CHICAGO: The Browns had to dig deep on their depth chart to put all the necessary parts on the field Thursday night during their 18-16 win over the Chicago Bears in the preseason finale at Soldier Field.
About 90 minutes before kickoff, the Browns announced third-string quarterback Brian Hoyer would start because backup Jason Campbell had flu-like symptoms. Campbell missed practice Tuesday with the illness and was available to face the Bears in a pinch. But Hoyer played the entire game and completed 24-of-35 passes for 307 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions, posting a passer rating of 81.5.
“I don’t care if it’s the fourth preseason game or the last game of the season, when you’re out there, you’re out there to win,” said Hoyer, a St. Ignatius High School graduate. “It doesn’t matter who’s out there. You play to win. You don’t just play to play.
“We struggled. We really shot ourselves in the foot a bunch in the first half. It’s just good to see when you grind it out. You’re not always going to win big. I know it’s kind of cliché, but a win is a win, and hopefully we take that mentality and momentum into the regular season.”
Shayne Graham, who entered the night as the only healthy kicker on the roster, felt tightness in his back during pregame warm-ups and was held out for precautionary reasons. As a result, punter Spencer Lanning was forced to handle placekicking duties while he battled Colt Schmidt for a job.
Lanning made 2-of-3 field goals, including a 40-yard, game-winning kick with 3:15 left in the fourth quarter. Bears kicker Robbie Gould missed a 57-yard attempt wide right with 1:09 left in the fourth quarter, allowing the Browns to finish the preseason with a record of 3-1.
“Excited,” said Lanning, who hadn’t kicked a field goal since his senior season at the University of South Carolina in 2010. “That’s the first game-winning field goal I have ever had an opportunity to kick.”
Everyone knew Browns coach Rob Chudzinski would rest most of his starters, including quarterback Brandon Weeden, heading into the last live tune-up for the Sept. 8 regular-season opener against the visiting Miami Dolphins. But an all-Hoyer night and a punter kicking field goals were not included in the original plan.
Josh Gordon, the team’s No. 1 receiver, was the most prominent Browns player who faced the Bears. Gordon received the extra work because he will miss the first two regular-season games while serving a suspension from the NFL for violating its substance-abuse policy.
Chudzinski said Gordon cannot practice with the Browns during Weeks 1 and 2, but he is allowed to train and at the team’s headquarters in Berea during the suspension.
“He can be in meetings,” Chudzinski said. “He can work out in the weight room and run and that type of thing. He can get treatment. So he can be around. Now he can’t be at practice. He can’t do any of those types of things with the team, but he can be in meetings, he can get treatment and he can work out at the facility.”
Hoyer immediately tried to establish a rapport with Gordon. On the first play from scrimmage, Hoyer found Gordon wide open along the Bears’ sideline for a 45-yard gain that could have been an 84-yard touchdown had he led Gordon with the pass instead of floating it.
“It’s so easy to throw to Josh,” Hoyer said. “He’s such a big target, and he’s so smooth. I was lucky to be able to get some balls to him. I wish he would’ve been playing a little more, but when you get a chance to throw to a guy like that, you put it close and let him make the play.”
Two plays later, Hoyer targeted Gordon again. But cornerback Demontre Hurst intercepted his pass at the Bears’ 26 and returned it 17 yards with 13:43 left in the opening quarter.
“I threw an interception that was totally on me,” Hoyer said. “I had the play backwards in my head. [Gordon] was supposed to be breaking out, and I thought he was breaking in. That’s totally on me. And he almost even got in there and got it. You’ve just got to move on, and that’s the one thing we did tonight was keep fighting, keep battling.”
The Bears then marched 23 yards, stalled and settled for Gould’s successful 52-yard field goal that put the Browns behind 3-0 with 10:26 left in the first quarter.
The Browns turned to Lanning when they had a chance to tie the score with a 41-yard field goal during the ensuing series. Lanning’s attempt, though, sailed wide left with Schmidt, his competition for the punting job, holding during the kick.
The Bears then orchestrated a 16-play, 69-yard scoring drive. Fourth-string quarterback Jordan Palmer, who started Thursday, connected with wide receiver Joe Anderson in the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown, giving the Bears a 10-0 lead with 12:08 left in the first half. Browns undrafted rookie cornerback Abdul Kanneh was beat by Anderson during the play.
After playing two series and catching two passes for 77 yards, Gordon got the rest of the night off.
Fellow wide receiver David Nelson then entered the game with 12:03 left in the second quarter, his first live action since Sept. 9, 2012, when he tore the ACL in his right knee as a member of the Buffalo Bills. Nelson missed most of training camp this summer and the first three exhibition games with a bone bruise in his surgically repaired knee.
