There were smoky fireworks and a chill-inducing jet flyover moments before the Browns’ 28-14 home opening win against the Tennessee Titans.
None of the rousing pregame amphitheater could match Cleveland’s unbelievable playmaking on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium.
After a furious rally from the Titans cut the Browns lead to 21-14, Cleveland faced a critical third down conversion at midfield. It was at that moment quarterback Johnny Manziel made the biggest play of his young career, heaving a 50-yard bomb into the hands of Travis Benjamin for an earth-shattering Browns touchdown.
To begin the game, Manziel tossed a 60-yard touchdown to Benjamin on the offense’s second play of scrimmage, Karlos Dansbyforced a fumble on former teammate Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell barreled into the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown.
The early 14-0 score would balloon into a 21-0 lead shortly before halftime, when Benjamin blew the lid off the stadium on an explosive 78-yard punt return touchdown down the left sideline. Benjamin finished with three total touchdowns.
Gripping a big lead throughout the afternoon, Manziel managed Cleveland’s offense, committing minimal mistakes on a 8-for-15, 172, two touchdown day at the office. The defense turned in a mostly gritty and determined effort, roughing up rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota on seven sacks, shutting off running lanes and forcing two turnovers.
Tennessee didn’t get on the scoreboard until 1:36 left in the third quarter, when Mariota connected with tight end Anthony Fasano for a 19-yard touchdown. Attempting a fourth quarter rally, Mariota drove the Titans down the field again and threw an interception into the hands ofJordan Poyer – but an illegal use of hands penalty wiped out what could’ve sealed the game for Cleveland. Three plays later, Mariota found fellow rookie Dorial Green-Beckham for a 13-yard touchdown.
The biggest question coming into the game was whether the gushing reviews Mariota received in his NFL debut against Tampa Bay would last in Cleveland.
For most of the game, the Browns had Mariota pedaling on skates.
On a first quarter read-option keeper scramble, the Browns collapsed the pocket and Mariota was clobbered from behind by John Hughes, who forced a fumble right into the hands ofChristian Kirksey. Hughes produced two of the Cleveland’s seven sacks –Armonty Bryant, Jamie Meder and Donte Whitner chipped in to register the others.Joe Haden nearly came down with a one-handed interception when he read the eyes of Tennessee’s young quarterback. Another second quarter fumble was nullified thanks to a delay of game penalty from Mariota.
It was clear to tell the Browns’ defense clamped down in their preparation for the rookie. Exotic looks were the norm and mistakes were aplenty from Mariota, who finished 21-of-37 for 252 yards, two touchdowns and a fumble. Tennessee’s most reliable source of offense actually came by way of running back Dexter McCluster, who rushed 10 times for 98 yards.
The little things were fundamentally sound from the Browns: Tackling in space, lack of penalties, controlling the line of scrimmage and third-down stops on defense. It’s not a flashy formula; but it can be lethal when it’s working.
The final score was nearly flawless, but as coach Mike Pettine says, there will be teaching tape from the game. After the quick 14-0 lead, the Browns offense turned in several three-and-outs. Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell combined for 27 carries and 115 yards rushing.
The Browns players will enjoy this win and get back to work Wednesday, with preparations for the Oakland Raiders.