Key Third Down Challenge Critical to Browns Pulling off Biggest Road Comeback in NFL History

The week 5 contest between the Browns and Titans was absolutely wild. Enabled by several key 3rd down penalties and poor defensive play by the Browns, the Titans built a 28-3 lead by late in the first half.

Yet the Browns, also enabled by some key happenstances (yet plagued by two critical 4th down stops by the Titans defense!), were able to come back and win the game, remarkably making it the largest road comeback victory in NFL history.

The Titans lost starting QB Jake Locker to a hand injury late in the first half.  His mobility, was sorely missed in the second, as backup Charlie Whitehurst – though he thew the ball accurately – often couldn’t escape pressure, and otherwise looked tentative and unsure.

At one point in the second half Whitehurst even remained completely frozen with his arm cocked for nearly two seconds, before releasing a ball that, as a result, should have been picked off.

Cleveland scored a very late first half TD to close the gap to 28-10, then stormed out in the second half, continuing to close the gap despite two key 4th and 3 stops by the Titans defense. Also in the process, and on the other hand, two key Browns turnovers – each of which would have been their first of the season, and likely kept them from ultimately winning the game – were nullified by Titans penalties.  Meanwhile, the Browns defense continued to hold the Titans to minimal offensive gains, repeatedly forcing three and outs.

After the second of two 4th and 3 stops by their defense early in the 4th quarter of a now 15 point game, things got really interesting as the Titans took over on their own 4 yard line. For after yet another three and out for Tennessee –  with 11:08 left and trailing 28-13 – Cleveland blocked the punt attempt, and the ball traveled through the back of the end zone for a Safety.

This 2 point Safety was key for the Browns, as two TDs  would now give them the win, rather than put them in a situation where they would still need to a) make the two point conversion, and b) then also win in overtime, just for the win. Just as critically, the Safety also still awarded the Browns the ball. And after the Titans free kick, the Browns drove 67 yards to to a touchdown, which closed close the gap to a mere 6 points, now less than a full touchdown deficit, and a 28-22 score.

After this score and touchback on the ensuing kickoff, the Titans started out on their 20 yard line with 6:49 left, and again went three and out. As, essentially, did the Browns. (In effect throwing a 3rd and 10 interception from their own 33 yard line all the way to the Titans 22, for the Browns first official turnover of the season, but which netted them 45 yards – a little more than a punt would have on average.)

Back with the ball again, Tennessee, on three plays, then picked up one of their rare first downs of the second half, although by throwing incomplete on 1st and 2nd down, they burned very little clock in the process. A few plays later, after a 5 yard gain out to their own 37 yard line, the Titans faced a 3rd and 6 with 3:12 remaining in the contest. Here, the Browns used the second of their three timeouts, to stop the clock.

At this point, a rather remarkable situation unfolded. And on this 3rd down, the game, as a practical matter, very nearly hinged.

A 1st down would put the Titans out to their own 43 yard line or better.  From this spot on the field, plus a few more yards after running three successive plays, an ensuing punt could be angled high, giving the coverage team plenty of time, and was unlikely to be returned. And as long as Tennessee y didn’t go out of bounds on the initial 3rd down conversion, the Browns would have to call their last timeout, or the clock would continue to run.

The Titans would then have three more plays to advance the ball a bit more, while taking the game clock down to about 75 seconds, giving the Browns hope, but realistically, very little chance in the game – and shortly, we’ll see why.

But if the Titans got the 1st down here but went out of bounds in the process – thereby stopping the game clock until the next snap of the ball in the last five minutes of the game – and then ran three plays and punted, the Browns – with one timeout remaining, enough time to kill another down before the 2:00 warning clocked off, and the two minute warning itself to stop the game clock after the Titans ran third down – would still have just enough time for a decent enough “two minute drill type of drive” after the Titans punted on 4th down at 2:00.

The situation is classic, and often mismanaged by teams, as head coaches are often busy trying to be head coaches, not strategy gurus; and usually no one is well versed in the nuances of fine clock management, let alone steps in to help the coach out.

But here it got much more interesting than usual for a number of reasons. First, the Titans did pass the ball. It was completed (to tight end Delaney Walker.) It did go out of bounds and – key for Cleveland – stop the clock. But key for Tennessee, it also picked up the 1st down. Or at least so it was according to the official spot of the ball.

But had Walker really picked up the 1st? Oddly, and somewhat inexplicably, Walker, who had been running toward the sideline nearly straight toward the 1st down marker when he caught the ball, appeared to make little (or no) effort to ensure that the ball crossed or was across the 1st down line when he went out of bounds – failing to turn upfield; failing to lean his body upfield; failing to try to at  least push the ball out in front of him upfield; and in fact, holding the ball on his right hip – the one closest to the Titans own end zone – when he went out of bounds.

Given where Walker caught the ball, it looked on casual examination like a play that almost always invariably picks up the 1st down, and perhaps it was for this reason – who knows – the referees awarded the f1st down. But looking at the actual play, it looked short. Replays confirmed that the play likely was short of the 1st down.

Challenges normally carry the weight of losing a timeout. Here, with the teams within less than a touchdown of each other, the clock winding down, and the Browns desperately needing the ball, the challenge came with the additional weight of possibly losing a considerable percentage of the remaining game time as well.

Given the time left, and fact that they were already down to only their one remaining timeout – which they would lose if they lost their challenge – this created an interesting situation for the Browns.  As the play stood, they could still stop Tennessee on the ensuing set of downs and get the ball back with almost two minutes, courtesy of their one remaining time out.

