CLEVELAND: Cornerback Joe Haden smiled and shook his head as he thought about everything he has been through this season and how the Browns snapped their 11-game losing streak upon his return.
Haden had seven tackles, three passes defensed and an interception, breathing life into the defense as it tallied four takeaways in the Browns’ 34-24 win Sunday over the Cincinnati Bengals. It was Haden’s first game back in action after serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. He returned to practice Monday, admitted Adderall use triggered his failed drug test and apologized to the organization and the fans.
On game day, he tried to atone.
“It’s honestly a blessing,” Haden said. “I couldn’t ask for us to come out here and do any better. [Middle linebacker] D’Qwell [Jackson] came up to me and said I brought a spark to the team this whole week in practice, and that was the whole thing I was trying to do — just let our boys know I’m back and we have a good team, we have a good secondary, we have a good defense.”
“I just felt like I came in here and just tried to bring energy. I was like, ‘If you have emotion, play with emotion. If you make a play, show other people that you’re excited, so everybody else gets up.’ That’s what we did, and the biggest thing is when things started going wrong, we stopped it early. We just didn’t keep letting it go bad.”
Haden often covered Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, who had seven catches for 135 yards and two touchdowns. Green got behind Haden’s coverage for a 57-yard touchdown that the Bengals used to trim their deficit to 10 points with 5:21 left in the fourth quarter, but Haden made so many other big plays that overshadowed the letdown.
In the second quarter, he was responsible for two stops in a row on third down. He made a nice open-field tackle to bring down running back Brian Leonard short of a first down and broke up a pass from quarterback Andy Dalton to wide receiver Armon Binns during the Bengals’ next possession.
“Just the intensity that he brings and the all-out effort he approaches every day with, it rubs off on you,” Jackson said. “Today he was all over the field. Having him on the field is definitely a security blanket for me.”
In the third quarter, cornerback Buster Skrine tipped a pass from Dalton to Green, and Haden picked it off at the Bengals’ 39. He returned the interception 14 yards to set up Phil Dawson’s 38-yard field goal with 6:27 left in the third quarter.
“I was coming down on Cover 2 to make a tackle, and it was tipped,” Haden said. “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.”
Haden, though, was lucky and good.
“He brings so much energy to the table for the defense, for the whole team,” rookie defensive tackle Billy Winn said. “He has a huge contribution to this team and a lot of things we do on the field. He’s one of those guys that you know we can trust back there. You know he’s gonna do his job and his responsibility.”
Someone special ended up with a present after cornerback Sheldon Brown returned his first interception of the season for a touchdown to put the Browns ahead 34-17 with 7:50 remaining.
“My son’s gonna get that ball,” Brown said, the ball tucked safely in his locker.
An 11-year NFL veteran, Brown later said his 6-year-old son Dion is his “fountain of youth.”
It was experience, though, that allowed Brown to recognize and jump Brandon Tate’s route and take Dalton’s pass 19 yards to the end zone.
“I’ve seen that route combination once or twice in my career,” Brown said. “[Wide receiver] No. 2 runs to the flat. As a corner, you see No. 1; he runs a curl. Sometimes he runs a slant. This particular time, he ran a slant.”
As for the Browns snapping their franchise-tying 11-game losing streak, Brown wasn’t fazed. He’s endured worse.
During his first two years at South Carolina, Brown and the Gamecocks won their first game in 1998, then dropped their next 21 in a row.
“You’ve never been 1-21,” he said. “Yeah, talk to me about adversity.”
It might also be why he refuses to relax, even though the Browns are no longer in danger of setting a record for futility. The pressure-packed Sundays won’t stop coming.
“There’s never a release of pressure,” Brown said. “The thing is, you never know about this league. You can be the hero one week, the zero the next. You have to be consistent and steady and handle it likewise and be a pro.”
He had a message for his younger teammates: “So, this game is over, right? The next one counts. So what will you do next Sunday? That’s what’s important,” he said.
