Sunday, September 29, 2013

What's happening in Cleveland?

It was a seemingly innocuous play at the time. But it was one that made you sit straight up and wonder aloud, “Wow! Where did that come from?”

As it turned out, it was the play that got everyone’s attention and told you this was going to be a special afternoon for Browns fans. It also sent a distinct message to the Cincinnati Bengals.

With about five minutes left in the opening quarter of the initial game of the 2013 Battle of Ohio, the Browns lined up in a shotgun formation on a second-and-6 at their 39-yard line.

At the snap, quarterback Brian Hoyer head-faked quickly to his right, drawing Cincinnati defenders in that direction, then threw a strike to wide receiver Travis Benjamin in what appeared to be a bubble screen to the left.

The speedy Benjamin instantly looked up and saw he had a convoy of three blockers and turned the short pass into a 39-yard gain to the Cincinnati 22. It was executed to exquisite, almost immaculate, perfection. Browns fans haven’t seen a misdirection play like that in way too long.

And it sent a blaring signal to the Bengals. This game belonged to the Browns. Even though it was relatively early in the game, they owned it. Then they went out and played like it for the rest of the game. On both sides of the football.

That play so flustered the Bengals, they called a timeout immediately. They had no clue what had just taken place. But regrouping did not help.

Hoyer, operating his offense with the precision of a surgeon, completed a 95-yard drive with a two-yard, back-shoulder touchdown pass to Jordan Cameron for a 7-0 lead the Browns never relinquished en route to a 17-6 home victory Sunday.

The Bengals were never in charge in this one. Whenever big plays were needed, they were made by the Browns. On third down, for example, Hoyer was 9-for-18. What makes that noteworthy was Cleveland’s 25% conversion rate on that down entering the game. (The Bengals were 4-for-14),

The defense, playing as well as any team in the National Football League right now, made Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton look like a mere mortal rather than the star some have made him out to be.

The dynamic game plan of defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who threw disguised coverage after disguised coverage at the baffled Dalton, worked to near perfection. It’s a wonder he was able to throw for 206 yards.

Browns cornerback Joe Haden blanketed outstanding wide receiver A. J. Green so beautifully, it seemed as though he picked up Green right off the bus, giving a whole new meaning to the label shutdown corner.

Green finished with seven harmless catches for 51 harmless yards, a 7.23-yard average. He entered the game with an average of 13.1 yards a catch. His longest grab was for just 16 yards. Haden made certain Green was not going to beat the Browns as he has done so often in the past.

He had plenty of help from his secondary mates. Free safety Tashaun Gipson played maybe the game of his life. When he wasn’t knocking down passes, he fearlessly stuck his nose in on running plays.

Chris Owens short-circuited a potential Cincinnati rally with a strip sack on a corner blitz of Dalton on the first drive of the second half. The Browns did not turn it into points, but it clearly told the Bengals this was not going to be their day.

It’s plays like that, plays that need to be made in clutch situations that separate good teams from bad teams, great teams from good teams. Right now, the Brown are learning to how to become a good team.

The stifling, suffocating Cleveland defense, which limited Cincinnati to just 266 yards in 10 drives, racked up only two sacks, both of the coverage variety. But it often forced Dalton to throw the ball before he wanted. Timing is an important ingredient to his success.

D’Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson were outstanding in the middle of the Cleveland defense, piling up 20 tackles between them as the Bengals managed just 63 yards on the ground.

The most surprising aspect of the Cleveland defense, though, was the tackling. It was crisp. It was immediate. It was hard. And it was of the gang variety.  No cheap yards were given up.

The offense, meanwhile, was extremely efficient. The most important statistic on that side of the ledger was zero. As in no turnovers. Whenever you can move the chains and keep the opposition defense on the field, you’ve done your job.

For the second week in a row, Hoyer has given coach Rob Chudzinski no reason to switch quarterbacks when Brandon Weeden’s thumb heals. For whatever reason, the Cleveland offense seems to operate smoothly with Hoyer under center.

Offensive coordinator Norv Turner also appears to feel more comfortable giving Hoyer plays he probably wouldn’t call for Weeden. The Benjamin screen pass, for example, was successful because Hoyer was able to sell it.

It’s been only two games, but the Browns’ offense with Hoyer at the controls seems to play a different style of game that produces positive results. There seems to be more creativity in the play calling.

The body language on both sides of the ball also seems to be different. It’s almost as though they can’t wait to run the next play on offense. Or come up with a big play on defense.

Last Sunday, the Browns beat an average team in the Minnesota Vikings. The Bengals are not an average team. While the Vikings’ victory got the Browns off the schneid for the season, this one was much more meaningful. And well earned.

In the end, it’s not as though the Bengals blew this one. They didn’t play well because the Browns prevented them from doing so.  The Browns just played better. A lot better. Maybe the best all-around game they’ve played in a very long time.

So now, the Browns are an improbable 2-2 and (amazingly) in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC North with the Buffalo Bills up next at home Thursday night on national television.

Imagine that. Week five around the corner and the Browns are in first place with a chance to show a national TV audience what all the fuss is about in Cleveland.

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