CLEVELAND — The ball was barely out of Brian Hoyer’s hand when he started running. In the opposite direction.
Hoyer knew he had finished a game-sealing, job-keeping, 91-yard touchdown drive before the 1-yard pass landed in fullback Chris Ogbonnaya’s hands — and he was ready to celebrate. He sprinted away from the Dawg Pound down the middle of the field, stopped at about the 40-yard line and gave an emphatic fist-pump of which a young Tiger Woods would’ve been envious.
“It would have been really embarrassing if he hadn’t have caught it,” Hoyer said.
Two more stops for a defense that must be mentioned among the league’s best ended the game Sunday, but the 12-play touchdown drive that took almost seven minutes had ended the drama. Browns 17, Bengals 6.
The Browns have suddenly gone from 0-2 and shaken by the trade of running back Trent Richardson to 2-2 and tied for the AFC North lead with Cincinnati and Baltimore.
They couldn’t have done it without the hometown quarterback who spent the first two games on the inactive list and only got the call because Brandon Weeden banged his thumb on a helmet.
“It was a helluva drive,” said nose tackle Phil Taylor, who set the tone with a tackle in the backfield on the first defensive snap. “I call Hoyer the Hometown Hero. I’m going to start that campaign pretty soon here.”
Hoyer, the North Olmsted native and St. Ignatius graduate, tried to downplay the emotion of his first start on the same spot where his dad had season tickets when he was a kid. But the celebration after the play-action pass to Ogbonnaya in the flat spoke louder.
“I was actually kind of tired before the game so I think that kind of kept me from getting too emotional and too excited,” he said. “It’s awesome. We’ve talked about it a million times. It’s cool to play in front of the hometown crowd in this stadium, somewhere where I grew up 15 minutes from. And obviously it’s a good day because the Tribe was winning, too. So it’s fun.”
The Indians’ 10-game winning streak to finish the season and reach the playoffs is the only thing that could steal attention from Hoyer’s start to his Browns career. He followed a 321-yard, three-touchdown debut by going 25-for-38 for 269 yards, two touchdowns and a 103.9 rating against the Bengals.
The three interceptions vs. the Vikings turned into zero Sunday, and he became the first quarterback to win his first two starts with the Browns since Mark Rypien in 1994. Hoyer started 9-for-9 for 85 yards, including a 2-yard back-shoulder fade to tight end Jordan Cameron that capped a 95-yard first-quarter drive. He went 5-for-5 for 56 yards on the clinching drive.
Coach Rob Chudzinski wouldn’t commit to Hoyer as the starter for Thursday night against Buffalo, saying he’ll stick to his process, but there’s no way he’s going away from the man that is 2-0 with a defining fourth-quarter drive in each victory.
“He did a great job,” Chudzinski said. “Certainly he’s been the spark that I had hoped for.”
Hoyer has no plans to give up the job after spending three years as Tom Brady’s backup in New England and last season bouncing around the league.
“I’m a competitor, I want to be on the field,” said Hoyer, whose postgame celebration was a wave to his pregnant wife. “I just have to do what I can do, put my best foot forward and let Coach make that decision.”
Coordinator Norv Turner took a bit of the load off the passing game by handing to Willis McGahee 15 times for 46 yards — six for 33 on the fourth-quarter march — but when Hoyer needed to make a clutch throw he made it. He found Cameron (who tied an NFL record with five September receiving touchdowns by a tight end) 10 times in 12 targets for 91 yards, including a delicate and precise 31-yard crossing route on the final scoring drive. An offense that had struggled on third down converted nine of 18.
The defense showed its appreciation by keeping quarterback Andy Dalton, receiver A.J. Green and rookie running back Giovani Bernard out of the end zone. Captain and linebacker D’Qwell Jackson was the first to greet Hoyer after the fist-pump, rushing 15 yards onto the field.
“I wish I could keep replaying it, because that’s the feeling you want to have,” Jackson said.
The Jackson-led defense is playing like points allowed won’t be permitted. Dalton was 23-for-42 for 206 yards, an interception, two sacks and a 58.2 rating. Cornerback Joe Haden limited Green to 51 yards on seven passes in 15 targets. The Bengals rushed for 63 yards on 20 carries, and managed just two Mike Nugent field goals as the Cleveland defense had as many big plays as the offense.
Nickelback Chris Owens blitzed off the corner, stripped Dalton and recovered the fumble to open the second half. Rookie outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, in his first start, had his third sack in three games and two tackles for loss.
End Desmond Bryant stuffed BenJarvus Green Ellis on fourth-and-1 at the Cleveland 7-yard line. Outside linebacker Paul Kruger hit Dalton on a third down as he tried to throw to an open Green.
And oft-maligned cornerback Buster Skrine bounced back after a 28-yard pass interference on a flea flicker and a stupid unnecessary roughness for an interception and breakup to end Cincinnati’s last two drives.
“They didn’t get in the end zone, they didn’t have over 100 yards rushing, so defensive-wise, we played our (butt) off out there,” Taylor said. “We’re not done. We’re not satisfied.”
And they’re not surprised they were able to put the 0-2 start behind them and return to relevance.
“It’s what you’re supposed to do,” Hoyer said. “I don’t know how to answer it any other way.”
“Just because we were 0-2 that didn’t define us,” Taylor said. “We knew what type of team we were. We just had to get it together.”
Hoyer has been the driving force.
“He’s really, really confident,” Haden said. “He comes to the sideline talking to the D all in our face, smacking me on the (butt) like, ‘Joe, let’s go.’ He just has a really good spirit and he’s very confident.”
And he’s home.
“He is doing what they’re asking him to do and he’s stepping up huge and taking advantage of the opportunities that are in front of him,” Cameron said. “It’s good to see that, especially since I know he’s from this area and it’s a big dream for him to play in front of these fans and get a win against another Ohio team.”