1. Mack Wilson called his shot
Mack Wilson was looking over his playbook Wednesday night as he laid in his hotel bed the night before his Browns debut. He looked over to the other bed at fellow rookie linebacker Sione Takitaki, his roommate since the two arrived in Cleveland, and made a bold prediction.
He’d intercept two passes in the Browns’ preseason opener. One would be a normal interception. The other? He’d “crib” it.
The order in which they occurred was flipped, but everything else came true in Wilson’s unforgettable debut.
“Growing up, I played offense, so I feel like my athletic ability helps me out,” Wilson said. “I think I have a nose for the football. It’s hard to explain, but it is just something I have.”
As improbable as it might have been, Wilson’s performance didn’t exactly come out of nowhere.
In the last week of practice, Wilson unofficially collected two pick-sixes and two more picks. Working primarily with the second-team defense alongside Takitaki, Wilson has looked more and more comfortable and less and less like a player that fell to the fifth round.
His first interception Thursday came in the second quarter, when he stepped in front of a short pass intended for a Redskins running back and ran it back 40 yards for a touchdown, punctuating the score by stiff-arming rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins on his way across the goal line. His second pick took him much deeper down the field, as he leapt to intercept a pass intended 5 yards further down the middle of the field.
As he talked in front of his locker Thursday, one of his teammates yelled “Return of the Mack!” Later, Freddie Kitchens walked by and reminded everyone in earshot where Wilson attended college -- Kitchens’ alma mater, Alabama.
“It is kind of one of those things where he is keeping his head down,” Kitchens said. “It was not going good for him early in camp but he kept his head down and kept working one day at a time and one rep at a time and before you know it, he starts making plays. He is in better positions, his eyes are in better places and spots and he is getting other guys lined up. His communication is starting to get better with that group.
“Once you know how to get there and where to get there, the rest is just making plays.”
2. Life after Duke
Duke Johnson wasn’t expected to play Thursday even if he were still a member of the Browns, but the game became Cleveland’s first without him when he was traded to the Texans earlier in the day. The Browns opened with Nick Chubb as the starter before featuring plenty of Dontrell Hilliard, who finished with nine carries for 19 yards and three receptions for 34 yards.
With a chance to find the end zone late in the first quarter, Hilliard fumbled on a fourth-and-goal run. Kitchens was quick to lift up Hilliard, whom he expects to play a big part in filling the versatile, change-of-pace role Johnson’s held since 2015.
“We are going to get better at that,” Kitchens said. “I would not push the panic button on Dontrell yet.”
D'Ernest Johnson, a first-year player out of South Florida who played in the AAF before signing with the Browns, followed Hilliard in the rotation and finished with five carries for 23 yards. Undrafted rookie Trayone Gray, who had missed most of the team’s training camp practices with an injury, had the longest run out of anyone not named Chubb, gaining 12 yards on one of his two carries.
“We have to have the next man up mentality so tonight you saw a lot of Dontrell Hilliard,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “We are going to be counting on guys that continue to step up and see who can fill the void because Duke was obviously a huge part of our offense last year.”
Check out photos of the Cleveland Browns vs the Washington Redskins at FirstEnergy Stadium by team photographer Matt Starkey
3. Updating the competitions
-- It was an almost perfect night for Cleveland’s competing kickers. The rookie, Austin Seibert, made both of his extra points while the incumbent, Greg Joseph, made a 43-yard field goal and was 1-of-2 on extra points. The miss came after the Browns’ jubilant celebration following Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi’s 86-yard punt return touchdown.
“I do not know yet about the hold,” Kitchens said. “I just know it did not go through the uprights, and I am looking for them to go through the uprights. I do not want any excuses. I just want the ball through the uprights.”
-- Veteran Eric Kush started at right guard with the first-team offense and worked at the position with the second group, too. Austin Corbett was the second-team center while Kyle Kalis worked as the second-team left guard before exiting with a concussion.
“Kush when he was in there with the first group did well. No pressures or anything like that in the first drive. We had a nice run on a sprint draw,” Kitchens said. “All those guys, keep competing, and we will see where we are at. Even if we find a right guard, we still have other spots to fill. There is still a lot of competition going on up front, just like out wide – at receiver and running back.
“We have competition in several areas. Everybody likes to look at the first group and decide who that is. When you get into the season, you better have some depth and you better have some dependability, accountability and reliability on people that are backing these guys up. That is what we are looking for.”
Williams was on the wrong end of a miscommunication that led to a Redskins touchdown pass in the first quarter. He found redemption later in the first half with an interception.
“I was nervous a little bit to start,” Williams said. “As it got going, I started playing like I am supposed to play, and it was a great experience.”