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3 Big Takeaways: Browns defense makes a statement early versus Buccaneers

TAMPA -- In what was eventually a clunker of a game, the Browns came out strong and made an early point: Don't even think about overlooking our defense.

We've seen it for weeks in Berea, but Friday was the unit's first chance to take its entire starting lineup onto a field to face an actual opponent. The result: Sacks. A lot of sacks.

Thanks to a national stage on NFL Network, much of the football world became acquainted with Cleveland's revamped front seven and quickly learned it is not one to be messed with.

Here are our three big takeaways from the Browns' 13-12 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

1. Defense is hungry and ready to feast

The Browns' defense was so effective at getting to Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, viewers of the game on Twitter were calling for his removal midway through the first quarter -- in Week 3 of the preseason.

The defense did exactly what it succeeded at doing in Westfield, Indiana, during joint practices with the Colts: win at the point of attack. The Browns gave up a quick first down on a completion from Winston to former Browns receiver Breshad Perriman, but became impenetrable on the following three plays, starting off by stuffing a run for no gain on first down.

On second down, Olivier Vernon mixed his Pro Bowl-caliber mix of speed and power to get right tackle Demar Dotson off balance. Dotson first raced back to attempt to win the race with Vernon to the imaginary point, but Vernon hesitated ever so slightly, gaining inside leverage that he used to shove Dotson to the ground as if he were a feather annoying Vernon while he's hunting quarterbacks. Vernon then finished an impressive sack of Winston.

The best part of that sack? If he hadn't gotten there, Myles Garrett was just a step away from doing the same from the opposite side.

It was Sheldon Richardson's turn to wreak havoc on the next play, successfully twisting with Larry Ogunjobi, earning a favorable angle and exploiting it, blowing past his opponent to wrap up Winston.

It was a two-play sequence that left everyone watching in awe. These guys are good.

"That's expected for us," Richardson said afterward. "That might not be everybody else's expectations but that's definitely ours."

The defense was so disruptive on the opening series, Tampa Bay began its second offensive possession of the game by calling one of a very few plays that can take some of the bite out of a relentless pass rush: a receiver screen. The play picked up 20, but an attempt to run a slip screen on the next play resulted in an incompletion.

Point being, the Browns defense quickly earned its opponent's respect.

In its first opportunity to play together in a game, the starting defense finished with five sacks of Winston. Reserve defensive tackle Devaroe Lawrence added two more to bring the team total to seven.

"It was just good," Ogunjobi said of the starting line's success. "We've been playing off each other, we've been practicing good for a while, but to put it all together was really good."

Good, but not satisfactory. This group emphasized individually that it will play as a cohesive unit and won't stop to read its press clippings until well after they've cleaned out their lockers.

"No, it's still preseason," Richardson said when asked if he's taken a moment to soak in the reality of his team's ability. "It's still early. Not at all. We'll smell the roses when the season ends."

2. Offense in need of a tune-up

Again without Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, the Browns' offense wasn't as effective as one might have hoped.

Baker Mayfield struggled to establish reliable connections with Derrick Willies and Jaelen Strong, and even his rapport with Rashard Higgins wasn't as strong as usual. There were drops, pass break-ups and throws that were just slightly off-target, enough to result in incompletions instead of impressive gains.

The Browns struggled in the red zone, failing to reach paydirt once in the game, including one possession that saw them on Tampa Bay's 4. They also struggled on third down, so much that Freddie Kitchens asked aloud afterward if his team converted even one third down. The answer: Yes, twice, with a final rate of 2 for 14.

The easy response: Beckham and Landry weren't available. Mayfield is tired of hearing that, which he sees as an excuse.

"I think that excuse has been used enough within our offensive meeting room. It's something I'm going to hammer home," Mayfield said afterward. "It's a very easy one to use to say that we don't have Jarvis and Odell out there. Right now, we're looking for people to step up. Who's going to be that consistent No. 3 and 4. That's the frustrating part. We expect people to do their job no matter who it is."

3. Kicking competition sees some improvement

Perhaps the most concerning position battle left to determine on this team is kicker, primarily because neither has done much of anything to separate himself. Time is quickly running out. The season opener is two weeks away.

Thankfully, one of the kickers was able to kick without looking over his shoulder Friday. It's a coaching decision that should be applauded, considering each of these kickers have struggled to establish consistency. Knowing one would get an entire game of work without fear of being replaced for a mistake cleared the runway for a successful landing from Austin Seibert.

The rookie boomed a 54-yarder to start his night, splitting the uprights with plenty of leg to spare. From there, he successfully kicked three more field goals from 36, 35 and 30 yards to rack up all 12 of the Browns' points. The only disappointment: He didn't get to kick an extra point.

"Pretty good, huh? I like that," head coach Freddie Kitchens said. "I like it a lot. That's he's supposed to do, though. I just want to know what we're getting when they cross the white line. From a skill position to a kicker, to a offensive line, to a DB, to a corner. I just want to know what we're getting, and we'll make adjustments from there."

Though Kitchens didn't confirm it in his postgame presser, it would seem fair to expect Joseph to get the entire Week 4 game at home against Detroit to wrap up this competition, meaning the kicks during this week of practice will be even more important than usual. For the first time this preseason, though, we received positive proof from a Browns kicker. We'll see if we get more from another kicker next week.

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