TAMPA -- Around 11:45 p.m. when the Browns team plane took off from Florida, the mood was jovial. Players munched on snacks and watched movies while coaches enjoyed the ride back with their wives, who attended the game.
It may have only been the preseason, but because the Browns game-planned for this one like the regular season, Cleveland coach Mike Pettine took a moment to enjoy the 31-7 throttling of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"There's nothing like winning and winning on the road," Pettine said.
Frustrating was the common word used in the Buccaneers locker room to describe their performance. Much of that had to do with the Cleveland defense.
Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston was under siege the entire evening. The Browns dropped him for four sacks and the rookie could never quite get comfortable in the pocket.
Cleveland attacked Tampa Bay's undermanned offensive line with a parade of well-timed blitzes. The return of Pro Bowlers Joe Haden and Tashaun Gipson forced Winston to hold onto the ball, not wanting to force passes into tight coverage. And the refurbished defensive line was on full display, consistently getting pushback, jamming running lanes and forcing Tampa Bay into numerous third-and-long situations.
Winston completed only six passes on the night and the Buccaneers had eight three-and-outs on the night.
"We wanted our guys to go out there and go hunting," Pettine said. "I thought (defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil) had a good feel for what they were going to do."
"We've got depth on the D-Line now," Phil Taylor said. "We weren't missing a beat."
What the defense really did, though, was set the tone Saturday night. The rest of the team followed their rally cry.
The Buccaneers opening three plays from scrimmage were a 2-yard run from Doug Martin, a Winston errant throw and then a split sack between Paul Kruger and Desmond Bryant. The statement was sent.
Travis Benjamin followed that up with a 53-yard punt return for a touchdown and Cleveland's offense strode 80 yards down the field in 16 plays to put the team up 14-0 in the first quarter.
"The defense was lights out," quarterback Josh McCown said. "They were awesome."
Starting Monday, the Browns won't be patting themselves on the back. This was a solid performance, but it wasn't flawless.
Martin ripped off a 19-yard touchdown run in the second quarter by way of some sloppy missed tackles from the Browns.
Had the final score been the other way around, the plane ride home would've been quiet. There would be some alarm bells ringing about three straight preseason losses and possibly some speculation about playing the starters some Thursday against Chicago in the preseason finale.
Instead? Cleveland's defense proved to be the catalyst in the all-important dress rehearsal.
"This is a team that played well a week ago against the Bengals," Pettine said. "We feel good about our performance. We know there are a lot of things we've got to get cleaned up. But it was good for us to have the momentum."