Damion Square, a Chargers defensive lineman who had all of three sacks in his first 48 NFL games, was credited with 1½ for a loss of five yards on consecutive first-quarter plays Sunday, almost single-handedly thwarting a potential Cleveland Browns scoring drive.
“For me, that’s as good a quarter as you can play,” Square said after a 38-14 victory in FirstEnergy Stadium. “When you’re rolling, you’re rolling. When the body wants to respond the right way and everything is coming to life, you have to ride that wave.”
That wave seemed more like a tsunami at times for Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield, the heralded top draft pick who was sacked five times for a loss of 24 yards, absorbed four additional quarterback hits and spent much of a chilly 51-degree afternoon fending off a ferocious Chargers pass rush.
Mayfield completed only 22 of 46 passes for 238 yards and one touchdown and was intercepted twice by slot cornerback Desmond King, who returned a pick 33 yards to set up Melvin Gordon’s 10-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
The Chargers, playing their sixth game without injured defensive end Joey Bosa, relied mostly on a four-man rush supplied by their eight-man rotation up front.
“We’re not doing anything different,” defensive end Melvin Ingram said. “We knew it was going to come. Everyone said we couldn’t get pressure in the beginning [without Bosa], but we’re doing the same thing, we’re just rushing, having fun, winning our one-on-ones.”
Ingram did not have a sack Sunday but applied constant pressure from both edges. Interior lineman Corey Liuget had 1½ sacks for a loss of 9½ yards. Isaac Rochell dropped Mayfield for a five-yard loss on a key third-and-six play late in the second quarter, pushing the Browns out of field-goal range.
The Chargers mixed their usual cover-three zone with some man-to-man but only blitzed occasionally in deference to Mayfield’s scrambling ability and speed.
“We were disciplined in our rush lanes, trying to eliminate his opportunities to escape out of the pocket,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “When he leaves the pocket, he is very dangerous. Even when he got out of the pocket, we ran with the receivers and gave them tight coverage. He had to throw a lot of balls away.”
The Browns converted only six of 16 third-down plays (38%). The Chargers stopped Cleveland on fourth-and-two from the Chargers 23-yard line in the second quarter, lineman Darius Philon chasing Mayfield out of the pocket and helping to force an incomplete pass.
Safety Jahleel Addae led the Chargers with nine tackles, and linebacker Denzel Perryman had eight. Defensive back Adrian Phillips had two tackles and two pass breakups, and safeties Derwin James and Rayshawn Jenkins each had five tackles and half a sack.
The Browns ran 46 offensive plays in the first half compared to the Chargers’ 24, but Cleveland managed only six points in the first 30 minutes.
“Wow, that’s impressive man — kudos to the guys I play with,” Square said. “Every time I took the field, I could see the confidence in my teammates’ eyes that we were gonna respond in the right way.
“These guys are playing at a high level with a lot of confidence, they love to be on the field with one another, and whenever you have all those ingredients together, you’re gonna make a good meal.”
King, who set up the Chargers’ first touchdown with a 32-yard punt return, was the defensive star of the second half. He timed his run while chasing Jarvis Landry over the middle and stepped in front of the receiver for an interception at the Browns 43-yard line, returning the ball 33 yards to the 10.
Gordon took a pitch around the right side and scored for a 28-6 Chargers lead with 11 minutes, 49 seconds left in the third quarter.
“I was staying with my guy in man-to-man, saw the ball in the air and, at that point, my thing is to go get it,” King said. “I played him perfectly, came and undercut it, and got the pick.”
With seven minutes left, King was stationed in zone coverage and read the eyes of Mayfield, who threw a pass over the middle intended for David Njoku. King stepped in front of the tight end for an interception that gave Michael Badgley a chance to kick a 44-yard field goal.