There was a Super Bowl feel to Rams-Browns.
In other words, the score at halftime was 6-3.
While that harkened back to the Rams’ disappointing performance in the Super Bowl against New England last February, it was also a tribute to a remarkably resilient Cleveland defense. (The Patriots were up at halftime in that one 3-0.)
After all, the Browns were without their entire starting secondary, an almost inconceivable predicament just three weeks into the season.
“I know they didn’t have their DBs this week,” Rams quarterback Jared Goff said after his team’s 20-13 victory, “but they did a good job of holding us down.”
Deactivated for this, the first Sunday Night Football game in Cleveland in 11 years, were starting Browns cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams, and safeties Morgan Burnett and Damarious Randall.
Ward and Williams were added to the injury report last Thursday with hamstring issues, Randall missed the past two games because of a concussion, and Burnett suffered a quadriceps injury in Week 2 against the New York Jets.
Basically, the Browns secondary was tertiary.
It was a clutch performance by a downtrodden franchise that, since relaunching in 1999, has had a league-high 41 different coach/quarterback combinations and hasn’t won a playoff game since 1994. The Browns are in the spotlight this season, however, with four prime-time games.
The Rams had a strong defensive performance of their own, but somehow it was more surprising by the Browns, facing an explosive offense with the eyes of the football world watching.
The first half was a masterpiece by the home team. With the packed house at FirstEnergy Stadium on its feet, the Browns shut down the Los Angeles ground game, blanketed the receivers, and turned up the heat on Goff.
“They were trying to get us out-flanked a few times and were getting to the line of scrimmage quick,” said Cleveland linebacker Mack Wilson, filling in for injured starter Christian Kirksey. “We made those adjustments and got better as the game went on.”
A huge play came late in the second quarter, when defensive end Myles Garrett got behind Goff and raked the ball out of his hand while he was trying to throw. Browns linebacker Joe Schobert scooped up the loose ball and returned it 17 yards to the Rams’ 21-yard line.
Three incomplete passes followed, setting the stage for a 35-yard field goal by Austin Seibert that gave Cleveland a slim lead going into the locker room.
At halftime, the Browns honored legendary linebacker Clay Matthews, their all-time sack leader, whose namesake now plays for the Rams. It was a fitting ceremony in light of the way the Cleveland defense clamped down.
“More plays for us to make, more money to be made,” said Browns defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson on the mentality of Cleveland’s scrappy, patchwork unit. “That’s how you look at it. Play defense.”
In the third quarter, after the teams traded touchdowns, cornerback T.J. Carrie — filling in for Ward — made a diving interception of a pass for Brandin Cooks.
It certainly wasn’t a perfect game by Cleveland’s defense.
A costly error came in the fourth quarter when safety Jermaine Whitehead was flagged for unnecessary roughness for his hit on Goff at the end of a scramble. That put the Rams in position for a field goal that extended their lead to 20-13.
But the Browns weren’t done. Safety Juston Burris, who had been cut by Cleveland and Oakland and re-signed with the Browns late last week, intercepted a tipped Goff pass with 2:46 left to give the home team another chance.
“He was on the team in training camp, so he knows the defense a little bit,” Richardson said of Burris. “He was a rookie when I was with the Jets, so I know him and what he brings to the table.”