By Tony Grossi
Domeless, uncovered Cleveland Browns Stadium welcomed the Browns’ rookie Class of 2012 on Sunday with one of those cold, wet, windy days that presents a decided advantage over a West Coast team.
And the Browns didn’t fumble the opportunity. Or throw it away, either.
They played turnover-free football in a game-long drizzle amid 19 mph winds and eked out a 7-6 victory over their frigid visitors.
It was their second home win in a row and brought their record to 2-6 at the unofficial mid-point of the season. The Chargers, perennial underachievers, fell to 3-4 after their third straight loss.
“I’m still thawing out,” said running back Trent Richardson, whose 26-yard touchdown on the Browns’ first series stood all day as the game-winner. “(Teammates) said it’s not even cold yet. Felt cold to me. This is football weather.”
The conditions, which kicker/meteorologist Phil Dawson termed “pretty extreme,” warranted a heavy load for Richardson, if his tender ribs would allow it. They did, and Richardson responded with a career-high day – 24 carries, 122 yards and his fifth scoring run. He received a surprise post-game visit at his locker by Browns legend and former nemesis Jim Brown, who had business late in the week in Pittsburgh.
Brown and Richardson officially have bonded now – months after Brown’s harsh pre-draft observation of the Browns’ No. 1 draft pick as an “ordinary” back.
“That’s my partner, man,” Brown said. “He never took anything I said the wrong way. He’s interested in his family. He’s interested in his team. And he's willing to make sacrifices because really, he's hurt more than you think he is right now."
Richardson’s TD run of 26 yards was vintage Brown. He received a good initial block from right guard Shawn Lauvao, sidestepped two San Diego defenders, then bounced off left guard John Greco as Lauvao, trailing now, pushed and exhorted Richardson to “go, go, go.” After Richardson cleared the close-in traffic, he plowed through 211-pound safety Atari Bigby, springing free to the end zone.
“When I see the secondary, I don’t see any problem (running through),” Richardson said.
After Richardson’s touchdown, the Browns punted nine series in a row. It became a gut-wrenching tug of war of field position, which the Browns survived despite a net punting average disparity of 45.3 yards to 32.2 in San Diego’s favor.
The difference on this day was the Browns’ defense played superbly – never letting Browns-killer Antonio Gates (two catches, 14 yards) make a play -- and the offense did not commit a turnover.
The conditions made for feeble numbers for quarterback Brandon Weeden (11 of 27 for 129 yards, 55.9 rating), but he was all smiles afterwards.
The gunslinging QB from high-scoring Oklahoma State was asked if he had ever been in a single-digit scoring game.
“I haven’t had a game like that since ’06 when I was with the Royals,” laughed the former minor league baseball pitcher.
It’s not as if coach Pat Shurmur totally shut down the pass (there were 33 runs, 27 passes). In fact, prior to Richardson’s TD blast on the first series, Weeden overthrew open tight end Benjamin Watson, who may have scored, and underthrew receiver Josh Gordon, who beat cornerback Antoine Cason to the left end zone corner. Both times, Weeden said, the wet ball kind of squirted out of his hand.
After Richardson’s TD, there was very little offense to talk about, other than a convoluted, double-reverse attempt from Josh Cribbs to Travis Benjamin, which Benjamin fumbled and recovered.
Despite his modest numbers, Weeden actually looked and performed like a seasoned NFL quarterback, with smart throwaways and safe ball-handling. (He did avert five passes deflected at the line of scrimmage.)
“I wasn’t going to do anything on my end to screw it up,” Weeden said.
Defensively, the tone was set on the first series of the day when safety T.J. Ward submarined a fourth-and-1 San Diego gamble from the Browns’ 30 with a stop of backup back Jackie Battle.
Ward also laid a blanket over Gates when assigned him, including a route to the end zone on San Diego’s last field-goal drive; double-teamed a pass defense of receiver Malcom Floyd that could have been a big-gainer; and influenced a Philip Rivers hurried incompletion on a third-down blitz. It may have been Ward’s best game in three seasons.
Ward got lucky on one play when beat by receiver Robert Meachem in the fourth quarter. Meachem dropped the ball at the Browns’ 12 with 8:50 to go. It would have been a go-ahead touchdown on a day when points were scarce as green leaves this time of year.
“I took my eyes off it,” said Meachem, who was targeted three times and failed to catch any. “Big-time players make big-time plays, and that’s a play you have to make in a game like this. It could have been a momentum-changer.”
After that drop, the Chargers had three more possessions. They kicked their second field goal on the first, punted after 12 plays on the second, and turned over the ball on downs when cornerback Buster Skrine deflected Rivers’ fourth-down pass for Floyd at about the Browns’ 35.
Skrine, who has endured some rough games, has really turned his game around since the return from suspension of cornerback Joe Haden.
The 7-6 win was the Browns' fifth in a row in games involving single-digit scoring. Previously they beat Seattle, 6-3, in 2011; Buffalo, 6-3, in ’09; Buffalo, 8-0 in ’07; and Oakland, 9-7, in ’05. They had had three straight losses in single-digit slugfests in their expansion era.
After the game, the Browns presented a game ball to Jimmy Haslam, who witnessed his first win as new owner. Another was designated for Bryan Wiedmeier, executive vice president, who was resting at home after having emergency surgery on Friday to remove a small tumor from behind his ear.
|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 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to email@example.com
Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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