CLEVELAND — Joe Haden said the Bengals caught the Browns off-guard. Cincinnati running back Cedric Benson said it was a designed play. Cleveland coach Pat Shurmur said it was illegal.
Yes, everyone seemed to want to weigh in on the Bengals touchdown that led Cincinnati to a 27-17 victory over the Browns in Sunday’s season opener.
“We weren’t ready, everybody was scrambling,” Haden said. “We were all in the huddle, trying to get the play and we didn’t realize (Cincinnati) was lined up. We just heard everyone screaming, so we turned around and tried to run and catch up.”
But the Browns couldn’t catch up.
On third-and-11 from the Cleveland 41-yard line, the Bengals rushed to the line and snapped the ball while the Browns were still huddled. Backup quarterback — and former Brown — Bruce Gradkowski lofted a pass to rookie wide receiver A.J. Green on the right sideline, and Green sprinted into the end zone with Haden desperately trying to chase him down.
“It was like one of the slowest balls I have ever seen come down,” Green said. “I was like, ‘C’mon and get down to my hands.’ It seemed like it took forever.”
But was it a case of the Bengals catching a lucky break?
“That play was designed so we would catch them napping,” Benson said. “And we caught them napping.”
The explanations for the unusual play varied. Several Browns said the confusion arose because they were switching personnel — Haden said they were setting up a nickel package while rookie cornerback Buster Skrine said they were putting in the dime.
Skrine said he was entering the game to replace Dmitri Patterson, who was hurt a couple of plays earlier, but then saw Patterson was staying on the field and decided to move over to the other side.
“It was real confusing,” Haden said. “It was not a good look for us. We feel like we beat ourselves.”
Not according to Shurmur, who believes the Bengals broke the rules on the play and the officials should have delayed the snap.
“My understanding is when the offense changes personnel, the defense is allowed to do so as well and have time to do it,” Shurmur said. “I’m going to have to go back and watch the tape, but we’ll all see if that actually happened.
“There are rules that go along with that, so we’ll see.”
Legal or not, the play obviously left many Browns players feeling frustrated. Talking about the play after the game took some of them to their breaking point.
“We’re all talking about this one freaking play,” veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown said. “It’s other stuff that killed us. That’s the thing that’s crazy about this game — you always identify one play when that doesn’t tell the true story of the game.
“Penalties, no execution for the most part of the game and we didn’t make enough plays across the board.”
“Teams come up and try to quick-snap you,” linebacker Scott Fujita said. “I’ve seen that before … never for kinda the game-winning touchdown.
“It’s one of those things that might happen once in a career. It just makes you sick.”
Haden certainly seemed to have a postgame bad taste in his mouth, despite having a career day on the field. The second-year defensive back finished with five passes defensed — he had four last season against Miami — and had his second career sack. Two of the pass defenses came when he swatted rookie quarterback Andy Dalton’s passes to the ground in the end zone on the Bengals’ opening drive.
“I was prepared,” Haden said. “I studied film, I studied A.J., I studied the quarterback. You feel good that you did good, but at the end of the day you want to win.
“It wasn’t like they caught the ball on us (during the game-changing play), they just caught us off-guard.”
From the NFL rulebook: Rule 5, Section 2, Article 10
Article 10: If a substitution is made by the offense, the offense shall not be permitted to snap the ball until the defense has been permitted to respond with its substitutions. While in the process of a substitution (or simulated substitution), the offense is prohibited from rushing quickly to the line of scrimmage and snapping the ball in an obvious attempt to cause a defensive foul (i.e., too many men on the field). If, in the judgment of the officials, this occurs, the following procedure will apply:
(a) The Umpire will stand over the ball until the Referee deems that the defense has had a reasonable time to complete its substitutions.
(b) If a play takes place and a defensive foul for too many players on the field results, no penalties will be enforced, except for personal fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct, and the down will be replayed. At this time, the Referee will notify the head coach that any further use of this tactic will result in a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.