June 29, 2016

Intermittent clouds

Defense survives late drive

CLEVELAND — Dump a bunch of snow on them, make them run around in bitterly cold conditions and, just for the fun of it, throw 40-mph wind gusts at them.

Doesn’t matter. The Cleveland Browns defense is still going to feel the heat when the game is on the line.

It’s just who they are. Maybe it comes with being the 32nd-ranked defense in a 32-team league. Maybe it comes with their trite-but-true reputation as a bend-but-don’t break unit.

Whatever the reason, the defense’s penchant for making things a little too close for comfort was on display again Sunday in a crucial 8-0 win over the Bills at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

But as it’s done more times than not this season, the defense made the key stops and survived the big plays.

And for the first time since November 20, 2005 — when they beat the Miami Dolphins 22-0 in Cleveland — and for only the third time since 1999, the Browns pitched a shutout.

So it’s no wonder they felt more like celebrating than psychoanalyzing after moving to 9-5 and a step closer to their first playoff berth since 2002.

“Anytime you get a shutout in the NFL, you’re doing something,” Browns coach Romeo Crennel said. “These guys have been beat up during the course of the year, but they stood up today.”

Their biggest stand was also their last, stopping the Bills on fourth-and-5 from the Browns 10 with 15 seconds left in the game.

Did it matter that the Browns had stopped the Bills on back-to-back three-and-outs the two previous possessions, or that the Bills hadn’t been inside the Browns’ 20 all day before their final drive and didn’t have a timeout left to their name?

Of course not.

When the Bills got the ball back at their own 30 with 1:51 to go in the game, they suddenly started picking off big chunks of yardage. Completions of 20, 15 and 20 yards got them a first-and-10 at the Browns’ 15 with 47 seconds left.

After spiking the ball to stop the clock, the Bills picked up 5 more yards before an incompletion on third down.

Now it was fourth. They needed 5 yards for a first down, 10 for a score. The Browns needed to stop the insanity.

As the Bills lined up, Browns strong safety Sean Jones caught Bills running back Fred Jackson in a tell.

“I saw the running back’s eyes wandering,” said Jones, who said he saw the same look earlier in the game when the Bills pulled off a successful screen pass. “I told (linebacker) D’Qwell (Jackson) to watch for the screen.”

He did and, sure enough, Bills quarterback Trent Edwards dumped the ball off to Jackson on the right side, where the Browns were waiting for him. Cornerback Eric Wright made the first hit, followed by linebacker Chaun Thompson and then Jones.

The play went for no gain, preserving the Browns’ win and the defense’s confidence for at least another day.

“At the end of the day, they had to get into the end zone,” Jones said of the Bills, who brought the league’s 28th-ranked offense into the game. “No matter how much they were moving the ball, we knew we weren’t going to let them into the end zone.”

Said linebacker Andra Davis, who had one of his best games of the season with a team high-tying six tackles (four for losses) and a team-best two quarterback hurries, of the defense’s mindset on that final drive: “Just make a play. They didn’t have any timeouts. We just knew we had to stop them.”

Easier said than done, even in conditions which helped stop the Bills’ passing game cold.

“It was the same for both teams,” veteran linebacker Willie McGinest said of the weather. “It wasn’t an advantage for either team. They’re a cold-weather team, too.”

Who knows, the Browns might even be warming up to their style of defense. They certainly aren’t going to apologize for it.

“We’ve been taking shots all year,” Jones said, referring to the defense’s critics. “We’re a resilient group. We’ve always believed in ourselves.”