CLEVELAND – Ken Crawley, P.J. Williams and De'Vante Harris have found themselves squarely in the spotlight for most of the first two weeks of New Orleans Saints training camp.
With returning starter Delvin Breaux and first-round pick Marshon Lattimore sidelined by injury, the trio of young cornerbacks has spent more than a week playing with the starters on defense.
All three have had their moments in practice — enough that the Saints coaching staff headed into Thursday night's preseason opener against the Cleveland Browns anxious to see them in game action.
And all three put together enough good to overcome the bad, spearheading a solid defensive effort for the Saints' top two units in a 20-14 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
"I feel like we did some good things out there the first couple of drives," Crawley said. "Feels like we were out there competing."
New Orleans gave Williams, Crawley and Harris plenty of chances, leaving them in the game for the entire first half while the rest of the starting defense rotated out of action after forcing Cleveland's Brock Osweiler-led offense to three straight three-and-outs to start the game.
Working with two different sets of personnel, the cornerbacks made enough plays to limit Osweiler and Cody Kessler to 11-of-24 passing for 89 yards in the first half, limiting the Browns to just 3.7 yards per passing attempt and 1-of-7 on third-down conversions.
All three players had excellent moments. Working against veteran receiver Kenny Britt, Crawley batted away a slant on fourth-and-goal at the 3-yard line to end one Browns drive without a score.
"I knew it was one of their top concepts," Crawley said. "Early during the game, I got a feel for how he runs routes. A lot of guys are shifty, they do a lot at the line. He just ran the slant, and I bit on it."
Harris thwarted a fade to Britt on the other side and turned in nice coverage on a handful of other plays, and Williams led the Saints with six tackles, including a few in traffic at the line of scrimmage.
For Williams, who saw his season end when he suffered a severe concussion while making a tackle against the New York Giants last September, the chance to get out there and deliver a few blows felt good.
"I haven't played a game in close to a year, so it definitely felt good to get out there and hit some people," Williams said.
The Saints' young trio also hit a few rough patches.
After Browns nose tackle Trevon Coley forced a Garrett Grayson fumble on the Saints' drive after Crawley's stop, giving Cleveland the ball at the New Orleans 21-yard line, Williams was stiff-armed to the ground on a tackle attempt by Corey Coleman.
Then Crawley was flagged for pass interference on third down, setting up a 1-yard touchdown run by Browns rookie Matthew Dayes.
"That first group competed," Payton said. "I thought those guys, they've been doing a good job so far. There's a couple of contact things we've got to get cleaned up."
Crawley was flagged twice for pass interference, and Harris drew one flag for illegal contact.
Despite the miscues, though, the Saints' cornerbacks spearheaded a solid night for the defense against a Browns team that finds itself trying to sort through a group of problematic quarterbacks to find a starter.
If Cleveland hadn't connected on a 31-yard completion from Kessler to Josh Boyce running through the middle of the Saints' zone defense, the Browns would have ended the first half with a paltry 58 yards passing.
After Williams, Crawley and Harris left the game at halftime, prized Browns rookie DeShone Kizer victimized the Saints' secondary for big plays twice, finding Richard Mullaney for a 52-yard gain to set up one Cleveland touchdown and then hitting Jordan Payton for the game-winning 45-yard score in the final minute.
Payton beat Damian Swann, another young cornerback fighting for a spot on this team, for the game-winner.
But Kizer's successes doesn't make the entire night a loss for the Saints defense.
Sparked by the early success, the New Orleans defense kept the pressure on Cleveland's quarterbacks. Stephone Anthony, Alex Jenkins, Mitchell Loewen and Al-Quadin Muhammad all recorded sacks.
"I thought we did a lot of good things all around, defensively," Payton said.
Now, when the Saints get Breaux and Lattimore back, this young secondary needs to keep the momentum going.