The return of suspended wide receiver Josh Gordon, timely plays by quarterback Brian Hoyer, and inexplicable clock management by Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith all contributed to the Cleveland Browns last second victory 26-24 over the Atlanta Falcons (4-7) Sunday afternoon at the Georgia Dome.
Cleveland (7-4) welcomed back big-play receiver Josh Gordon from his 10-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Gordon’s time away from the game didn’t seem to hurt him, as he was targeted 16 times, recording eight receptions for 120 yards in his first game back. Gordon was able to separate from cornerback Desmond Trufant on several occasions, showing flashes of the speed that made him one of the best young receivers in the NFL prior to his suspension. His 24-yard reception over the middle on the final drive of the game was key in helping the Browns get into position to kick the game-winning field-goal.
Browns’ quarterback Brian Hoyer was not particularly efficient, finishing 23 for 40 for 322 yards, but also throwing three interceptions and no touchdowns. However, he did make plays when his team needed them, going 4 of 6 (the last being a spike to stop the clock) for 61 yards to drive the Browns into field-goal position in the final seconds. Two of the interceptions Hoyer threw came in the fourth quarter, but did not prove costly as Atlanta only converted them into three points. Atlanta did convert a previous interception in the second quarter into a touchdown.
Perhaps the most questionable decisions were made by Atlanta head coach Mike Smith. Cleveland was leading Atlanta 23-21 with just under 3:00 to go in the game when Atlanta intercepted a Hoyer pass attempt for Gordon. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan led the offense on the field for a potential game-winning drive with 2:42 left in the game. In the first questionable move, Smithy had the offense running their No-Huddle formation, quickly lining up and snapping the ball. Ryan smartly worked the sidelines with quick outs to Roddy White and short handoffs to Steven Jackson, driving the team down to the Cleveland 35-yard line. Cleveland still had three timeouts remaining, and had taken none.
Atlanta was facing 3rd and 2 with less than a minute left in the game and the clock winding down from the Cleveland 35, well within kicker Matt Bryant’s range. Atlanta then took a timeout at :55, stopping the clock for Cleveland. After coming out of the timeout, needing to run the clock down some more or convert a 3rd and 2, Coach Smith then made another questionable call, deciding to throw a “Go” route to Devin Hester on the right sideline. The pass was rushed and fell incomplete after hitting cornerback Justin Gilbert in the helmet. Atlanta then kicked a 52-yard field goal to take a 24-23 lead, but left 44 seconds on the clock for the Browns, who still had three timeouts.
Matt Bosher’s ensuing kickoff went for a touchback, allowing Cleveland to start at the 20-yard line with no time off the clock. Hoyer failed to connect with Gordon, but quickly hit wide receiver Miles Austin on the left side for a first down. After taking their first timeout, Hoyer then spotted Gordon over the middle for 24 yards. Cleveland then took their second timeout with 24 seconds remaining. Hoyer then hit tight end Gary Barnidge over the middle for 15 yards to get don to the Atlanta 30-yard line. Cleveland took their final timeout with 16 seconds to go and discussed whether to attempt the field goal or to take one more chance at getting closer. Browns’ head coach Mike Pettine elected to run another play, hitting Miles Austin over the middle for 11 yards to get to the 19-yard line of Atlanta. A quick spike by Hoyer led to Billy Cundiff‘s game winning 37-yard field goal as time expired.
In addition to the questionable clock management in the final two minutes, Coach Smith also had some questionable time management to end the first half. Trailing 13-7, Atlanta took over after a Kemal Ishmael interception was returned to the 50. With 2:52 to go, Atlanta methodically worked down the field, finding themselves facing a 3rd and 4 from the Cleveland 13 with 1:10 to go. Matt Ryan threw a short pass to the left side to wide receiver Julio Jones that went for 5 yards, down to the Cleveland 8-yard line. Atlanta still had all three of their timeouts, as did Cleveland. Rather than trying to milk the clock and force Cleveland to use their timeouts, Atlanta instead called a timeout of their own at 1:00 to go in the half.
Atlanta came out of the timeout and scored on a Matt Ryan inside shovel pass to running back Jaquizz Rodgers, but they left 55 seconds on the clock,and Cleveland had all three timeouts. Cleveland managed to drive to the Atlanta 42-yard line to set up a 60-yard field goal attempt. Despite Billy Cundiff being the worst active worst kicker in the NFL from beyond 50 yards (8 for 29 in FG attempts of 50+ yards), Coach Mike Smith, apparently forgetting the debacle versus Detroit, called a timeout to try to “ice” the kicker. The attempt fell short, but because Atlanta had called a timeout before the snap, Cundiff would get another chance.
