CLEVELAND — Eric Wright wasn’t going to miss a second straight start, so rookie cornerback Joe Haden started the game on the sideline.
Haden got the lion’s share of the first-team repetitions during the practice week, but when the preseason game against St. Louis started Saturday night, Wright was back in his starting slot. He missed the preseason opener last week in Green Bay with a minor hamstring injury and was careful with it in practice this week.
Wright and Sheldon Brown were the starters against the Rams, with Haden joining in nickel situations. Wright moved inside to the slot and Haden played outside on the left against three receivers. Brandon McDonald was the sixth defensive back in dime situations.
McDonald was beat on the Rams’ first touchdown, a 9-yarder from A.J. Feeley to tight end Daniel Fells.
Wright broke up rookie Sam Bradford’s first pass and almost had an interception, then was penalized for pass interference on third down. He was effective in the running game — a persistent knock on him — totaling four tackles in the first half.
The Browns were in nickel extensively, so Haden played a lot. He broke up the first pass thrown his way, a short out from Bradford toward Donnie Avery. Haden was in good position and made a nice break on the ball.
Haden said during the week the time with the starters helped his confidence.
“It just shows my I’m starting to gain Coach’s trust,” he said. “They keep putting me out there with the ones, so I’ve just got to keep getting better every day.
“I feel like I’m just getting better.”
Haden was the No. 7 overall pick in the draft, so much is expected of him. But the Browns appear comfortable beginning the year with him as the nickelback and eventually getting him into the starting lineup. Mangini said it’s too early to say what role he’ll play.
“The key for Joe is to figure out a place of how he can help us and then to keep making his case to play more,” he said. “But those other guys, they’re making their case for him to play less and I think that’s a good thing because that’s competitive and you want that to be the situation. Nothing is given to anybody, it has to be earned.
“He’s working at it, but those other guys are working at it too and however it pans out, those guys will play.”
Haden finished with two tackles and two passes defensed as he played well into the fourth quarter.
He allowed a third-down completion and was called for pass interference on the winning field-goal drive.
Man of many talents
Pro Bowler Joshua Cribbs will be the primary kickoff and punt returner for the Browns, but they use the preseason to audition backups who could spell him on occasion.
Haden was the first alternative on kickoffs. He didn’t catch his first chance, but grabbed it off the bounce, made a great move and returned it 28 yards. He returned another 15 yards.
Feeley is expected to lose his starting job to Sam Bradford, and it may have happened Saturday night.
Feeley started and led a touchdown drive, but went to the locker room with an injured right thumb. He was hurt when hit by blitzing linebacker Chris Gocong on a third-down completion.
Feeley finished 5-for-6 for 45 yards, a 9-yard touchdown pass and a 137.5 rating.
Receiver Mohamed Massaquoi (hamstring) didn’t dress. He returned to practice Thursday in a limited role and Mangini said he would’ve played if it were the regular season.
Massaquoi was joined on the inactive list by offensive linemen Tony Pashos (shoulder), Floyd Womack (knee), Shaun Lauvao (personal reasons) and Joel Reinders (foot), linebackers David Bowens (knee) and D’Qwell Jackson (pectoral), defensive linemen Shaun Rogers (leg) and C.J. Mosley (leg), running back Montario Hardesty (knee) and cornerback Coye Francies (undisclosed).
Cribbs started for Massaquoi, and veteran Billy Yates started for Lauvao at right guard.
* For the Rams, starting cornerback Kevin Dockery was inactive.
Dana McKenzie, who grew up in Wellington, is a head linesman and worked the Family Day scrimmage. He lives in Toledo and is in his third year as an NFL official. He works on referee Mike Carey’s crew.
Dana’s the son of Dick McKenzie, a longtime NFL official who’s in his second year working with the Browns. Dick supervises the part-time officials who work at practice and is in the press box on gamedays to advise the coaches on replay challenges.
Former Browns offensive lineman Hank Fraley was replaced in the starting lineup by Adam Goldberg for the Rams.
* Quarterback Jake Delhomme, kicker Phil Dawson, linebacker Marcus Benard and Yates were Cleveland’s captains for the coin flip.
* The orange tarp covered the field until 6 p.m. Members of the Rams anxious to warm up used the concourse to play catch and stretch.
* The last time the teams met in the preseason was 1993. The Browns won 21-10.
* The Rams ranked last in scoring (10.9) in 2009 and 31st in points allowed (27.3). They went 1-15.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253