CLEVELAND: Through two quarters Sunday, the Browns’ new 3-4 defense looked exactly as fans had hoped it would in defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s first game with the team.
The defense lost the second-half chess match, though, and the Browns fell 23-10 to the Miami Dolphins in the opener at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Despite playing without rookie outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft who’s recovering from a bruised lung, and starting left defensive end Ahtyba Rubin, who missed the game with a calf injury, the Browns held the Miami Dolphins to only 89 yards, including just 7 rushing yards, in the first half. For the game, the defense only surrendered 20 yards rushing, tied for second fewest in team history, on 23 carries. The Browns held the Giants to four yards in a game in 1954 and the Bears to 20 in 1967.
Even more impressive, the defense propped up the offense enough to enable the Browns to hold a 7-6 halftime lead despite a flurry of drops and quarterback Brandon Weeden’s three interceptions.
Not being able to get off the field eventually caught up to Horton’s men. The Browns’ offense continued to sputter, and the Dolphins converted 8-of-16 third downs, scoring a touchdown in the third quarter to take the lead and another in the fourth quarter to put it out of reach.
“You’re going to get tired being on the field that long,” nose tackle Phil Taylor said. “But it is what it is. The defense has got to worry about defense. Our offense will worry about offense.”
The Dolphins did most of their damage in the second half through the air. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw for 174 yards and a touchdown in the final two quarters, including a 34-yard strike to former GlenOak High School and Ohio State wide receiver Brian Hartline. Tannehill also orchestrated the Dolphins’ final touchdown drive, going 6-for-7 for 78 yards, that was capped by Daniel Thomas’ 1-yard run and gave them a 20-10 lead.
Joe Haden turned No. 1 wide receiver Mike Wallace into a nonfactor, but fellow cornerbacks Chris Owens and Buster Skrine, who were tasked with covering Hartline and Brandon Gibson, struggled to keep up. Hartline finished with 114 yards on nine catches, and Gibson had 77 yards on five catches.
Haden and Owens, who started the game at corner, both applauded the Browns’ pass rushers for putting pressure on Tannehill — he was sacked four times, twice by starting right defensive end Desmond Bryant. But too many times, especially on third down, the cornerbacks couldn’t cover long enough to contain the Dolphins’ receiving corps.
“It’s tough. But then again, it’s the NFL. No game is easy,” Owens said. “We just need to play better, take what we did, watch film and [I] think the most important thing is correcting those mistakes and then going forward.”
Haden held Wallace, who left the Pittsburgh Steelers in the offseason and signed a five-year, $60 million contract with the Dolphins, to one catch for 15 yards. Wallace was angry after the game. He told Miami reporters he didn’t feel like talking, and when questioned about the game plan, he said, “Ask Coach [Joe Philbin], not my game plan.”
“Mike Wallace, he didn’t do too much,” Haden said. “But we still lost, so it’s not a win for me.”
Haden did drop an interception, as did strong safety T.J. Ward, both in the third quarter. Haden was upset about missing the opportunity. Ward’s was particularly costly, because Hartline’s touchdown came three plays later.
Josh Gordon, the Browns’ No. 1 wide receiver, sat out while serving the first of a two-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. Travis Benjamin received a boost in snaps in his absence. Gordon’s playmaking ability, though, was missed.
“The more weapons the better, let’s not kid ourselves,” Weeden said. “He has a lot of tools, but that’s the hand we’re dealt. We came in and I was extremely confident and threw it to every receiver we had. Even though Josh isn’t there, we’ve got to keep moving.”
Defensive end Billy Winn, who started in place of Rubin, left the game in the third quarter with left hamstring cramps and returned later in the same quarter. Winn said he ran into the locker room, got some fluids and was fine afterward. Rubin missed more than three games last season with a calf injury, but coach Rob Chudzinski said it’s an entirely different injury.
Starting inside linebacker Craig Robertson also left the game and returned because of cramps.
Ward left at the end of the first quarter with a shoulder injury. He returned with 11:18 remaining in the second quarter.
“We’ll get more analysis when I see the doctors [today],” Ward said.
Benjamin was seen after the game with his right thigh wrapped. He walked out of the locker room gingerly.
Up and down
A lot was said about Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s track record getting the ball to the tight end. That was clear Sunday as Jordan Cameron emerged as a legitimate receiving threat. He led the Browns in targets and receptions, with 13 and nine, respectively, had 109 receiving yards and caught a 7-yard touchdown at the end of the first half. Cameron set career highs in both receptions and yards.
Cameron also appeared to have a 49-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter after he hauled in a Weeden pass, fell down, got up and ran into the end zone. After a review, it was determined Cameron was touched while on the ground, and the ball was placed at the 27-yard line. After the game, Cameron confirmed he was touched. Former Browns cornerback Dimitri Patterson intercepted a pass from Weeden during the next play.
Despite his own production, Cameron was frustrated with the offense’s lack of momentum.
“We couldn’t really get it going, and it’s a game of runs and we just needed to try to get some stuff going together,” Cameron said. “So that’s why it was kind of stale sometimes. We just really need to get the ball rolling and make some plays.”
Another report surfaced Sunday that outlines the course of action Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is expected to take if he’s forced to relinquish control of the team as a result of his family’s truck-stop empire, Pilot Flying J, being targeted in an ongoing criminal investigation into a fraud scheme.
Jason La Canfora of CBS reported that Haslam could turn the day-to-day operations of the Browns over to his father, Jim Haslam. SportsBusiness Journal reported the same contingency plan last month. La Canfora, citing unnamed sources, reported the deal has already been signed off on and would go into place should the younger Haslam be suspended from serving as owner.
Last week, Browns CEO Joe Banner declined to comment on the SportsBusiness Journal report in an interview with the Beacon Journal, but he addressed the topic by referring to a statement Haslam made July 25 when training camp began.
“Jimmy’s been really public in saying that his family’s going to own this team for a very long time,” Banner said. “And I think people should trust that.”
Sources told La Canfora it is an extremely remote possibility that Haslam would be in a position in which the NFL would prompt him to divest himself from the Browns entirely. But if that happens, sources told La Canfora, that the league has identified potential owners who might be able to assume control of the team in an expeditious manner.
The FBI and Internal Revenue Service raided the headquarters of Pilot Flying J April 15 as part of an ongoing criminal probe into a fuel rebate fraud scheme. Seven former employees have since pleaded guilty to federal charges.
Haslam, the CEO of Pilot Flying J, has repeatedly denied prior knowledge of the fraud. He is facing several civil lawsuits.
Browns center Alex Mack’s rookie contract is scheduled to expire in March, but he’s not open to striking a new deal during this season, La Canfora reported Sunday, citing an unnamed source.
So Mack will play out the remainder of his rookie deal without contract talks taking place in the background, according to the report. Some players avoid negotiations during the season to prevent them from becoming a distraction.
Mack, 27, has started all 64 games for the Browns since they drafted him in the first round (21st overall) in 2009. He made the Pro Bowl in 2010.
On July 31, Browns General Manager Mike Lombardi said the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Mack fits the profile of a player the Browns want to sign to a contract extension.
In addition to Mingo and Rubin, quarterback Brian Hoyer, tight end MarQueis Gray, offensive lineman Martin Wallace, right guard Shawn Lauvao (high ankle sprain) and outside linebacker Paul Hazel were inactive for the Browns. … Hall of fame wide receiver Paul Warfield served as an honorary captain for the Browns. Warfield won an NFL Championship with the Browns and two Super Bowls with the Dolphins.
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