By Ryan Lewis
Beacon Journal sports writer
CLEVELAND: Browns cornerback Buster Skrine went from being a goat to a prized bull in just a few hours Sunday.
Skrine has taken much of the criticism when the Browns’ secondary has struggled as of late, and he drew some more groans from the home crowd during a 17-6 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
He was first beaten by receiver Mohamed Sanu on a flea-flicker in the second quarter. While trying to make up ground, he ran into Sanu and was called for a 40-yard pass-interference penalty. In the third quarter, Skrine delivered a late hit to Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert after an incomplete pass, giving the Bengals 15 yards and a first down.
Skrine, though, redeemed himself in the fourth quarter.
With the Browns leading 17-6 and needing to hold the Bengals’ passing attack in check, Skrine intercepted a pass from quarterback Andy Dalton that inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson had knocked away from Eifert. During the Bengals’ next possession, Skrine effectively ended the game when he broke up a pass intended for wide receiver Marvin Jones on fourth-and-4 at the Bengals’ 30 with 1:39 left.
“Buster is the type of player who’s going to give us 100 percent every time,” nose tackle Phil Taylor said. “He may have a penalty here and there, but we expect that from him because he’s going to give his all. And today he played a hell of a game, and I want to commend him for that.”
Cornerback Joe Haden sees Skrine as a representation of the team as a whole, a guy who has been down but has gotten back up more than once.
“He’s the definition of the Browns,” Haden said. “He’s always been the underdog. He’s too small, but he scraps and claws and fights. That makes stuff happen.”
Offenses have repeatedly targeted Skrine while trying to stay away from Haden. It’s led to some ugly results. Making the key plays on Sunday was validation of sticking with it through tougher times.
“I’m definitely proud. I always believed in myself,” said Skrine, who tied a career high with three broken-up passes. “I just worked as hard as I could to get better over the offseason, learn the game more and I just want to keep playing well.”
After Skrine broke up the fourth-down pass, Jackson picked him up and carried him a few steps in celebration.
“D’Qwell’s been sticking with me through my whole career,” Skrine said. “He’s been telling me I’ve been getting better and better. Just making that play made him real happy because me and him have been on the same page the whole time.”
But Jackson decided a few paces carrying Skrine was enough.
“Yeah I had to put him down real quick,” Jackson said. “I wasn’t carrying him 60 yards. After about a couple steps, I was like, ‘All right Bust, you can run the rest of the way.’ ”
Haden again went toe-to-toe with the Bengals’ A.J. Green, widely thought to be one of the elite receivers in the league. Green had only 51 receiving on seven catches, with much of that production coming late in the fourth quarter. It’s the second-lowest yardage total of Green’s career against the Browns.
“This was the best game I’ve played against him for sure, besides at Florida,” said Haden, who faced Green when he played for Georgia. “When you go against the best, you have to be on your game.”
After the game, two members of the Browns’ secondary, Skrine and free safety Tashaun Gipson, called Haden the “best cornerback in the league.”
“I tip my hat off to [Green], he is definitely a great up-and-coming receiver in this league, but I feel like [Haden] is better,” Gipson said. … “I’m glad that we have Joe Haden and that no other team does.”
Running back Willis McGahee shook the rust off after rushing for 9 yards on eight carries during his debut with the Browns last week against the Minnesota Vikings.
McGahee played a bigger role in the offense against the Bengals with 46 yards on 15 carries, including a key 9-yard run to the 1-yard line that set up the Browns’ final touchdown.
“This is what I’m here for, to finish a game, do that drive that’s needed,” said McGahee, who was out of the league until the Browns signed him Sept. 19. “My number was called, and I just stepped up.”
Coach Rob Chudzinski is starting to see some progress.
“I think he’s getting his legs back underneath him,” Chudzinski said. “Obviously, the practices helped him, having not practiced or played in a long time. This was a big week for him.”
Go-to tight end
Tight end Jordan Cameron had 91 yards and a touchdown on a career-high 10 catches. He is the first Browns tight end with at least five touchdowns in a season since Kellen Winslow Jr. had five in 2007. Cameron’s 30 catches and five touchdowns are also the most for a tight end in the team’s first four games in franchise history. Only Winslow had more yards through the first four games (367 to 360).
Chudzinski praised Cameron after the game, saying, “He seems to make big plays at big times.”
Receiver Josh Gordon produced as well, with 71 yards receiving on four catches.
Third time’s a charm
Kicker Billy Cundiff, who is battling a strained right quadriceps, didn’t get off to a good start Sunday. He first missed a 37-yard attempt wide left and later had a 49-yard try sail far right after the Bengals tipped the ball.
Then when lining up for his third attempt, Cundiff took a practice kick and slipped. But he got up and nailed a 51-yard field goal to finish 1-for-3.
“It was big after missing the two,” Chudzinski said. … “He showed some resiliency and the mental toughness to come back and hit the 51-yarder.”
Cundiff said he isn’t quite 100 percent healthy yet.
“It’s not quite where I want to be, but I think we’re close to being fully recovered,” he said. “It’s just one of those things, you have to make it work. I thought I hit it well today all things considered.”
Move on horizon
The Browns are planning to release running back Montario Hardesty from injured reserve Monday after team doctors medically clear him, a league source confirmed. NFL Network first reported the news Sunday.
The move is not a surprise. When the Browns placed Hardesty on IR Aug. 27 after he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, it seemed to signal the end of his career with the organization.
Former Browns General Manager Tom Heckert traded up into the second round of the 2010 draft to select Hardesty despite his medical history. Hardesty suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in 2005 as a freshman at the University of Tennessee before a torn ACL in his left knee wiped out his entire rookie season with the Browns.
Hardesty’s left knee bothered him this past summer in training camp, so he underwent arthroscopic surgery Aug. 15. Hindered by other leg injuries, Hardesty has played in only 23 games, including five starts, since being drafted. He has compiled 153 carries for 537 yards (3.5 average) and one touchdown to go along with 16 catches for 138 yards.
Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas made his 100th consecutive start Sunday. He’s been on the field for every offensive snap since he entered the league in 2007, the longest such streak in the NFL … In the third quarter, rookie tight end MarQueis Gray lined up in the shotgun and took a direct span for a read-option play. Gray handed it off to Bobby Rainey for a 3-yard gain. … Travis Benjamin and Davone Bess split time returning punts. Wide receiver Greg Little returned kickoffs for the second consecutive game. … Quarterback Brandon Weeden (sprained right thumb), outside linebacker Quentin Groves (high-ankle sprain), offensive lineman Martin Wallace, right guard Shawn Lauvao (high-ankle sprain), tight end Keavon Milton, defensive end Billy Winn (strained quadriceps) and outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard (left knee sprain) were inactive.