Late in the second quarter, Hoyer connected with Nelson for a 4-yard gain. Then on third-and-3 at the Browns’ 49-yard line, Nelson ran a slant route and dropped a pass for a would-be first down. He was targeted 10 times but finished with four catches for 54 yards.
“I’m just my own harshest critic, and I demand perfection and excellence on every play,” Nelson said. “I expect myself to come in and out of breaks, if I slip it doesn’t matter if it’s the grass, I put it on myself. If a ball is thrown to me, I feel like I should make the play no matter what. I feel like the ball was thrown to me a good amount tonight, and for whatever reason, I just didn’t make the play.”
All NFL teams must trim their rosters to 53 players by 6 p.m. Saturday. The Browns have 75 players, and Nelson said he’s worried about cuts, even though he seems to have a spot secured.
“I think you have to be,” Nelson said. “I don’t think anybody’s safe, and the fact I haven’t played the first three preseason games, I wasn’t able to show anything in OTAs and I wasn’t able to show anything in preseason. All I have to show is a week and a half of practice and the game I just put out there.”
The Browns, though, got the ball back with 58 seconds left in the first half and ran an effective two-minute offense with Nelson tallying catches of 21 and 16 yards and fullback Brad Smelley adding a another 21-yard grab to help set up Lanning’s successful 32-yard field goal as time expired in the second quarter. The Browns trailed 10-3 at halftime.
“It was great [throwing to Nelson]. For him it’s got to be tough,” Hoyer said. “He really hasn’t practiced much and for him to get out there and play his first time in a game, he played a lot and made some big catches.”
Smelley left the game in the third quarter with an injured shoulder and did not return.
“It’s fine,” said Smelley, declining to elaborate when asked if he could miss time.
Nelson was the intended receiver as cornerback Sherrick McManis intercepted a pass from Hoyer with 13:09 left in the fourth quarter along the Bears’ sideline. Nelson fell during the play and ran across the field to the Browns’ sideline with a limp. The good news is Nelson said his knee is OK and calf cramps caused him to limp.
“The knee feels fine,” said Nelson, who signed a one-year deal with the Browns in April. “The knee feels 100 percent. I did have an issue with cramping. But there was nothing involved with the knee at all.
“It was calf cramps. That’s all it was. It had been building up throughout the game. I hadn’t played in a year, and I’m not making excuses by any means. But it was just a lot of volume in a short amount of time and the knee felt fine.”
The Bears extended their lead to 13-3 when Gould made a 21-yard field goal with 9:35 left in the third quarter. Quarterback Trent Edwards replaced Palmer at the beginning of the second half and completed a 40-yard pass to Josh Lenz, who beat Browns rookie cornerback Leon McFadden to set up the field goal. McFadden, a third-round pick, also gave up a 37-yard reception to wide receiver Joe Anderson and then missed a tackle in the second quarter.
“He hasn’t had a lot of reps this preseason,” Chudzinski said of McFadden, who missed the first two exhibition games with a strained groin. “You look back to this really being his first and second game and getting some more playing time, and that’s going to be a good thing at the end of the day. If he approaches it right, which I know he will, he’ll improve.”
The Browns charged back when inside linebacker James-Michael Johnson intercepted a pass that deflected off the hands of tight end Fendi Onobun and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown with 7:53 left in the third quarter. Running back Jamaine Cook was then smashed for a loss on a two-point try.
“It changed momentum,” Johnson said of his pick-six. “He just tipped it right to me. I just happened to be right there.”
After Gould made a 44-yard field goal to put the Bears ahead 16-9, Hoyer threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dan Gronkowski to trim the Browns’ deficit to a point with 8:27 left in the fourth quarter.
“I thought [Hoyer] did a really nice job and showed a lot of poise in there and took a couple of hits and bounced back,” Chudzinski said. “And [he] was able to engineer what he needed to do.”
Chudzinski opted to go for two, but cornerback C.J. Wilson broke up Hoyer’s pass intended for wide receiver Josh Cooper in the back corner of the end zone.
Browns rookie defensive end Armonty Bryant forced running back Harvey Unga to fumble, and inside linebacker L.J. Fort recovered it at the Bears’ 44 with 5:47 left in the fourth quarter. The Browns moved 22 yards to set up Lanning’s game-winning field goal.
“Spencer Lanning, you’ve got to give it to him,” Chudzinski said. “That was a heck of a job coming in, and I told him after he had made that kick that you just never know what you’re going to have to do when you come to work every day. But he responded really well. I was a little concerned after the [miss in the first quarter], but he hit the second one and I just had a feeling he was going to make the last one. ... I think doing what he did tonight speaks a lot.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at https://ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.