CLEVELAND - They have been known for years as the Bungles, a nickname that has been fitting more times than not. Yesterday was no exception.
The Cincinnati Bengals turned the ball over seven times, netted just 191 yards of offense, muffed a punt, missed two field goals, wasted an 86-yard punt return and looked worse than inept as Cleveland's defense posted the franchise's first shutout since 1994.
The Browns turned that largesse into an 18-0 victory for a sixth win, bettering their victory total from the previous two seasons combined.
The result of this Battle of Ohio, Lakefront, was in stark contrast to last month's Battle of Ohio, Riverfront, when the Bengals and Corey Dillon ran roughshod over the Browns' defense in a 24-14 decision.
“You don't prepare your guys on the basis of revenge or anything like that, but you certainly prepare them on the basis of what a team did the last time,” said Browns defensive coordinator Foge Fazio. “We didn't get turnovers the last time. We didn't sack the quarterback the last time. We tackled sloppy and a lot of guys got a lot of yards. I think Cincinnati had more than 200 rushing and passing. That's a lot of yards to give up so there was a lot of improvement needed.”
The Browns' secondary was spectacular yesterday before 72,918 fans on an overcast, windy day at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
Daylon McCutcheon had two interceptions and forced a fumble. Fellow cornerback Corey Fuller had a pick, two deflections and a team-high nine tackles, one more than strong safety Earl Little. Nickel back Raymond Jackson added an interception and so did linebacker Brant Boyer.
Boyer's theft came on the game's third offensive play and set up the first of four field goals by Phil Dawson. Little did anyone realize those three points would be all the Browns would need.
The Cleveland offense didn't produce a lot, but it got enough out of quarterback Tim Couch and receiver Kevin Johnson - they hooked up six times for 113 yards - and nabbed the game's only touchdown after a 52-yard interception return by Jackson put the ball at the Bengals' 10 yard line with 50 seconds remaining in the first half.
Couch and Johnson soon connected on a six-yard TD play when Couch lofted a pass to the right side of the end zone and Johnson spun back and away from Bengals cornerback Kevin Kaesviharn to make a leaping catch.
“The wind made it tough to get a good throw in,” said Couch, who completed 16 of 27 for 189 yards. “It wasn't real accurate but K.J. made a great adjustment.”
The teams combined to start 10 possessions in opposing territory and those 10 possessions resulted in nine points.
“There was a tough wind and it was a tough day for the offenses,” said Bengals coach Dick LeBeau. “They managed to get a few more points out of their breaks than we did. We turned the ball over too many times. You can't win with seven turnovers. We have to find a way out of this and find a way to get some points.”
There were none to be had yesterday as starting quarterback Jon Kitna threw a pair of first-half interceptions before backup Scott Mitchell was touched for three picks in the second half. Even Akili Smith saw late action, only to be sacked on one play and have a shotgun snap sail far over his head on another.
“I think the pass rush up front was the key,” said McCutcheon, who had interceptions on consecutive pass attempts by Mitchell in the fourth quarter. “We are getting to the quarterback and not giving him time enough to make the best decisions. They're throwing bad balls and we're ready.”
The biggest challenge for the Cleveland defense, which leads the NFL with 25 interceptions, came early in the fourth quarter when Cincinnati's T.J. Houshmandzadeh turned a screwy play into an 86-yard punt return to the Cleveland 5-yard line. He wasn't going to field the kick, but as the ball began to take a Browns' roll he picked it up to conserve a few yards only to break away from pursuit.
Mitchell threw an incompletion on first down, then Corey Dillon picked up just three yards on two carries. On fourth down, Dillon was blanketed coming out of the backfield and Mitchell rolled left on what he said was a naked bootleg and was sacked by Dwayne Rudd and Courtney Brown, preserving what was then a 12-0 lead.
“I think they were trying to catch us off-guard by not giving it to Corey on first down,” McCutcheon said. “That was a huge stop for us. If they get in the end zone then, it could be a whole different ballgame. I think you saw our pride on that series.”
Dillon carried 20 times for 63 yards, picking up just seven yards on six carries in the second half.
“I don't know if these guys realize how hard it is to shut a team out,” Fazio said.
Even the Bungles?
“We know how difficult it is to shut any team out, especially a team like Cincinnati that's full of first-round draft picks,” said Fuller. “We were just the better team today.”