TAMPA -- With thunderstorms lurking around Raymond James Stadium for the Browns' all-important third preseason game against the Buccaneers, it was Cleveland that struck like lightning in a 31-7 victory over Tampa Bay.
Travis Benjamin broke loose on a thrilling a 53-yard punt return touchdown, Desmond Bryant sacked Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston twice, Brian Hartline caught a touchdown pass and rookie Charles Gaines picked off a pass.
That was all in the first quarter.
Quarterback Josh McCown led a 16-play, 80-yard drive on his first possession, knocking 9:37 off the clock and capped off the march with a bootleg 3-yard touchdown pass to Hartline. Initially ruled an incompletion, the play was successfully challenged by coach Mike Pettine. Hartline's toe-tapping was textbook on the score.
After a ragged second quarter, Pettine unexpectedly trotted McCown and the starting lineup back onto the field for the second half – and it paid dividends for the offense's confidence. Calm and collected, McCown spread the field with an array of short completions, finishing the 11-play, 78-yard drive with a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Gary Barnidge. The score put Cleveland up, 24-7.
"For the most part, when you go out in a little over a half and put up 17 points on offense, you feel good about it," McCown said. "We certainly did some good things and finished really well with the touchdown to Gary. All in all, we're pleased with what we did."
McCown finished the game 17-for-23, for 117 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for 20 yards on three carries, two of them resulting in first downs but also forced him to absorb some jolting hits.
Defensively, the Browns crashed through Tampa Bay's offensive line and controlled a hefty helping of the game. At the end of the first quarter, the Buccaneers managed only one first down and three rushes for 0 yards.
In addition to Bryant's pair of sacks, Scott Solomon and Paul Kruger had tackles for loss and Gaines' interception was set up when the pocket collapsed around Winston on an effective blitz from Christian Kirksey. Under duress all night, Winston was sacked four times and finished 6-of-15 for 90 yards, one interception and a quarterback rating of 32.6.
"Specifically the first quarter, we were flying around there and playing fearless football," safety Tashaun Gipson said. "It was something that you could look at and say, 'Hey, that looked like the Cleveland Browns defense.'"
Trailing 17-0 early in the second quarter, Tampa Bay found their rhythm by way of Doug Martin. The running back shed several would-be Cleveland tacklers on a 19-yard gallop into the end zone. Martin finished the night with nine carries for 40 yards.
With a throng of attention placed on Cleveland's starters, several role players came up with big performances in steamy Florida.
Benjamin's seesawing punt return touchdown was coupled by four catches for 39 yards. Rookie safeties Ibraheim Campbell and Landon Feichter registered sacks to show off their versatility in the scheme. Kicker Carey Spear knocked home a 36-yarder and hasn't missed a kick yet. Wide receiver Josh Lenz hauled in a 48-yard catch on a fly route down the sideline from quarterback Thaddeus Lewis.
Cleveland was clicking all night.
In an extremely physical game for the preseason, Cleveland did not leave Tampa Bay unscathed. Running back Duke Johnson and cornerback Pierre Desir both left the game with concussions. Cornerback Charles Gaines also left the game with a hamstring injury. No timetable has been set for their return.
The Browns have the day off Sunday and will return to the practice field Monday. The club has to trim the roster from 90 to 75 players by Tuesday, travels to Chicago on Wednesday and will face the Bears Thursday night to conclude the preseason.