CLEVELAND — Coach Kevin Stefanski gave game balls to new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and new kicker Dustin Hopkins in the celebratory locker room.
Is an old logo eligible to receive the souvenir?
The Browns opened the season Sunday with a dominant 24-3 win over the rival Cincinnati Bengals on a rainy, sloppy day on the lakefront. The defense held the two-time defending AFC North champions to 142 yards. Hopkins made three field goals and an extra point in his Browns debut, delighting a boisterous crowd scarred by errant kickers. Quarterback Deshaun Watson fought through the elements to rush and throw for touchdowns.
The Browns were already pumped up for the 100th edition of the Battle of Ohio but received an extra dose of motivation Thursday when Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase dismissively said he almost called the Browns the “Elfs” — referring to Brownie the Elf, who’s painted at midfield — and that “Cleveland is Cleveland.”
“The ‘Cleveland Elves’ definitely showed up to play today,” safety Juan Thornhill tweeted.
“We’ve got pride,” blitzing linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. said. “We’re not going to let anybody disrespect us. We do our talking on the field. I think we did that today.”
Chase was upset with himself after catching five passes for 39 yards.
“I’m mad because I called their a** elves — and we just lost to some elves,” he said. “I’m pi**** on my part. I’m holding it on me.”
The Browns took it to the Bengals all day, winning a Week 1 home game for the first time since 2004 and winning a second straight opener to improve to 3-21-1 since returning in 1999.
New defensive end Za’Darius Smith drilled quarterback Joe Burrow on the first snap, and the hits just kept on coming. The Browns used the overhauled front four and a variety of blitzes to produce two sacks and 10 quarterback hits. Burrow, who just signed a $275 million contract, went 14-for-31 for 82 yards and a 52.2 passer rating as he dropped to 1-5 vs. the Browns. He was pulled with 5:15 left with the game out of hand.
The Bengals went 2-for-15 on third down and didn’t reach the red zone. No. 2 receiver Tee Higgins was shut out on eight targets.
“They’re a fired up group,” Watson said of the defense. “Excuse my language, they don’t take sh** from anybody. And you can feel that from Jim Schwartz, and he’s a great addition, not just for the defense, but for this whole team.
“They bring the swagger, they bring the energy and we’ve seen it today.”
Pro Bowl defensive end Myles Garrett started the sequence that ended the game. The Bengals went on fourth-and-4 from their 31-yard line, and Garrett beat two blockers to take down Burrow for a 13-yard loss.
Three plays later Watson threw a 3-yard touchdown to tight end Harrison Bryant, then powered through the line for a 2-point conversion and 21-point lead with 9:11 left.
“They have a very explosive offense and they have very skilled players in each position,” Garrett said. “So this was a big one for us to see where we’re at, and we really showed what we can do. We’ve set the bar high, and this is the standard.”
The pass rush worked in perfect cohesion with the secondary. Schwartz went with a lot of man-to-man coverage despite Cincinnati’s trio of receivers that is considered the best in the league, and cornerbacks Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome II and Martin Emerson Jr. more than held their own.
“Denzel and Emerson are two of the better corners in the league,” Burrow said. “Newsome is a great nickel, too.”
“That’s the best secondary in the NFL,” end Ogbo Okoronkwo said. “Those guys, they played their a**** off today. I feel like I’m lucky as a pass rusher to play with a secondary that talented.”
Newsome loves to talk trash, has a history with Chase and heard every word he uttered.
“I take everything personally for sure,” Newsome said. “We just use it as an edge for us, but at the end of the day we got to go out there, prove it, show it. You’ve got to earn respect and that starts this week and we got to keep on doing it every single week.”
#Browns CB Greg Newsome II, when asked about Ja’Marr Chase’s comments, said Browns have to earn respect. And wasn’t surprised Chase said what he did despite Cleveland’s success vs. Cincy. pic.twitter.com/Y6PEzzqVj4
— Scott Petrak ct (@ScottPetrak) September 10, 2023
The weather affected the passing game for both teams as rain fell throughout.
“The weatherman seems to be wrong quite a bit,” Stefanski said. “So I don’t know that we knew the conditions were going to be like that.”
He adjusted by turning to more tight ends and running plays. Nick Chubb rushed 18 times for 106 yards and caught four passes for 21 yards.
Jerome Ford, who lost a fumble on his first carry, added 36 yards on 15 carries.
Watson was another key piece of the run game, including scoring the first touchdown on a 13-yard draw with 17 seconds left in the first half. He rushed five times for 45 yards and scored on the 2-point conversion.
He overcame passing struggles that included several underthrows, finishing 16-for-29 for 154 yards, a touchdown, an interception and a 67.3 passer rating.
The opener was Watson’s first with the Browns after serving an 11-game suspension to begin last season. The Browns could really use a strong start with all three AFC North rivals on the schedule within the first four weeks and took a giant first step.
“We knew we were going to have ups and downs, but how can we deal with the adversities vs. a great team at home, with the weather conditions and still pull out the victory? And that’s what we did,” Watson said. “It was great to be able to feed off the fans’ energy, especially coming off the field with a victory is always awesome. And I know the city is going to continue to be rocking.”
This was a total team effort.
The special teams won the field position battle, and Hopkins starred in his first game in brown and orange. He was two weeks earlier in a trade from the Los Angeles Chargers and was perfect, making 42-, 34- and 43-yard field goals and an extra point.
The victory is just how the Browns wanted to start a pivotal year after two straight losing seasons.
“We wanted to establish our identity today,” said safety Rodney McLeod, who filled in for Thornhill, who was inactive with a calf injury. “We sent a loud message across the division, across the league and what they can look forward to from this Cleveland defense this year.”
Next up are the Steelers next Monday night in Pittsburgh.
“All in all, good start, but it’s just a good start,” Stefanski said. “Got another one next week.”
Stefanski opened his news conference by praising the fans.
“They were electric. That building was electric,” he said. “So kudos to our fans. They can take tomorrow off.”
— Scott Petrak ct (@ScottPetrak) September 10, 2023
Smith wanted to party with them but was denied entrance into the lounge outside the locker room.
“They wouldn’t let me in,” he said. “I get excited sometimes when I see the fans, especially after a great win. I was trying to go basically celebrate and give them a hug, but they kicked me out, man. They said no white tees in the club.”