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Validation win begins with great defense

Posted Sep 29, 2013

Thanks to their smothering defense, the Browns validated their rebound from a 0-2 start with Sunday’s 17-6 win against the Bengals at FirstEnergy Stadium.

The quarterback was good. Really good.

The defense? Now, that was what you would call great!

On a Sunday of validation for the Cleveland Browns, the validating began with the guys who are paid to prevent the other team from scoring.

Oh, yes, the Cincinnati Bengals did score in Sunday’s game at FirstEnergy Stadium … six points. Six lousy points for a team that is supposed to have one of the more explosive offenses in the NFL. Six lousy points for a team that has one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, A.J. Green; a dynamic tight-end duo of Jermaine Gresham and rookie Tyler Eifert, and a dangerous rookie running back in Giovani Bernard.

And those points didn’t come via a touchdown. They came courtesy of Mike Nugent’s kicking foot.

The Browns kept the Bengals out of the end zone. They made Green, Gresham, Eifert, Bernard, and quarterback Andy Dalton look ordinary with an extraordinary performance.

The Browns’ quarterback, Brian Hoyer, continued to make his case to become a long-term starter. He played the best game of his NFL life, which only includes three starts in five years.

But the Browns’ defense gave an off-the-charts showing that served to legitimize the Week 3 rebound win at Minnesota after a 0-2 start and the turmoil of the Trent Richardson trade, and served notice to the rest of the NFL that you can expect to be in for a long day against this group.

“Our coaches told us this was going to be the best offense that we played against since the season started,” cornerback Joe Haden said after the 17-6 triumph against Cincinnati. “And they weren’t lying. Dalton, he’s a special quarterback … those two tight ends and A.J. Green. But we stepped up.”

The Browns’ defense has, in fact, been stepping up throughout the team’s 2-2 start.

And it all begins with what has quickly become one of the most dominant front sevens in the league.

“The thing is, our front seven, they can control the run,” Haden said.

That’s control, as in giving up a ridiculously low 20 rushing yards by the Miami Dolphins … as in allowing a paltry 2.8-yards-per-carry average by the Ravens … as in limiting Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, one of the greatest running games the game has ever seen, to a very un-Peterson-like 3.5 yards per rush.

And, on Sunday, Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis combined for only 50 yards on 16 carries, an average of 3.1 yards per carry.

One of the defining moments of the game came when the Bengals, trailing, 7-3, with 4:35 left in the second quarter, decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Cleveland 7. Defensive end Desmond Bryant, who has been a beast since the start of the season, powered through to throw Green-Ellis for a two-yard loss.

“That’s just one of the critical situations in the game,” Bryant said. “As a player, you kind of live for those moments. And they decided to come to my gap and I was there to make the play.”

It was that sort of output by Bryant and the rest of the defensive linemen and linebackers that put the game squarely on the passing arm of Dalton. From there, the Browns’ defense was able to more effectively get after him and his receivers.

Haden and Buster Skrine took turns in shutting down Green, who was held to seven receptions in 15 targets for an average of 7.3 yards per catch. His longest covered 16 yards.

Skrine broke up three passes and helped put the game away with an interception of a throw deflected by linebacker D’Qwell Jackson with 3:43 left.

“We feel like the front seven can control the run, (so) our secondary, we make sure we stay deep,” Haden said. “We make sure if A.J. or any of the receivers are catching the ball, they’re coming back to the quarterback. Any time they go over our heads, that’s when it gets tricky. So as long as they’re catching the ball coming back, they can’t beat us, and our front seven is just going to hold down the run for sure.”

Two wins in September don’t, by themselves, mean anything to a team’s fortunes through the rest of the schedule.

But on a club with a defense as strong and as consistent as the Browns’ has been so far, they carry added weight. They speak the loudest to the naysayers who after the 0-2 start and after the Richardson deal were convinced that the Browns were merely looking at the balance of the schedule as a way to kill time until May’s NFL draft, when they would get their quarterback and other pieces for the team they actually want to field.

“We’re not giving up; we’re not giving up at all,” Haden said. “I mean, that actually motivated us, people thinking we gave in on the season. Trent was a great, great player. Great person. Great teammate. But once we lose one person, I mean, you’ve still got 52 other people that are ballers and are ready to make plays.

“We’ve got JG (wide receiver Josh Gordon) back. We’ve got Hoyer stepping up. And we know we have a really good team. Those first two games, we could have easily won, too. We just feel like we just want to keep pushing, keep trying.”

And keep validating.

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