CLEVELAND: For the first time in 12 meetings with the Baltimore Ravens, the Browns matched the team formerly known as the Browns snot bubble for snot bubble.
The credit for that attacking style has to go to first-year coach Rob Chudzinski.
There had been competitive games since November 2007, but the Ravens always held the upper hand, not only on the scoreboard, but in attitude and swagger. As the Browns snapped an 11-game losing streak to the Ravens with a 24-18 win Sunday evening in FirstEnergy Stadium, it was almost as if the two teams switched personalities.
The transformation was evident from the beginning, as the Browns took an 11-point lead in the first 20 minutes. They were the aggressors, the tough guys the Ravens used to be when they had their passionate leader, linebacker Ray Lewis, and headhunting safety Ed Reed.
Chudzinski emphasized last week that the Browns had been the “kid brother” in the AFC North for too long. With the Cincinnati Bengals’ loss to the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night, the division race suddenly looked wide open, with the Browns (now 4-5) having as good a shot as anyone.
But they needed to make a statement by defeating the Ravens.
They needed to go for the jugular.
A Browns fan growing up in Toledo who understands the Cleveland mentality better than any other coach since the 1999 rebirth, Chudzinski did just that. He gambled twice on fourth down, setting the tone on the Browns’ second series. With the game scoreless and the Browns facing fourth-and-goal from the Baltimore 1, quarterback Jason Campbell found receiver Davone Bess for a 1-yard touchdown.
“I felt what we had up game-plan wise to be able to score … It was important in this game for our guys to have the mentality to play to win,” Chudzinski said.
“When you play a team like Baltimore you’ve got to make some things happen. I’m going to be aggressive. It’s not just a matter of being reckless; it’s a matter of being aggressive. Fortunately it paid off today.”
He showed faith in his team again with 3:12 remaining, rolling the dice on fourth-and-1 from the Ravens’ 43 and the Browns clinging to a three-point lead.
Campbell was flushed out of the pocket but found Bess for a 3-yard gain. That set up a 22-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff with 14 seconds remaining for the final margin.
Going into last weekend, the Browns had the most fourth-down attempts (eight) of any team in the NFL. Chudzinski is now 10-for-19.
Chudzinski probably had these risk-taking tendencies when he was the Browns’ offensive coordinator in 2007-08, but coach Romeo Crennel was in charge then.
“I couldn’t make the decisions to go for it back then,” Chudzinski said. “It’s something from Day One I’ve talked to the team about and really worked to build that identity and that philosophy within the team. These guys understand it and they want to play that way.
“I know the guys love to play that way; our defense wants us to play that way.”
Chudzinski’s riverboat gambler persona seems to match the aggressive, blitzing tendencies of defensive coordinator Ray Horton. The offense and defense are feeding off each other, especially with nine-year veteran Campbell making his second consecutive start.
“You resemble your head coach,” Campbell said. “When it gets tough we fight even harder. A lot of it comes because our coach is that way. He doesn’t quit.”
Nine games into the season, the Browns’ identity seems to be emerging. Perhaps they will be football’s version of the Nasty Boys.
Chudzinski wasn’t happy that the Browns lost their composure, resulting in “unnecessary” penalties. The chief offender was receiver Greg Little.
Little was flagged for taunting, giving a “come on” motion with his hand after catching a 15-yard pass on safety James Ihedigbo. Earlier, Little and Ihedigbo mixed it up. The Raven ended up without a helmet and Little was called for unsportsmanlike conduct. Ravens linebacker Daryl Smith was flagged for unnecessary roughness, grabbing Little around the waist and slamming him down after a Campbell pass fell incomplete.
“We were very, very fired up to play, at times maybe a little bit too much,” Chudzinski said. “Some of it comes with young guys, that never-say-die, never-quit attitude. That’s a balance I have to maintain, make sure they have the positives of that and be able to keep their composure.”
But as some fans suggested on Twitter, while he was keeping the officials busy, Little might also have been lighting the Browns’ fire.
A couple of times during the game, the Ravens’ defense got together on their sideline and mimicked LeBron James’ powder toss, presumably foreshadowing greatness coming as they prepared to take the field. But it seemed a weak and hollow gesture.
On this night all the swagger came from the Browns, and it started with Chudzinski.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.