CLEVELAND — Sorry, Chud, they won’t all go this smoothly.
In his unofficial debut as a head coach Thursday night, Rob Chudzinski saw quarterback Brandon Weeden silence his many doubters, pint-sized running back Dion Lewis prove he’s more than a training camp sensation and Travis Benjamin make life without Joshua Cribbs more palatable.
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.
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, but on the second 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. “He was efficient and led us to some drives. Ultimately, doing that is what his job is all about.”
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.
New offensive coordinator Norv Turner couldn’t help but smile on his way to the locker room at halftime.
“For the first game out without seeing tape, I think we did some good things,” Weeden said. “When you’re not going backwards and can get into a rhythm, it’s easier to function. We were able to do that in the short time that we were out there. We moved well and we managed the offense pretty well.”
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. Receivers Greg Little and 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.
To complete the dominant performance from the starting units, Benjamin returned a punt 91 yards for a touchdown for a 17-0 lead. The Browns’ starters were done for the night.
“It was a good start,” Chudzinski said. “The guys came to play and we had something to prove, just like every time we step on the field.”
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.”
The Rams scored their only touchdown when starting quarterback Sam Bradford stayed in for a series against the second-team defense. He hit Chris Givens for a 59-yard post behind cornerback Trevin Wade. They hooked up again for a 3-yard score.
Greg Zuerlein added a pair of 50-plus-yard field goals for the Rams to cut into the lead, but never seriously threatened.
Zuerlein is a lock to keep is job, while the Browns have a tight 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.
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.
There’s a month left before the Browns open the regular season at home against Miami on Sept. 8. But Chud had plenty of reason to smile Thursday night.
Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.
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