One missed Browns defensive assignment, one big Falcons pass play turns table in loss

ATLANTA — There was no double-digit Browns lead in the fourth quarter. The play didn't go for a touchdown, either.

However, the Browns' 23-20 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday changed on one big play. It was a play too similar to what had plagued them in two previous games.

The Falcons had the ball on their own 9 with just over three minutes remaining. On second down, quarterback Marcus Mariota found a wide-open Olamide Zaccheaus for a 42-yard gain.

Another 15 yards was tacked on due to a facemask penalty on Denzel Ward, putting the ball on the Browns 34. Four plays later, Younghoe Koo kicked a 45-yard field goal to give the Falcons the lead for good with 2:28 remaining.

"I'm going to have to look at that play again," Ward said, "but we were in like a Cover 3 and, yeah, once I got my eyes back, I just seen the ball carrier coming towards me and trying to get him down."

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus (17) misses the catch against Cleveland Browns cornerback A.J. Green (38) during the first half of a preseason NFL football game, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus (17) misses the catch against Cleveland Browns cornerback A.J. Green (38) during the first half of a preseason NFL football game, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Zaccheaus lined up on the left side of the formation, and ended up catching the ball on the right side of the field at the Atlanta 30 with no one around him. Cornerback Greg Newsome II appeared to initially be lined up over him at the snap, although it's hard to tell exactly who would've picked him up by the time he caught the ball.

Coach Kevin Stefanski said he needed to look at the film and the call sheet to see where the breakdown occurred.

"Yeah, I’d have to look at it to give you a specific answer," Stefanski said. "Obviously we’re not designing it to have a guy wide open. But we just gotta make sure we get the ‘em in good position, then make a play when the ball comes our way."

There was a certainly eerie familiarity to the breakdowns against the Carolina Panthers and the New York Jets that led to the Browns blowing double-digit leads in the fourth quarter of both games. They managed to rally to pull out the win over the Panthers but, much like Sunday, the Jets game resulted in a loss.

Oct 2, 2022; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Damiere Byrd (14) tries to catch a pass defended by Cleveland Browns cornerback Denzel Ward (21) during the first quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 2, 2022; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Damiere Byrd (14) tries to catch a pass defended by Cleveland Browns cornerback Denzel Ward (21) during the first quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

It was coverage breakdowns in both of those games that opened the door to those teams coming back against the Browns. It was a 75-yard touchdown to Robbie Anderson in Carolina and a 66-yard touchdown to Corey Davis that kick-started the Jets comeback.

On Sunday, it was Zaccheaus getting free to flip the field. And turn a tie game into a loss.

"There was a guy wide open across the middle of the field," safety John Johnson III said. "We've got to go back to the tape, see what happened. Can't have guys wide open."

For the Browns defense, it was a disheartening way to end a game in which it had done a strong job of not allowing the Falcons to get a lot of yards through the air. The pass play to Zaccheaus was the longest play of the day for for the Falcons, and the only pass play of more than 8 yards in the second half.

Mariota, who completed 7 of 19 passes for 139 yards in the game, was just 2-of-9 for 49 yards and an interception in the second half. On a team that featured young talents such as 2021 first-round pick Kyle Pitts at tight end and 2022 first-round pick Drake London at receiver, it was the fourth-year pro Zaccheaus who was the receiving star.

Zaccheaus had two catches for 55 yards on two targets. The only other Falcons player with multiple catches was London, who had two catches on seven targets for 17 yards.

"It's a team sport and we've got to play together and all be on the same page," said Ward, who did have an interception to set up a Cade York field goal for a 13-10 Browns lead in the third quarter. "No one side, not just the secondary, not just the D-line, is going to win the game. Got to all play together and find a way to do good and do our job to win the game."

Contact Chris at ceasterling@thebeaconjournal.com.

On Twitter: @ceasterlingABJ

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Cleveland Browns defensive breakdown opens door for Atlanta win