Browns paint defensive masterpiece in dominant win over Joe Burrow and Bengals

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A funny thing happened on Myles Garrett’s way to Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow on the first play of the 2023 season.

“I was bending the edge myself,” Garrett said. “And I see Burrow on the ground. I’m thinking, ‘Who the hell?’”

Burrow was in shotgun. He took the snap, dropped quickly, threw the ball quicker and still took a stiff shot from Browns defensive end Za’Darius Smith that knocked him to the ground.

Garrett let up and smiled. Smith did, too. The first of many celebrations commenced.

“I see Z, and he’s got that big grin,” Garrett said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to get there myself because (Smith) has already set the tempo for the game.”

It wasn’t actually over then. It wasn’t even officially over when Garrett got his sack on fourth down in the fourth quarter with Cleveland already firmly in control. But the Browns’ season-opening win Sunday never really was in doubt because the Bengals never had much of a prayer of slowing down their revved-up pass rush. Last year’s Browns defense gave up too many big plays. This year’s group is out to fix that by creating more big plays. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s attack-first mindset fits Cleveland’s remade pass-rush group, and that group needed just one play to offer a peek at how the day would go.

Burrow was rusty, miserable and was spared no free oxygen by the Browns. Burrow finished 14-of-31 passing for just 82 yards, and when he was pulled from the game in the final five minutes, the Bengals were 2-of-14 on converting third downs. It was a defensive masterpiece painted by Schwartz, Smith and Garrett, and even when Burrow could see downfield, the Browns’ cornerbacks kept winning one-on-one battles. At one of the few times the Bengals generated anything, safety Grant Delpit closed quickly to knock away a deep ball intended for Tee Higgins and forced Cincinnati to settle for a 51-yard field goal try. Like most of Burrow’s passes, it missed.

Higgins had eight targets but not a single reception. The Browns sacked Burrow twice and were credited with 10 quarterback hits and four pass deflections. Their third rusher, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, got the season’s first sack to end the Bengals’ first series.

“Getting back there on that first play, I feel like it sets the tone,” Smith said. “Being able to hit him is sometimes more important than sacks. Sometimes you come out of a game and you got one sack but you hit him five times, and that affects him.

“We can come at (you at) different angles. We’ve got guys. We got big guys, we got speed guys.”

The Bengals threw extra blockers at Garrett all game. Running backs, tight ends and motioning wide receivers all took their turns trying to get into Garrett’s way. Sometimes, Garrett bullied his way through them. At other times, Smith or another player in a brown jersey took aim at Burrow. The unofficial quarterback hit count had Smith and Garrett recording four apiece.

Cleveland signed Okoronkwo on the first day of free agency. On the same day, it signed 325-pound Dalvin Tomlinson to anchor the middle — a huge issue last season — and command attention from offensive linemen and play callers who had previously gone toward Garrett. In May, the Browns traded for Smith and completed the top of Schwartz’s pass-rush rotation. Okoronkwo plays only on the edge, but Smith and Garrett move around and force the offense to change its blocking assignments. On one series Sunday, the blueprint turned into production.

“That’s what we all thought it would look like,” Tomlinson said.

Down 13-3, the Bengals probably should have gone for it on fourth-and-5 at their own 42-yard line to start the fourth quarter. Maybe because they didn’t think they could block the Browns’ defensive front, they punted. The lead was 16-3 by the time the Bengals got the ball back, and facing really no other choice on fourth-and-4 at their own 31 with 10:30 left, they went for it and rolled Burrow to the right.

Garrett chased him down, slammed him to the turf and took a bow. Five minutes later, the defense got another group bow as Burrow was removed from the game, basically for his own safety.

“I wouldn’t exactly call the (fourth-down) sack the play that clinched it, but it was definitely a big moment in the game,” Garrett said. “I just try my best to show up in those moments.”

The Browns have now beaten the Bengals nine of the last 11 times they’ve played. Burrow is 1-5 against the Browns and has been sacked by Garrett nine times in those games, three of which have been blowouts. Last Halloween, the Browns embarrassed the Bengals — though not quite this thoroughly — and Cincinnati turned things around from there, not losing again until the AFC Championship Game.

We’ll see what’s ahead this season, but Cleveland’s new defense looks scary. The Browns led 10-0 at halftime and left at least 10 more points on the field; the Bengals had three first downs in the first half and ran three plays inside Browns’ territory. The Browns intend to continue playing from ahead and keep mixing their pass-rush personnel, so they plan to keep seeing Smith and Garrett affect games in multiple ways.

“I fairly enjoy (moving around),” Garrett said. “When I get to see a guard or center by themselves, I’m licking my chops.

“We have a good room … so many athletic and talented guys, skilled rushers coming from different angles. Just a lot of different points of attack and guys with different skill sets. It’s just a lot for any offense.”

In Game 1, it was way too much for the Bengals. And that was apparent from the first snap.

(Photo: Jason Miller / Getty Images)

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