CLEVELAND — The football skimmed off Josh Cribbs’ fingertips. Hopes of a 59-yard touchdown pass from Jake Delhomme to Cribbs and a 17-13 Browns’ third-quarter lead fell to the ground with the ball.
On the stat sheet it simply read, “pass incomplete deep middle.”
It was much bigger than that. After the incomplete pass, six minutes, one second remained in the third quarter. Atlanta did not relinquish its three-point lead. The Falcons defense would go on to intercept Delhomme twice. The first interception was returned 31 yards for a touchdown by defensive end Kroy Biermann, as Atlanta extended its lead to 20-10 with four minutes remaining in the game. Delhomme’s second interception came two minutes later and ended the Browns hopes of a late-game rally.
As Atlanta linebacker Stephen Nicholas, who came down with the tipped pass, celebrated the win with his teammates, Delhomme placed his hands on hips. His body language told the story. Delhomme hung his head as he walked off the field. He was gingerly favoring his injured ankle.
“It’s so frustrating,” Delhomme said. “You come in here and things go so well (in the preseason), then you get hurt. I’m not out there and I’m trying to get back out there to help my team. I got called upon today in an unfortunate situation. You try to be at your best. It’s just frustrating.”
Delhomme entered Sunday not expecting to see a snap. He was content to be on the sidelines until Falcons defensive John Abraham — on the second-to-last play of the first half — sacked Seneca Wallace. Wallace hopped off the field on his left leg and would not return with a right ankle injury.
“We certainly didn’t think Sen would go down,” Delhomme said. “The film from practice told us a great deal what I could and couldn’t do. You don’t have to be too smart to know Sen was our best option. I wasn’t there just yet.”
Delhomme finished 13-for-23 passing for 97 yards with two interceptions and a quarterback rating of 30.5. Wallace, before his injury, was 11-for-15 passing for 139 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions.
To compound the Browns woes, they were unable to run the football, as they finished with 48 yards on 20 carries for a 2.4 average.
“We talked about how important it was for us to stop Cleveland’s running game,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “They had produced back-to-back impressive games in terms of running the ball. Our guys were turned in this week to being able to stop the run.”
Peyton Hillis, the Browns leading rusher, injured his right leg on his 19-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter. Meanwhile, Jerome Harrison finished with six yards on six carries.
“There were some yards we left on the field as running back and some opportunities we had in terms of blocking the front and looks where we didn’t do a very good job,” coach Eric Mangini said. “When you get negative runs, it puts you behind the eight-ball in terms getting first down. You don’t have as many good options on second and longs as you did if you’re facing second and five.”
Since Wallace was not returning, and the Browns weren’t running the ball, a rusty and hobbled Delhomme was in charge. The rust was apparent on the deep pass to Cribbs. Cribbs’ route was a deep post, the same route he and Wallace connected on for a 65-yard touchdown pass in week two at home against Kansas City.
“We didn’t play well enough offensively,” Delhomme said. “It’s very simple. Certainly we’d like to run the ball better and that would have helped some. In the grand scheme as a team, we didn’t get it done and that’s frustrating.”
The Browns enter Steelers week with two injured quarterbacks and an injured leading rusher.
“We’ll let the healing and swelling process take place and see what happens in the morning,” Delhomme said. “No one is going to come and save us and we’ll go from there. It is what it is right now.”
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