By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
Updated at 11:54 p.m.
By Tony Grossi
The Browns don’t have a lot of veteran players, but two of them pulled veteran moves on Thursday night.
Quarterback Jason Campbell, 31, experienced flu symptoms and kicker Shayne Graham, 35, came down with a sore back.
The two oldest players on the roster were late scratches before the Browns mopped up their exhibition schedule with a skeletal crew against the Chicago Bears.
And their fill-ins turned out to be the stars for the Browns in an unlikely 18-16 victory in the 10th annual JV finale between these clubs.
Playing the whole game, Brian Hoyer (24 of 35) passed for 307 yards and led two scoring drives in the fourth quarter. And punter Spencer Lanning, subbing for Graham, made a 40-yard field goal with 3:15 to go for the game-winner. Lanning also had a 32-yard field goal after missing from 41 on his first try.
They were Lanning’s first field-goal attempts since his senior year at South Carolina in 2011.
“Spencer Lanning, you’ve got to give it to him,” coach Rob Chudzinski said with a laugh. “I told him you never know what you’ll have to do when you come to work. I knew he’d make that last kick.”
Prior to the scratches, Chudzinski gave the night off to 23 starters or key role players. With Brandon Weeden being protected and Campbell sick, Hoyer had to play the whole game at quarterback. He needed the work.
Hoyer tossed two interceptions, but he pulled his game together and showed some gritty leadership in directing the comeback with third- and fourth-teamers. His 14-yard TD pass to tight end Dan Gronkowski with 6:47 to go drew the Browns close. And then an L.J. Fort fumble recovery on a fumble forced by defensive end Armonty Bryant led to the winning drive.
“That’s what you’re supposed to do,” Hoyer said of his comeback win in adverse circumstances. “When you’re out there, you’re there to win. You don’t just play to play. You play to win. It’s good to grind it out.”
Hoyer’s second interception was intended for David Nelson, who was making his first appearance in a game since tearing an ACL with Buffalo on Sept. 9. Nelson cramped up during the play and trotted off the field with a limp. But he came back and made a catch on the scoring drive. For the game, Nelson had four catches for 54 yards on 10 targets, and also lost his footing twice. He was down after the game.
“I didn’t play up to my potential,” he said. “We’re a week away from the season. I can’t afford not to make plays. I kept slipping. I left plays out there. When I get 10 balls thrown to me, I want to come down with 10 balls.”
Hoyer hooked up in the early going with Josh Gordon, the only regular starter to play. This was Gordon’s non-monetary penance for flunking a drug test in February and drawing a two-game suspension, which takes effect on Monday.
Gordon had receptions of 45 and 32 yards on the only two series he played. The first one – a surprise bomb on the first play of the game – should have been an 84-yard TD, but Hoyer’s pass was two yards short and Gordon had to wait for it.
Two plays later, Gordon got knocked off the line of scrimmage and then didn’t adjust to Hoyer’s throw. It was intercepted – Hoyer’s second in 23 pass attempts to that point of limited preseason action.
It’s not as if the Browns were outmanned. Bears coach Marc Trestman used third- and fourth-teamers as starters. Jordan Palmer, brother of Carson, put together field goal and touchdown drives in the first half.
Linebacker Quentin Groves looked like Lawrence Taylor against this competition. But other Browns backups didn’t fare as well, and one of note was cornerback Leon McFadden, who started.
McFadden was beat twice on one play by Bears receiver Joe Anderson. He was beat in coverage and then lost the tackle as Anderson turned a short pass into a 37-yard gain. In the third quarter, McFadden let rookie receiver Josh Lenz get behind him for a 40-yard reception.
One Browns defender who made a play was James-Michael Johnson. The second-year linebacker, relegated to third-string in the defensive system change, intercepted a Trent Edwards pass off the hands of tight end Fendi Onobun and ran it in from 23 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. It was the play that ignited the comeback.
Now Johnson has to sweat out his roster status. He entered the final preseason game listed as co-backup with Tank Carder behind inside linebacker Craig Robertson.
“I can’t control the future,” Johnson said solemnly. “It’s already decided in God’s hands.”
Chudzinski tried for two after Johnson’s TD. Hoyer handed off to Midpark High School’s Jamain Cook and Cook was squashed like a bug by unblocked defensive end Aston Whiteside.
Cook had a golden opportunity to open some eyes as the No. 1 kick returner on this night, as Johnson Bademosi was demoted from that job. Cook couldn’t break one, however. He had returns of 24, 27, 26, 27 and 29 yards.
The Browns’ kicking game, already a concern, was turned asunder by Graham’s late scratch because backup kicker Brandon Bogotay was still nursing a groin injury and didn’t make the trip. That meant a busy night for the punters.
Besides the two field goals, Lanning had punts of 57 and 47 yards and tried a kickoff. He skied it to the Bears’ 11-yard line.
No. 2 punter Colton Schmidt, who was brought in on waivers ostensibly for his kickoff depth, boomed one to the end line in the second half. A penalty forced a re-kick and he blasted the second to the 1-yard line. Schmidt’s third kickoff was five yards deep and went as a touchback. He had one punt of 49 yards and held on place-kicks.
Chudzinski was non-commital about the kicking situation. Concerns about Graham’s kickoff depth is why the Browns claimed Schmidt. But Lanning’s big night complicates the decision.
“We need to check out the whole body of work,” Chudzinski said.
He and his staff must reduce the roster to 53 by Saturday.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to email@example.comFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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