BALTIMORE — The Browns knocked the revered Ravens defense on its heels all day. Peyton Hillis took handoff after handoff and swing pass after swing pass, punishing Ray Lewis and Co. for a career-high 180 yards.
The Browns had a smart game plan that was the proper balance of not too safe and not too risky, including plenty of passes on first down. They nearly matched the Ravens in time of possession and put together three lengthy scoring drives.
The Browns had the Ravens fans mumbling to themselves and scattering boos after taking a lead one play into the fourth quarter.
The Browns still lost.
Ravens 24, Browns 17 Sunday in the home opener at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Browns dropped their AFC North opener and are 0-3 by a combined 12 points. Progress was made this week. This loss came to a good team.
“I feel like we really had them today,” fullback Lawrence Vickers said. “We just got to turn the page, we have to flick that switch off. In close games, we’ve got to turn it around for ourselves.”
Cleveland was without five key contributors due to injuries, including quarterback Jake Delhomme (ankle) for the second straight game.
“I’m proud of the way they played, the tempo, the energy, the toughness. Collectively, we have to fix what we’ve talked about now for three weeks,” coach Eric Mangini said, referring to penalties. “Till that’s fixed, we’re making it just too hard on ourselves.”
There’s no question the Browns played better Sunday than in losses to Tampa Bay and Kansas City. They went toe-to-toe with the Ravens (2-1) for four quarters and were never out of the game. But they still made too many mistakes — even though they didn’t commit a turnover — to beat a good team on the road. The eight penalties — following nine last week — would’ve been the biggest criticism if not for the complete lack of coverage by cornerback Eric Wright on receiver Anquan Boldin.
The Ravens traded for Boldin to get them over the hump and to the Super Bowl. The move paid dividends Sunday, as he caught all three touchdowns — all with Wright chasing like a kid after an ice cream truck with no rearview mirror.
Boldin had eight catches for 142 yards. He scored from 8 yards in the first quarter, from 12 in the second and the winner from 27 with 9:13 left in the fourth. Wright offered no resistance at the line, fell for whatever move Boldin made and couldn’t catch up. “I didn’t feel like myself today and I didn’t play like myself, I didn’t play up to my ability,” Wright said. “I had a horrible day and I let my team down.”
The last Boldin touchdown came after the Browns had rallied from a 14-3 deficit to take a 17-14 lead. Hillis kept pounding away at the Ravens, and the Browns kept picking up chunks of yardage. A play-fake to Hillis left tight end Benjamin Watson open in the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown lob from Seneca Wallace to start the fourth quarter.
The Browns needed a turnover and another score to steal the win. Neither happened.
An offsides penalty on Blake Costanzo on the kickoff cost the Browns about 15 yards in field position after the rekick.
Boldin caught a 13-yard cross from Joe Flacco — with Wright close this time — on third-and-7. After left tackle Michael Oher, of “The Blind Side” fame, was penalized 15 yards for a head slap to defensive end Robaire Smith, the Ravens converted a third-and-13 with a 14-yarder to tight end Todd Heap in front of dimeback Mike Adams.
On third-and-5 from the 27, the Browns blitzed, Flacco let it fly and Boldin ran underneath. The blitz didn’t hit, and Wright didn’t cover.
The Browns got the ball twice with a chance to take the lead or force overtime, but didn’t muster a first down. The first possession blew up when Wallace thought the play was a pitch to Hillis instead of the called handoff. Wallace recovered, but lost 17 yards to the 3.
“It was my fault,” said Wallace, who 18-for-24 for 141 yards, a touchdown, no interceptions and a 103.0 rating. “It was something I was thinking about in the past that came back, now it’s going to haunt me a little bit.”
Billy Cundiff’s 49-yard field goal made it 24-17 with 5:29 left, but the Browns had the ball and a shot at overtime. On third-and-2 after a run and catch by Hillis, Wallace threw out of bounds on a deep ball for Cribbs.
“It wasn’t designed that way,” Wallace said. “They came with an all-out blitz. I’ve got to give him a better ball to catch.”
The Browns lined up to fake the punt with a direct snap to Cribbs, but the Ravens called timeout. The Browns punted, and never got the ball back. Wright gave up a third-down completion, and linebacker Matt Roth jumped offsides on third-and-4 to eliminate hope.
Mangini has been harping on eliminating penalites all year, but the players keep making them, including Watson’s unnecessary roughness for a post-play shove.
“We have to be good enough to not make those mistakes down the stretch to beat a great team like the Ravens,” left tackle Joe Thomas said.
All Mike Holmgren could do was take a deep breath as he watched the final seconds. He’s 0-3 as president, and there’s nothing he can do from the press box.
At least he saw improvement Sunday, starting with the running game. The Browns went back to the run-first formula from the four-game winning streak last season, with more passes sprinkled in.
“That’s exactly what you’re gonna see, smashmouth football,” Vickers said. “I’m going to bring it every week, Peyton is going to bring it every week. Our o-line is going to bring it. I’m very passionate about it.”
Cribbs was the only receiver with a catch (five), but the Browns still managed to keep the Ravens off balance and score in the second half for the first time all year. With a steady dose of Hillis, the Ravens were rocked.
“We felt it with their body language. They weren’t jumping around and screaming,” Thomas said. “We were running the ball directly at them. They were kind of searching for answers. Typically teams aren’t able to run right at that defense.”
The Browns took a big stride on the ground Sunday. It just wasn’t big enough.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or email@example.com.