CLEVELAND – Early Thursday night, the magnitude of the situation hit Rob Chudzinski. He was on the sideline for his first game as a head coach.
The feeling passed, he settled into the job at hand and felt comfortable.
“No panic moments,” he said.
In his unofficial debut, Chudzinski saw quarterback Brandon Weeden quiet his many doubters, pint-sized running back Dion Lewis prove he’s more than just a training camp sensation and Travis Benjamin make life without Joshua Cribbs easier to take.
Oh, yeah, Chudzinski got his first win, as the Browns beat the St. Louis Rams 27-19 in the preseason opener at FirstEnergy Stadium. Paid attendance was 56,943 and peak attendance was about 50,000.
“It was everything that was advertised,” Chudzinski said.
Sorry, Chud, they won’t all go this smoothly.
Weeden was under the brightest spotlight after a subpar rookie season in 2012 and an inconsistent first two weeks of training camp. He rose to the occasion.
Weeden played the first two series and put up 10 points. He went 10-for-13 for 112 yards, a touchdown and a 127.7 rating.
The Browns settled for a 25-yard Brandon Bogotay field goal on the first drive after receiver Greg Little couldn’t bring in a well-placed ball from Weeden in the corner of the end zone. But on the second possession, Weeden went 5-for-5 for 60 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown to Lewis on an out route.
“I thought he did a good job,” Chudzinski said of Weeden. “Our offense was moving early in the game with him at the helm. He looked calm.”
Opening night was quite a departure from how Weeden started his rookie year. He went 3-for-9 for 62 yards with a sack, fumble, interception and 19.0 rating against Detroit.
“It was all fast,” Weeden said of the Lions game. “It didn’t feel as smooth as I did today as far as the comfort level and the communication and my certainty in the play calls and my certainty in what guys were doing. Gosh, that was a long time ago.”
Weeden is on a year-long audition for the new coaching staff and front office. He got off to a strong start.
“I think for the most part I made pretty good decisions tonight and we had guys around make big plays,” Weeden said. “When you’re not going backwards and can get into a rhythm, it’s easier to function.”
Cleveland’s first-team defense was almost as efficient as Weeden and the starting offense, which included 34 yards from Lewis on eight touches and a 30-yard catch-and-run from tight end Jordan Cameron. Little and receiver Josh Gordon added two catches apiece.
Defensive lineman Phil Taylor forced a fumble by running back Isaiah Pead on the Rams’ first possession and cornerback Buster Skrine recovered. St. Louis went three-and-out on its next drive.
“I thought we had a productive day from every unit that was out there,” inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “We have a lot of different looks we can throw at offenses.”
To complete the dominant performance from the starting units, Benjamin returned a punt 91 yards for a touchdown for a 17-0 lead 71 seconds into the second quarter. The Browns’ starters were done for the night.
“It was a good start,” Chudzinski said. “We had something to prove, just like every time we step on the field.
“Certainly it is one game and a preseason game, but I am pleased with the way the guys came out to play.”
Benjamin inherited the punt return job from Cribbs, the Pro Bowler who wasn’t re-signed in the offseason. Benjamin had to backpedal to catch the 66-yard punt, then sprinted from the right side to the left sideline and beat the Rams to the corner, with the help of a block that resembled a hold.
Benjamin’s elite speed kicked in and all he needed was a block down the sideline. He got it from rookie Barkevious Mingo, who was active on defense and special teams in his debut. Benjamin had a 93-yard punt return for a touchdown as a rookie last year.
“I saw an open opportunity,” Benjamin said. “Once I knew I had the edge, I trust my guys blocking for me. I knew if I got the edge, it would be a quick touchdown.”
Weeden wasn’t surprised to see Benjamin turn into a blur.
“Freaky fast,” he said. “The guy can go. If he gets a crease, then watch out. He’s one of the fastest guys I’ve ever been around.”
In another area of special teams, the Browns have a tight kicker competition between rookie Bogotay and veteran Shayne Graham.
Bogotay made the 25-yarder to open the game, but missed wide left from 54 in the second half. He also made an extra point.
Graham was good from 41 yards and had two extra points. They both were strong on kickoffs.
Jason Campbell replaced Weeden and played two series, leading one field-goal drive. He went 6-for-7 for 37 yards on mostly checkdowns with a sack and an 88.7 rating.
St. Ignatius graduate Brian Hoyer played the second half in his debut for his hometown team. He went 10-for-14 for 100 yards and a 26-yard touchdown to undrafted rookie receiver Cordell Roberson with 3:01 left.
An interception by undrafted rookie linebacker Justin Staples, a graduate of St. Edward High School, set up the 33-yard drive.
“That was funny,” Hoyer said of the Ignatius-Ed’s dynamic. “As I was running off the field he said, ‘I guess we can work together.’ It’s fun not being the only Cleveland guy here and to combine for a touchdown was pretty cool.”
New defensive coordinator Ray Horton didn’t reveal his entire blitz package, but the defense managed pretty consistent pressure. Outside linebacker Quentin Groves had a sack, and Mingo had one taken off the board when the Browns accepted a tripping penalty.
The Browns have a month before they open the regular season at home against Miami on Sept. 8. But Chud had plenty of reason to smile Thursday night.
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