But if they challenged the spot and lost, they could not. In such an event they would still have a “theoretical shot” at winning,  but it would be a long shot. Not only would the loss of their last timeout if they lost a challenge if Tennessee went three and out and punted the ball reduce the effective time they would have remaining by nearly 40% (from about 1:55 to about 1:10), it would represent that key difference between having a reasonable “two minute drill shot at the end of the game, versus a very long shot “two minute drill” type of drive, due to the basic dynamics of the game and the structure of the field.

If the Titans had made the 1st down on Walker’s catch, and had not gone out of bounds, they could have run another 40 seconds off the game clock, down to about 2:23 total. The Browns would then have taken their last timeout. (They could wait until after the two minute warning instead, but will lose an extra 5 or 6 seconds of game time by doing so.) 2nd down would then be snapped at about 2:17 or so, and the clock would burn down to the 2:00 mark.

This is in effect exactly what the situation would be if the Browns now challenged and lost; although the clock was now stopped on this 3rd down play rather than continuing to run, without their last timeout the Browns could not then stop it after the Titans ensuing 1st down play. And in either event the Titans 2nd down would burn the game clock down to the two minute warning, with no Browns timeouts remaining.

The Titans 3rd down snap would then occur at 2:00, and they could burn another 44 or 45 seconds total off of the clock before they would have to snap the ball on 4th down.   The high arching, almost un-returnable punt, from reasonably close to midfield, would then occur at about 1:15/1:16, and take off about another 5 of so seconds (unless the Browns let it roll, in which case it would take longer.) The Browns would then start from around their 20 or worse, with about 70 seconds to go, and no timeouts.

In other words, the Titans inability to stay in bounds on their key third down conversion (or what for the moment stood as a 3rd down conversion) had given the Browns a reprieve. But it was a reprieve the Browns would lose if they challenged the spot and lost.

In either event – the Titans picking up the 1st down and not having gone out of bounds, or going out of bounds but the Browns blowing their last timeout on a failed challenge – Cleveland would almost assuredly be starting from their own 20 yard line or worse, with about 70 seconds left, and no timeouts remaining.

Starting from around their own 20 (or worse) and needing a TD to win, teams have occasionally won with about 70 or so seconds, and no timeouts remaining. But it is extremely rare. Here is why, and why having 70 or even 80 seconds in such situations, in terms of the trailing team’s chances, is radically different from having around or near two minutes left instead.

Thus, while it might seem like “only one timeout,” that one timeout, in the event of a likely ensuing stop of the Titans, meant, given the unique clock situation, the difference between the Browns having a great chance at winning the game, and a measly to all but fluke requiring chance.

But the replay on the Titans critical 3rd down play with just over 3 minutes remaining in the game and now less than a full touchdown lead, showed that Walker had very likely not made the 1st down. And if the Browns challenged the spot and won, they would get the ball back with over 3 minutes left, and any game clock time loss wouldn’t be an issue.

Thus, the Titans made two mistakes in trying to pick up one of their rare 1st downs conversions of the 2nd half, at a critical juncture of the game, where doing so could all but win them the game.

First, and perhaps unavoidably, they failed to stay in bounds. Second, despite a completed pass that should have resulted in a 1st down, the play looked like the receiver made little effort, and in fact failed, to make sure the ball crossed the first down marker. Replays seemed to confirm this.

The Browns thought so too, and threw the flag and won the challenge. This forced the Titans into a 4th down and about a half of a yard to go situation – and saved the Browns their last timeout in the process.

That 4th down situation was also interesting, strategy wise, in terms of the decision to either punt and voluntarily give the Browns the ball, or try to get the 1st down and all but run out the effective remaining portion of the game clock:

The Titans, in one of their rare good moves of the second half, elected to go for the 1st down conversion here on this critical 4th down, in lieu of punting. And in doing so, they  very clearly made the right call, in what wasn’t even a close decision, even though they wound up losing the game.

That is, good strategy will improve a team’s winning percentage, but it won’t make up for repeatedly poor execution on the field. And the Titans failed to move the ball almost the entire second half; failed to get out of bounds on that critical 3rd down play where they had completed the pass almost right at the first down marker; the Titans failed to make sure the ball advanced past the 1st down marker on that play; the Titans then failed on a fairly straightforward half of a yard 4th down conversion; the Titans then failed to keep the Browns – who took over at the Titans 43 yard line, with just over 3 minutes remaining – from scoring when with the game on the line the Titans needed to stop them; and the Titans, luckily given the ball back with a little over a minute remaining after the Browns go ahead TD for the 1 point Browns lead, failed to move the ball into field goal range and kick the game winning field goal.

And so the the Browns pulled off what, surprisingly, is the largest road comeback in NFL history – coming back from a 25 point deficit.  They faced an interesting spot challenge on a critical 3rd down late in the game, and it would have been a different game had they won the challenge.  But it may have been a different game had Delaney Walker planted his right foot while running toward the sideline, and, protecting the ball with his body, turned and leaned his body upfield to advance that ball to the 1st down marker. Particularly if could have stayed in bounds, one of the most under estimated aspects – short of making sure to never give up the ball until insufficient time remains for the opponent (or instead, score and not just add to the score, but change it from a one score gap to two score gap game) – of closing out games with a small lead, and the ball.



One thought on “Key Third Down Challenge Critical to Browns Pulling off Biggest Road Comeback in NFL History

  1. Pingback: Titans lose by 16, 24 and 26 point, Then lose a 25 point lead to Lose by 1 to the Browns in a Wild Game to « NFL Football Strategy

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