Despite catching two touchdowns against the New York Giants last week, rookie wide receiver Josh Gordon wasn’t entirely pleased with the performance because it came in a loss.
He felt much more positive about his three catches and 99 yards — which included a 71-yard, one-handed touchdown grab with 14:51 left in the second quarter — against the Bengals.
“Last week I didn’t feel like I contributed or had a breakout game unless I contributed to the win,” he said. “Now that I did help contribute, it feels a little better. A whole lot better.”
Gordon lined up in the slot opposite safety Reggie Nelson. Similar to last week when he burned linebacker Chase Blackburn for a 62-yard touchdown, the Browns used Gordon’s speed and exploited the mismatch again.
“It’s really just scheming,” he said. “We scheme in practice, we work on it. If we see a mismatch we try and take advantage of it. In that case it was definitely happening, and we took advantage of it.”
Spike that wasn’t
The Browns caught a break just before halftime. With the clock winding down and the Bengals out of timeouts, Dalton hit Green for a 25-yard pass to the Browns’ 16, but Green was tackled by Skrine inbounds. The Bengals sprinted to the line, and Dalton spiked the ball as time expired. The officials blew the play dead and called for halftime, though replays indicated Dalton might have gotten off the spike with a second remaining. Referee Pete Morelli said it wasn’t a reviewable play.
“The clock is taken on the field by the line judge and the back judge, who has the secondary — the line judge has primary,” Morelli said in a pool report. “I got a signal from them that after the snap when the ball hit the ground, there were zeros on [the] clock so [the] half [was] over.”
Fair catch that wasn’t
In the midst of seven straight three-and-out possessions, Josh Cribbs provided a big boost to the offense with a 60-yard punt return in the third quarter that set up Phil Dawson’s first field goal.
Several Bengals players and coaches came onto the field calling for a fair catch interference call. Cribbs says he was just motioning for other Browns to get away from the ball.
“I don’t know why they think I [signaled] fair catch,” Cribbs said. “Very rarely do I fair catch and when I do, it’s one swipe ... I saw the gunner lay off and I guess he thought I fair caught it, but that’s his fault. He’s gotta come out ready to play. The gunner’s supposed to front you up, anyway, when a guy fair-catches it, so I’m sure he’s gonna get coached up.”
Ward denies rumor
Safety T.J. Ward responded to discussions on Cleveland radio stations that he was late to Saturday morning’s walk-through practice.
“I was there,” he said. “I don’t know where that came from. I heard those rumors, too.”
Inactives, lineup changes
Defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin (calf), linebacker Scott Fujita (shoulder/neck), wide receivers Mohamed Massaquoi (hamstring) and Travis Benjamin (hamstring), cornerback Dimitri Patterson (ankle), safety Tashaun Gipson (knee) and offensive tackle Ryan Miller were inactive for the Browns.
Rookie John Hughes made his first career start in place of Rubin, whose streak of 41 consecutive starts ended. Rookie James-Michael Johnson started in place of Fujita at strongside linebacker. Gordon started in place of Massaquoi for the second consecutive week. And Skrine filled Patterson’s role as the nickel cornerback.
Starting left guard Jason Pinkston left the game early in the first quarter and was replaced by John Greco. Shurmur said Pinkston didn’t feel well when he woke up, but Pinkston said it’s nothing serious. … Wide receiver Josh Cooper, playing in his first game this season, caught two passes for 39 yards. ... Fullback Owen Marecic dropped two passes. ... Dawson, who said it might have been the worst wind conditions he has ever seen at Cleveland Browns Stadium, kicked two field goals. He has connected on all 12 attempts this season and 18 in a row going to last year. ... The Browns’ 10 interceptions have already surpassed their 2011 total of nine. ... Skrine had a career-high 10 tackles. ... The Browns’ 21 fourth-quarter points were the most since they scored 21 against Baltimore on Oct. 6, 2002. ... Free safety Usama Young intercepted a pass from Dalton in the end zone on the Bengals’ final offensive play.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com.browns.abj