It’s the reason the Colts are 3-3 today and the Browns are 1-6.
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