Hoyer, defense lead Browns to 17-6 victory

CLEVELAND – If Browns rookie linebacker Barkevious Mingo had closed his eyes, he might have thought he was back in Baton Rouge, La.

The crowd noise at First Energy Stadium was off the charts in comparison to the stale fan responses of recent years. It was all thanks to an energized effort by the Browns in a 17-6 win over the Cincinnati Bengals that gave the 71,481 in attendance legitimate reason to believe a corner has been turned.

“They were definitely in it today,” said Mingo, who played at LSU, where Tiger Stadium was recently voted the loudest playing venue in college football. “They’re hungry for a winner, and it’s our job to go out there and give them what they want. In return, they’re going to give us the crowd noise that’s going to help us out on defense. I know it fuels me.”

What got the fans charged up was another strong performance by quarterback Brian Hoyer, who now should be firmly established as the starter. Hoyer, 2-0 since taking over for an injured Brandon Weeden, directed touchdown drives of 95 and 91 yards, the latter all but sealing the win late in the fourth quarter.

Beyond Hoyer’s performance, the fans were turned on by another stellar defensive effort. The defense allowed 266 yards and forced a pair of turnovers. Receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron stood out again, combining on 14 receptions for 162 yards and one touchdown, and running back Willis McGahee sparked the ground attack with 46 hard-earned yards on 15 carries.

It added up to an impressive victory that puts the 2-2 Browns in a three-way tie with the Bengals and Baltimore Ravens atop the AFC North Division. The Browns had a 2-1 record in 2011, but there’s something different about the buzz this year.

“We’ve played well together in the last two games scoring a few points, getting first downs, getting long drives, putting some yards up, holding on to the ball,” offensive tackle Joe Thomas said. “Those all allow our defense to open up the playbook a little bit. They don’t have to play as conservative. They can take shots because they know if we get the ball back, there’s a chance we can go down the field and score no matter where we are.”

Linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, the Browns’ elder statesman in terms of time with the team, was cautious in anointing anybody after just four games.

“Ask me about that after the bye week,” Jackson said.

As was the case in the 31-27 win over the Minnesota Vikings, Hoyer was efficient. He avoided the interceptions (three of them) that almost proved costly against the Vikings, and he again orchestrated a fourth-quarter drive to put an exclamation point on a win.

It was Hoyer’s third career start and first for the St. Ignatius graduate in front of his hometown fans.

“To me a game is a game,” said Hoyer, who was 25-of-38 for 269 yards. “I don’t look at it in any other way. If you do you can get caught up in the hype. For me this might be only my third start, but this is my fifth year in the NFL. I’ve been through it a lot. I know the right way to prepare and the right mindset to go out there and prepare for the game.”

Hoyer started the scoring with a 2-yard pass to Cameron, who continued his torrid start with 10 receptions for 91 yards. The drive covered 95 yards on 12 plays.

The Bengals received the first of two Mike Nugent field goals from 25 yards to make it 7-3 in the second quarter.

Browns kicker Billy Cundiff, who was wide left on a 37-yard attempt of a field goal and had a 49-yard attempt partially blocked in the second quarter, made a 51-yard kick in the third quarter to extend the lead to 10-6. Nugent answered with a 43-yard field goal to cut the lead to 10-6 with 37 seconds remaining in the third period.

The Browns’ defense forced a punt early in the fourth quarter that pinned the offense at its 9. Mixing the runs of McGahee and some key passes, Hoyer directed a 12-play drive that culminated with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Chris Ogbonnaya.

Hoyer connected with Cameron on a crossing route for 31 yards to the Bengals’ 24 on the possession. McGahee then had carries for 9, 5 and 9 yards to the 1.

“As an offense, when you have prolonged drives it proves that you can be balanced,” Hoyer said. “You can go and attack a defense. It doesn’t always take a short field to score. On those drives it was a good mix (of) run, pass, empty (set), play action. That’s what this offense has a chance to be.”

The Bengals’ last legitimate chance to rally ended when cornerback Buster Skrine made a diving interception of a pass intended for tight end Tyler Eifert at the Cincinnati 35. Jackson broke up the pass with a well-timed hit on Eifert.

The Browns are in rarified air for them first place at the quarter pole of the season. There won’t be much time to celebrate. The Buffalo Bills are in town Thursday for a game on the “NFL Network.”

“We’re going to approach it like we have, whether we win or lose,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. “We’re going to focus on the next opponent and the next game. It’s great for those guys in the locker room to get a win. It goes a long way in reinforcing the things we’re asking them to do.”

The sound coming from the stands should have been plenty of reinforcement.