Four Downs: Why the Browns are wary of Oakland's youngest and oldest defensive starters


Welcome to Four Downs, a bi-weekly article that takes a deeper look at the storylines, matchups and anything else involving the Browns on their two days away from the field: Tuesday and Saturday.

1) Why the Browns are wary of Oakland's youngest and oldest defensive starters

Brian Hartline's played a lot of football.

He's on his third NFL contract. When he lines up Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, it will mark the 95th time he's stepped onto the field in a professional setting, a figure that ranks among the most of anyone in Cleveland's locker room.

Perhaps that's why Hartline's appreciation for a player like Raiders safety Charles Woodson is so strong. As long as Hartline's been in the NFL, he's nowhere close to what Woodson's achieved from a longevity standpoint. Few, if any, are.

Woodson will play his 241st regular season game Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium. And he's still producing at a high level.

"It is unbelievable," Hartline said. "I know we get some roster evaluations and they put up who is where and whatnot and how many years in the league. To see an 18 (years experience) beside a guy ... Not only 18, but the level at which he still plays is unbelievable. I need whatever he is doing. I need to do some of that. It is pretty impressive."

Now a safety, Woodson provides a much-needed veteran presence in an Oakland secondary that needs all of the help it can get. The Raiders rank 30th in the NFL in pass defense and are surrendering 8.3 yards per pass attempt.

Woodson hasn't made the Pro Bowl since he switched to safety in 2012, then with the Green Bay Packers, but he remains a must-know player. At 38, he's shown no sign of slowing down and is poised to make his 35th straight start since rejoining the Raiders in 2013.

"I compared him this week to (former Buccaneers safety John Lynch) to our offensive players," said Browns offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, who was Oakland's quarterbacks coach during Woodson's second stint with the team. "He has seen every route. He jumps routes. He knows route concepts. It was fun being able to get to know him and watch him go through his weekly routine. I think a lot of players in this league, if they just watch how he conducts himself on and off the field, can learn a lot from Charles."

And then there's Khalil Mack, the youngest starter on Oakland's defense. Whatever praise there was for Woodson throughout the week, triple it, and that's what the Browns doled out to the Raiders' talented second-year outside linebacker.

No one has been more effusive than Joe Thomas, who called Mack the best rookie he'd ever faced after last season's game. This year? Thomas compared Mack to Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor.

"I think if you talked to anybody across the league that's watched him play, they wouldn't think that's a big comparison to make," Thomas said. "Size, speed, strength, power – you name it, he's got it."

Defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil called Mack the "prototype" for an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Browns coach Mike Pettine said the team will have to be aware of where Mack lines up on every snap, as the second-year pro out of The University at Buffalo looks to pick up his first sack of the season against the Browns.

"He is that rare blend of size, suddenness, the explosiveness that he has and the athleticism," Pettine said. "Our guys know what he is capable of."

2) Travis Benjamin on pace for best season yet -- college or pro

It would be unfair to expect Travis Benjamin to maintain the torrid pace has set through the first two games. Alas, there's one very realistic "first" Benjamin can not only achieve in his fourth NFL season, but also his football career dating back to his freshman year at Miami.

Lead his team in receiving.

Benjamin has never seen the kind of snaps at wide receiver he's had since the start of the 2015 preseason. Fully recovered from an injury that ruined his 2013 season and affected 2014, Benjamin had a new set of eyes to impress with the arrival of wide receivers coach Joker Phillips and DeFilippo.

Needless to say, they were impressed.

"When we got here in the spring, I just noticed this guy that had really good hands and could run fast. I was like 'There is a place on the field for this guy somewhere,'" DeFilippo said. "We sped him along. I forget what he injured, but he injured something. He may have been a hamstring in the spring. He didn't even have a full allotment of OTAs and the installation. It is a credit to him how far he has come as a receiver. He has worked his butt off."

As it stands, Benjamin has 204 receiving yards and the rest of Cleveland's wideouts have a combined 104.

Always a threat as a return man, Benjamin had his most productive season as a wide receiver at Miami in 2010, his junior year. His 743 yards were second on the team behind Leonard Hankerson, who had 1,156. As a senior, Benjamin was second behind Tommy Streeter.

Pettine would be one of the happiest to see Benjamin finish the season the way he's started it.

"What we found was that this is a guy who is smart, knows multiple positions, runs good routes, catches the football and has blazing speed," Pettine said. "It was something we kind of stumbled onto last year and even this year."

3) That's tight

One statistic that has gone largely ignored throughout the week likely has not in the Browns tight ends room.

In their first two games of 2015, the Raiders defense has seen opposing tight ends set career highs in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns against it. In Week 1, it was Cincinnati's Tyler Eifert, who had nine receptions, 104 yards and two touchdowns. Last week, it was Baltimore's Crockett Gillmore, who had five catches, 88 yards and two scores.

For those keeping score at home, Browns tight end Gary Barnidge's career high in receptions in a single game is four and receiving yards is 77.

4) Best tweet from game week

Yep, the legend himself took in Friday's practice in Berea.

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