CLEVELAND — Travis Benjamin’s final 20 yards to the goal line became more of a jog. As for the previous 70, he was running fast. Very fast.
“Freaky fast,” Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden said.
OK. So, Benjamin a freak.
“That guy has a lot of ability,” Weeden said. “The guy can go. If he gets a crease then watch out, he’s one of the fastest guys I’ve ever been around.”
Benjamin’s 91-yard second quarter punt return was the signature highlight of the Cleveland Browns preseason opener at home against the St. Louis Rams.
“I saw an opportunity,” Benjamin said. “Once I knew I had the edge, I trust my guys blocking for me. I knew if I got the edge, it would be a quick touchdown.”
Benjamin’s “quick touchdown” also highlighted an encouraging theme that is growing with this team — speed.
Whether it has been the inability to identify talent (Dwight Clark, Butch Davis regimes) or the desire to fill team with veterans over 30 years old (Mangini) or any of the other missteps in between, the Browns have simply lacked team speed on offense and defense.
That is slowly changing. Get it?
Benjamin, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound wide receiver out of Miami, Stanford’s Chris Owusu and Georgia Tech’s Stephen Hill all tied for the fastest man honors at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine with a 4.36-second 40-yard dash.
The Browns past regime drafted him in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft and he made his mark his rookie season. On Dec. 9, 2012, he put a stamp on a 30-7 win over Kansas City with a 93-yard punt return. It was the longest punt return for a touchdown since the Browns came into existence in 1946.
His performance against the Chiefs last season and his encore Thursday night has eased the pain some fans felt by the loss of Josh Cribbs. For all the good Cribbs did for the Browns, he never ran like this.
The same can be said for the Browns’ new defenders like rookie Barkevious Mingo and sixth-year veteran Quentin Groves. Both had sacks Thursday night, although Mingo’s was wiped out because of a penalty. Mingo, especially, displayed the quickness and speed needed to make plays on special teams and to get to the quarterback.
“Speed kills,” Mingo said. “That’s one thing (outside linebackers coach Brian) Baker wants us to do and that’s play wide open. If we make a mistake, he wants us making it going 100 miles an hour. That’s what we set out to do.”
Mingo saw extended time against the Rams’ second team offense and, well, overpowered not-long-for-this-league left tackle Joe Barksdale. Mingo was getting constant pressure on the Rams’ second-teir quarterback not-named Sam Bradford. He finished with two quarterback hits, an assisted tackle on special teams and a sack that was negated because of a tripping penalty.
“It was a fluke play,” said Mingo, of his sack. “I barely got a hand on (the quarterback) and he fell. Coach (Rob Chudzinski) wanted the yards so it all worked out.”
The Browns have a long way to go to becoming the new Greatest Show on Turf. But the influx of speed from guys like Mingo and Benjamin is not only welcomed, but also noticeable. Like Mingo said, speed kills in the NFL. Sometimes, it is good to be a freak.
“(Mingo) did a great job,” Browns veteran linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “It’s tough going from practice to game speed and trying to rush the passer on every down. When you start playing these games, the intensity level goes up and he was able to match it. We got a lot of work to do but it was a good start for him.”