CLEVELAND: Browns undrafted rookie linebacker L.J. Fort had an interception in his NFL debut, but the one he wanted the most slipped out of his grasp.
On second-and-goal at the Browns’ 4-yard line, Fort got his hands on a pass from Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick in the front corner of the end zone with 1:23 left in the fourth quarter. However, Fort dropped the ball, Vick connected with tight end Clay Harbor for a 4-yard touchdown on the next play and the Eagles edged the Browns 17-16 on Sunday in the regular-season opener for both teams.
“It went right through my hands,” said Fort, who started in place of strongside linebacker Scott Fujita. “I should’ve had it. I have to make those plays.”
If Fort held on, the Browns would have been in position to record their first win in an opener since 2004. Instead, the defense’s five takeaways — four interceptions and a fumble recovery — were wasted.
Fort and Craig Robertson, who entered the game in nickel packages, received significant playing time despite never having appeared in an NFL game before. They each had an interception, cornerback Joe Haden added one and middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson returned another 27 yards for a touchdown with 13:59 left in the fourth quarter. During the opening drive, strong safety T.J. Ward forced Eagles running back LeSean McCoy to fumble, and Jackson recovered.
“I think they rose to the occasion,” Jackson said of Fort and Robertson. “I think those guys had put in the time and we all know it. Whatever you put in, you get out of it, and those guys have been tremendous from the start. They had a lot of pressure on them. I can remember my first game. I don’t remember it because it was a blur, but those guys played well. Craig and L.J., they stepped up, and it’s a good sign for us.”
Haden said the defense’s leaders won’t let Fort, who also had a sack, hang his head for dropping the interception in crunch time.
“He played way too good to even let him think it was his fault,” Haden said. “So it’s like, ‘L.J., you did your thing. Pick it off next time.’ ”
Although Fort knows he must move on, he probably won’t forget his professional debut anytime soon.
“It was a great first game, an emotional roller coaster,” Fort said. “I think I experienced all the highs and lows of an NFL game.”
Fujita still out
Although Fujita had his three-game suspension for his alleged role in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal overturned by a three-member appeals panel Friday and was eligible to play Sunday, he remained sidelined. The Browns received a roster exemption from the NFL after Fujita’s suspension was lifted, but he is still on the exempt list.
Fujita’s injured left knee sidelined him for three of the Browns’ four preseason games. He chatted with incoming owner Jimmy Haslam III on the sideline before the game, then stretched and ran sprints on the field. Fujita helped coach his teammates on the sideline during game.
Fujita said his knee is OK, and he would have been able to practice last week if his suspension hadn’t prohibited him from spending time at the team’s training facility.
“The decision [to lift the suspension] came so late in the week,” Fujita said. “I half-jokingly said, ‘If it came five or six hours sooner, then there’s a chance I’m playing today.’ ”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell can still re-issue punishment to Fujita and the other players suspended in the bounty case. Fujita said he doesn’t know what to expect.
“This is just completely uncharted territory,” Fujita said. “There’s no precedent for any of this. I felt good about it all along. Everyone thought I was crazy for feeling optimistic. I feel good about what’s ahead, even though I don’t know what’s ahead.”
In Fujita’s absence, Fort started on the strong side. Rookie James-Michael Johnson, a fourth-round pick in this year’s draft, would have replaced Fujita at linebacker, but he was inactive with a ribs/oblique injury.
The Browns had one other lineup change. Rookie Billy Winn, a sixth-round pick, started at defensive tackle instead of rookie John Hughes, a third-round selection. Winn and Hughes rotated throughout the game, filling in for Phil Taylor, who will miss at least the first six games as he recovers from a torn pectoral muscle.
The Browns’ defensive line went after Vick to take him out of his comfort zone.
The Browns hit Vick 11 times, sacked him twice, batted down two passes at the line and played a part in four interceptions. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard, who had one of the knockdowns, still didn’t believe that was enough.
“Obviously, you want to keep him in the pocket,” Sheard said of containing Vick. “The secondary played well, but they made plays. I mean we got to hold them up a little more and get more hits in.”
Ward, who had eight tackles and sacked him once, praised the line.
“We were just persistent,” he said. “We kept coming and coming. We had good coverage. The D-line played excellent. They were getting the pressure. We were clicking on all cylinders. We just came up a little short.”
Browns coach Pat Shurmur’s challenge of an Eagles’ fumble late in the game sparked confusion.
On the game’s final drive, Vick scrambled out of the pocket on third-and-10 from the Browns’ 32 and was sandwiched by cornerback Buster Skrine and Antyba Rubin, who jarred the ball loose. Vick and Winn both went after the ball, and the officials ruled Vick recovered his own fumble and was down by contact. That left the Eagles facing fourth-and-1 at the Cleveland 23.
Shurmur felt Winn had possession first and threw the challenge flag. Referee Ken Roan walked to the replay camera, only to announce the play couldn’t be reviewed.
“I know it was a fumble. I saw us with the ball,” Shurmur said. “That’s why I challenged it. That makes sense to me. Whether or not you can challenge it or not, it makes sense to me. He let me challenge it beforehand, right?
“I don’t know what he said [regarding whether or not the play could be challenged].
I was already getting into the next [play]. When he told me we weren’t getting the ball, I started worrying about the next play.”
Vick threw the game-winning touchdown five plays later.
Browns starting cornerback Sheldon Brown suffered what Shurmur said was a stinger late in the first quarter and did not return. … Bernie Kosar and Webster Slaughter were the Browns’ game-day captains. … The Browns became just the third team since 1970 to start rookies at quarterback, running back and receiver on opening day. The triumvirate of Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson and Josh Gordon joined David Carr, Jonathan Wells and Jabar Gaffney of the 2002 Texans and the Archie Manning, Bob Gresham and Bob Newland of the 1971 Saints. … The Browns’ six rookie starters were the team’s most on opening day in the Super Bowl era (since 1966). ... Kicker Phil Dawson played in his 200th game, joining Clay Matthews (232), Lou Groza (216), Doug Dieken (203) and Gene Hickerson (202) as the only Browns to reach that milestone. … Travis Benjamin’s 35-yard rush on a double reverse was the third-longest by a Browns receiver since 1999. … Johnson, quarterback Thaddeus Lewis (right thumb), wide receiver Jordan Norwood, running back Chris Ogbonnaya (ankle), rookie cornerback Trevin Wade, strong safety Usama Young (thigh) and offensive tackle Oniel Cousins (ankle) were the Browns’ inactive players.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Ryan Lewis can be reached at . Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.