Cleveland running back Isaiah Crowell rushed for 88 yardson 12 attempts, with scores of 11 and 25 yards, in a homecoming of sorts. Crowell is from Columbus, Georgia, about 90 minutes southwest of Atlanta, and played his first two years of college football at the University of Georgia, about 75 minutes northeast of Atlanta.
Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White had 96 yards on 9 catches. Matt Ryan finished 27 of 43 for 273 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception.
Atlanta cornerback Robert McClain was injured on Crowell’s 25-yard touchdown run. McClain was helped off the field and did not return. He was announced as having a calf injury, and his will be further evaluated Monday.
Mike Smith, on his questionable decision to stop the clock in the 4th quarter:
“Well, we wanted to get our best play for third and two, to try and earn the first down. That was our thought. We were right on the edge, in terms of where we wanted to be, in terms of field goal. We wanted to get a first down. The look that they gave us said to throw the ball; we did, and we didn’t convert it.”
Mike Smith, on whether he was reluctant to stop the clock before Bryant’s field goal:
“Again, you can definitely ask that question; the 53-yarder was definitely outside the range we set prior to the game. We wanted to get a first down, and we felt like we had a play that’s why we called the timeout. We came over and used it. They would’ve used the timeout probably if we hadn’t.”
Mike Smith, on Josh Gordon:
“Well, Josh Gordon is a very good receiver; he made some plays today in the game. You can tell they’re a better football team when they have Josh Gordon out there. That’s a dynamic group of receivers, in terms of speed, and when you add Josh Gordon he’s a good sized receiver that runs extremely well, and he does create matchup issues.”
Matt Ryan, on the 3rd and 2 play at the end:
“I mean, it was a good situation, one on one with Dev (Devin Hester). I felt like we had an opportunity to get it down the field. I probably should have given him a better chance at it. I didn’t throw it the way I probably should have. In situations like that, when you have opportunities to close things out or to make plays, you’ve got to make them. I didn’t do a good enough job of that.”
Matt Ryan, on whether there was an option to go short on that play:
“Just the way it was set up, we had kind of a different thing going on the other side. We thought if we had one on one it was a good match up for us.”
NBC Analyst Tony Dungy, on Atlanta’s usage of timeouts:
“They would have been better off letting Cleveland take the time out and then probably running the ball the next play, make them use another time out. You’ve got a great field goal kicker in Matt Bryant. You’re pretty sure you’re going to make it.”
The Falcons play host to the streaking Arizona Cardinals at the Georgia Dome on November 29th. Kickoff is at 4:05PM.
I was never firmly in the ‘Fire Mike Smith!’ camp. One could argue that injuries that have decimated the offensive line over the span of two years, combined with bad drafts and talent evaluation, have left Smith in a precarious position. He’s the winningest coach in Atlanta Falcons history. Prior to his arrival, the team was a dumpster fire, having just lost their franchise quarterback to a suspension for dog-fighting. They had a head coach quit before his first season ended, during half-time of a nationally televised game, announcing it by leaving a note in the locker room. The team had never had consecutive winning seasons.
Mike Smith brought dignity and stability and wins to a franchise that had, frankly, had none of those things. But he has seemed lost all this season. He’s making coaching decisions like his career depends on each one, rather than managing the game. The terrible clock management in this game has happened in other games this season, something that was not seemingly a weakness for him before. He awarded Billy Cundiff a do-over on his field goal attempt today, and, while this one didn’t hurt him like the one against Detroit did, it showed that he is coaching ‘by the book’, something he has traditionally not done.
And the defense. Coach Smith is a defensive minded coach. He has coached the defensive lines and been a defensive coordinator in the NFL. There is no reason that the Falcons should be this bad on defense for 5 straight years. Sure, they don’t have a great deal of NFL talent on the defensive side of the ball, but that’s almost as much a fault of Smith’s as it is general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s.
When the season started poorly, I was content with seeing Dimitroff sent on his way and giving Mike Smith another year. I felt he had earned it. The loss to Detroit in London really put me on the fence. The loss today put me over the fence. It isn’t necessarily that the team lost; good teams lose. It’s the manner in which they lost. Both of those games were entirely on the shoulders of Coach Smith.
I’m sorry, Coach. I like you. You’re a great guy. But it’s time we go our separate ways.