CINCINNATI: One of these days, the Browns might play well on offense and defense in the same game.
Until then, their unbalanced performances will continue to result in defeat. The harsh lesson was reinforced Sunday when the Browns suffered a 34-27 AFC North loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.
“Look at the difference between the offense this week and last week,” defensive end Frostee Rucker said. “There are huge improvements. Now we’ve just got to play all on the same page all at the same time.”
Rookies Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson atoned for their debacles in the season opener, leading the offense as it repeatedly fired back and kept the Browns (0-2) in the game till the end. After posting a passer rating of 5.1 and throwing four interceptions in the opener, Weeden went 26-of-37 for 322 yards and two touchdowns without committing a turnover. Richardson had 19 carries for 109 yards (5.7 average) and a touchdown to go along with four receptions for 36 yards and another score.
“A true competitor — a guy that’s mentally tough — will come back and bounce back and correct the mistakes he made last week,” Weeden said. “For the most part, I think I did that.”
The defense, however, allowed too many big plays with cornerbacks Joe Haden, who’s suspended, and Sheldon Brown, who’s dealing with an injured neck, out of the starting lineup. Special teams share the blame, too, because their breakdown early in the first quarter gave the Bengals (1-1) a lead they never relinquished.
“Yeah, we had growth, but we’d much rather have the win more than anything,” wide receiver Greg Little said. “We couldn’t care less about growth. We know how good we are. We just have to come out on top at the end of the game.”
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton rolled to his right to escape pressure from defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin and connected with wide receiver Andrew Hawkins after he shook the coverage of rookie nickel cornerback Trevin Wade. Strong safety T.J. Ward was in position to tackle Hawkins after he made the catch, but Hawkins left Ward in his tracks as he cut back toward the middle of the field and scored a 50-yard touchdown with 10:44 left in the fourth quarter.
“We lost him, he made a couple good moves and he scored a touchdown,” Ward said. “That’s pretty much it.”
The Browns responded with an eight-play, 80-yard drive that was capped by Weeden’s 24-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Little with 7:11 remaining. Phil Dawson’s extra-point kick trimmed the Bengals’ lead to 31-24.
The Browns needed a stop, but the Bengals kept the ball for 5 minutes, 2 seconds, and built a 10-point lead when Mike Nugent made a 37-yard field goal with 2:09 left.
On third-and-7 from the Browns’ 46-yard line, Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham made the most important play of the drive. Despite tight coverage from Ward, he juggled a pass from Dalton along the sideline and appeared to gain control before stepping out of bounds. The officials ruled it a 22-yard catch and a key first down, but it was close.
“I got one hand on it,” Ward said. “I seen the bobble, pushed him out of bounds and I don’t believe he caught it, but, hey, I’m not a referee.”
Browns coach Pat Shurmur challenged the call, and it stood after a replay review.
“At that point, you have to challenge that because that’s a significant game situation,” Shurmur said. “If it goes our way — the views that we saw said he bobbled it going out of bounds and all that business — you have to because then it’s fourth down and they’re punting the ball. I’ve got one time out left, and we’re on the other side of the two-minute warning.”
The Browns marched 66 yards and whittled the Bengals’ advantage down to seven points when Dawson made a 25-yard field goal with 20 seconds left. Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green then recovered the ensuing onside kick at the Browns’ 48 to seal the outcome.
“I think today was a combination of [our 10] penalties and giving up the big one,” said middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, who had five tackles, three sacks and an interception. “The offense stepped up this week. The defense, we didn’t do what we needed to do to win the game. Penalties hurt. They killed us on our side of the ball defensively. We’ve got to clean some things up, so we can play a complete game.”
One of the most glaring miscues foreshadowed the Browns’ demise. Six players missed an opportunity to tackle Adam Jones as he weaved his way down the field and returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown with 13:13 left in the first quarter.
The gaffe left Shurmur’s men in pursuit all afternoon. With their resurrected offense, the Browns chased the Bengals but never caught them.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.