September 19, 2014

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Browns 30, Saints 17: Defense, trick plays carry Browns past NFL champs

NEW ORLEANS — Rob Ryan, with his long silver hair matted down after players emptied the Gatorade bucket on him to cel­ebrate a brilliant game plan, looked up at the barking Browns fans as he walked off the field and into the tunnel.

“Who Dat?” the cocky defen­sive coordinator screamed, steal­ing the rallying cry of the Big Easy. The who is the Browns. They stunned the Super Bowl cham­pion Saints 30-17 on Sunday in a deafening Louisiana Superdome. The how is just as improbable. Linebacker David Bowens, 33 years old and with gray in his hair and beard, returned two Drew Brees interceptions for touch­downs. The first made the upset — the Browns were 13-point underdogs — seem possible; the second made it a reality.

More photos below.

The Browns opened the game with a cross-field throwback on a punt return to set up a field goal. They added the longest fake punt since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, as Reggie Hodges ran 68 yards right up the middle.

The coaches weren’t done emptying the playbook. They knew they would need some­thing special to beat the Saints (4-3), and they dug deep to find it. Desperate to convert a third down midway through the fourth quarter to keep the ball and stymie a New Orleans come­back attempt, running back Pey­ton Hillis took a break from bull­dozing to throw a 13-yard com­pletion to rookie quarterback Colt McCoy for a first down.

“We played to win the game today, no doubt about it,” line­backer Scott Fujita said.

McCoy got his first NFL win in two tries despite throwing for just 74 yards. He went 9-for-16, and his best work was avoiding turnovers and managing the game against a blitzing defense in a hostile environment.

The Browns head into the bye week 2-5, which suddenly doesn’t look so bad. They were close in the fourth quarter in every loss and thoroughly outplayed a good New Orleans team.

“We’re a good football team,” said Joshua Cribbs, who threw a long lateral across the field on the punt return to Eric Wright, who went 62 yards before running out of gas and getting tripped up. “Our record doesn’t show it, but we’re gonna start having to prove that to everyone by winning games against teams like this.”

“It was a fun day. I think this is a win we can build on,” Fujita said.

Fujita, who played in New Orleans from 2006-09 and became embedded in the community, was instrumental in the win. He had a game-high 11 tackles, including 10 solos, a 10-yard sack, two tackles for loss, an interception and a pass defensed. He also helped Ryan come up with a game plan to stop old friend Brees.

The goal was to confuse him as much as possible by moving around before the snap to prevent him from forming a clear picture of the defensive alignment. The Browns also backed off the blitzing and dropped as many as eight into coverage, with just one man actively rushing. It worked.

“It was nothing I wasn’t expecting,” Ryan said as he walked out of the locker room.

Brees matched his career worst with four interceptions. Bowens had two, Fujita and cornerback Sheldon Brown one each. Brees went 37-for-56 for 356 yards, three sacks, two touchdowns and a 65.8 rating.

“That’s a damn good offense we played,” Fujita said. “I feel we had a good plan and we executed it.

“Planning it and X’s and O’s is one thing. To come out and execute it the way we did, that was pretty impressive. I was so proud of everybody. It’s tough to do that against Drew because he’s so smart.”

Bowens was the biggest recipient. He returned interceptions 30 and 64 yards for touchdowns.

“We didn’t want to give him a clean look,” Bowens said of Brees. “If he can read it, it’s going to go and it’s going to go deep.”

“I don’t have days like this,” Brees said. “Four interceptions are hard to swallow.”

The play of the defense was almost as surprising as the trick plays. And those stunned everyone, including the Saints.

Ryan wasn’t the only one burning the midnight oil in the film room last week. Special teams coordinator Brad Seely earned his paycheck as well.

Wright’s run down the sideline on the punt return set up a field goal for a 3-0 lead. Hodges’ Sunday afternoon jog down the middle was Cleveland’s longest play from scrimmage this year and set up another field goal in the first half.

“I think he was shocked by how open it was,” said coach Eric Mangini, who stopped short of entering the tunnel to shake hands with his players as they walked off. “We were looking for a first down.”

Despite the great start, the Browns needed an offensive drive to thwart a comeback. The lead was down to 20-10 with 13 minutes left and the Browns had to have a score.

Hillis went to work, pounding away at the defense. He ran for 38 yards on a drive that ended with a 48-yard field and included the pass to McCoy.

“It was just one of the situations where you have to get it done,” Hillis said. “The offense was psyched going in there, and we got that accomplished.

“It was good to see the offense come through in the clutch like that.”

The Browns beat the defending Super Bowl champ for the third straight year. Crazy things do happen, especially in the bayou. After all, the Superdome was the site of the expansion team’s first win in 1999 on a Hail Mary.

“When we play together, we win,” Mangini said. “When we do that, anything is possible.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com.