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Delhomme ready for Browns’ debut

TAMPA, Fla. — Jake Delhomme’s voice, blaring from a speaker phone, caught the attention of Raheem Morris.

The Cleveland Browns quarterback was expressing his admiration for the Tampa Bay defense that Morris directs, and the Buccaneers’ fun-loving coach couldn’t resist the temptation to become an impromptu reporter.

“Hey Jake, did you really mean anything you just said there?” Morris asked before identifying himself. “Or are you just faking all my writers here, buddy?”

Delhomme, who debuts for his new team Sunday when the Browns and Bucs open the season at Raymond James Stadium, laughed before firing back.

“I meant everything I just said. I’m not just saying that,” the 12th-year pro, who likes the enthusiasm the high-fiving, chest-bumping Morris infuses in his defense. “There’s enough hot air out there, you know what I mean? It’s the absolute truth. I’m watching you on the sideline and see you on the film.”

At 34, Morris is the NFL’s youngest coach and beginning his second season in the rebuilding project Tampa Bay began after firing Jon Gruden.

The Bucs went 3-13 last year in his first season, but expect to be better with young quarterback Josh Freeman as a full-time starter and Morris, who took over the defense following a 1-9 start, serving as his own coordinator from Day 1.

Cleveland feels improved, too, after adding Delhomme’s veteran leadership to a young team that won its final four games of 2009 to finish 5-11. Coach Eric Mangini is confident the Browns can take up where they left off.

“What was disappointing for me was the guys were working hard and just weren’t getting rewarded with victories on the field,” Mangini said, reflecting on the Browns losing 11 of 12 games to start his first year in Cleveland.

“As we moved deeper into the season, I think we got better collectively and it started to show up in a tangible way. I’d say the best thing that came from it in terms of this year is the group of guys that experienced that now understand what we have to do week in and week out to be successful.”

The game is not one of the more glamorous opening weekend matchups, and it will be blacked out locally — the Bucs’ first regular-season blackout since 1997.

Freeman was the third quarterback selected in the 2009 draft behind Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez. He started nine games as a rookie, taking over after the Bucs stumbled to an 0-7 start and going 3-6 down the stretch.

The second-year pro missed the final two preseason games after breaking the thumb on his throwing hand, however he returned to practice this week and doesn’t think the injury will be a problem against the Browns.

“I’m excited to go out and showcase all the hard work that we’ve put in as an offense and an entire team,” said Freeman, whose most productive receiver last season was former Browns tight end Kellen Winslow, who had 77 catches after being acquired from Cleveland in a trade. “People still have a bad taste in their mouth from last year and want to go out and start new.”

Despite ranking 27th in yards allowed, Tampa Bay showed significant improvement on defense after Morris began calling plays late last season.

One of the top priorities in this year’s draft was shoring up the pass rush and a shoddy run defense, which Morris hopes he’s done by selecting tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price in the first two rounds. If not, Cleveland has more than enough firepower to take advantage.

The Browns were eighth in rushing offense last season, with Jerome Harrison running for 862 yards and five touchdowns.

Delhomme figures to help a passing game that features second-year receiver Mohamed Massaquoi and the versatile receiver-kick returner Joshua Cribbs, who had 2,510 all-purpose yards — the fifth-highest total in NFL history.

Plus Delhomme, who spent the past seven seasons with the NFC South rival Carolina Panthers, has a 9-2 career record against the Bucs.

“Nobody knows us better than Delhomme than maybe Drew (Brees),” Morris said. “He’s going to know our defense as good as some of the vets on our own team. He might know it better than some of our young players. … You’ve got to understand that and realize he knows that you know that he knows.”

But the Browns quarterback, coming off a subpar season that cost him his job in Carolina, discounted any advantage Cleveland might have because of his history against a defense that was among the league’s best before falling on tough times.

Delhomme called the revamped unit Morris has put together “very dangerous.”

“One thing about Tampa is they’re sound as can be. They’re quick, they’re fast, they’re ballhawks,” he said.

“People can say I played them so many times, that there was division rivalry and hatred, but to me it’s always been more respect than anything else. I respected those guys so much because each and every time you strapped it up, you had to be at your absolute best.”

The 35-year-old quarterback doesn’t expect anything different Sunday.