CLEVELAND — Suddenly the Browns defense is stealing the show -- and this time it happened with their leading man on the COVID reserve list. Sunday's 22-17 win against the Philadelphia Eagles was a nice blend of a capable offense that had the perfect mix of run and pass, and an opportunistic defense that wanted to prove they could still put on a show without Myles Garrett.
Olivier Vernon, take a bow. You were nobody’s understudy in this performance, acting very much like the star of the show. Vernon registered three sacks of the NFL’s favorite tackling dummy this year, Eagles QB Carson Wentz. Poor guy looked like a piñata at a birthday party for triplets. Adrian Clayborn played a nice supporting role getting to Wentz twice, sharing one of them with Larry Ogunjobi. If you had the Browns getting five sacks of Wentz Sunday with no Myles Garrett, I bet you were at Municipal Stadium for Len Barker’s perfect game.
The paid attendance for the gem was 7,290, but I’ve met about 15,000 fans who insist they were there. Even though Wentz is the most sacked quarterback in the NFL this year, no one thought he’d go down five times against the Browns. But this defense appears to have turned a corner. After being one the most generous defenses in the NFL through the first seven games, something has happened during the last three games. The defense that was gashed to the tune of 27 points per game through its first seven games, has not allowed an opponent more than 17 points over its last three games. The Raiders scored 16. The Texans put up 7. The Eagles scored 17, but the first touchdown was the result of a one play, 19-yard drive after a fumble, and the second touchdown was against the Browns prevent defense in garbage time.
The Browns have nearly cut their points per game allowed in half over the past three games. The Eagles and the Texans offenses are clearly challenged, but the Raiders can score points. Sure, the awful weather in each of the last three games helped, but this defense is showing progress and promise. They’ll need to be much better in their round-two games vs. the Steelers and Ravens. And speaking of the Ravens, when was the last time they were below the Browns in the AFC North standings after 10 games? I’ll help. It was 2007. In fact, it’s only happened twice. 2007 and 2002 and the Browns would finish ahead of Baltimore at the end of both of those seasons.
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This win to get to 7-3 wasn’t just about the defense. The offense, although not perfect by any means, came in with the right mindset. Kevin Stefanski is quickly learning how to call plays in the slop. The Browns threw the football just 22 times compared to 40 running plays. As long as they’re not down a few scores early, that should be the mix with this talent and in those conditions. Kareem Hunt struggled to find a groove, but again we see that if you keep feeding Nick Chubb, it’s only a matter of time before he breaks the defense’s will. Before you know it, he’s over the century mark. Chubb’s 114 yards on 20 carries would have been unremarkable if not for his game long 54-yard run that set up Hunt’s touchdown. By the way, how funny was it watching Baker Mayfield chug along with Chubb on that play? Nice moral support. But that’s the thing with Chubb, he wears you down, one body blow after another, and then wham. The knockout blow to the head drops the defense to its knees. A player like that is rare in today’s NFL, but he is a commodity and the recipe for any Super Bowl run includes a player like Nick Chubb.
Speaking of Super Bowl runs, week 10 was good to the Browns in their quest to make the playoffs. The Ravens, Dolphins and Raiders all lost, easing the AFC log jam that was bunched together at 6-3. The Browns went from outside of the playoff picture, to a wildcard spot. It’s still early, but the Ravens play the Steelers on Thanksgiving night and the Browns have the 1-9 Jaguars on Sunday. Favorable outcomes in both would give the Browns a two-game lead over the Ravens with five games to go. Still plenty of football to be played, but you’d rather be the Browns than the Ravens in that scenario.
Other notables from the win over the Eagles include Baker Mayfield, KhaDarel Hodge, Rashard Higgins and Austin Hooper on offense. The triple H pass catchers each had 3 receptions, with Hodge leading the way with a career best 77 yards. Hodge was the step up guy in the absence of Odell Beckham Jr. Higgins continues to be a major target of Mayfield, who was a nice and quiet 12-22 for 204 yards, but most importantly no interceptions. That’s a three-game stretch without a pick for Mayfield, just the second time he’s done that in his three-year career.
Defensively, the young linebackers Mack Wilson and Sione TakiTaki are showing nice progress. Wilson finished with four tackles and TakiTaki added three to go along with his career highlight so far, the pick six for the Browns first points. And how about the effort of 3rd year cornerback Denzel Ward? Of all his impressive feats in the win, nothing was more impressive than bouncing back from a phantom and horrible pass interference call only to intercept Wentz deep inside Browns territory on the very next play. Gamer! And let’s shoutout Andrew Sendejo. I know he’s been the target of many Browns fans’ screams this season, but once again he led the team with seven tackles and always seems to be around the football.
Adding all of the moving parts from the week 11 win together, here’s what we have. The Browns are a good football team. They’re learning to win games that in the past they never did. Yes, their schedule has been easy, but they’re beating the teams they’re supposed to beat. Their losses are to a 10-0 team and a pair of 6-4’s. Are they a great team, or even a really good team? No. Not yet. But they’re certainly trending in that direction, and given what we’ve all had to endure over the last few decades, this is a fun and pleasant alternative.
IT’S HOW YOU START: The Browns 7-3 record is the team’s best 10-game start since going 8-2 to open the 1994 season. The 5-1 home record is the best for the Browns since starting 5-1 in 2007.
TURNOVER GOLD: When the Browns win the turnover battle they are a perfect 7-0 on the season. The Browns 17 takeaways is second in the NFL this season.
WELCOME TO CLE, KEV: Kevin Stefanski is 7-3 in his first season as an NFL head coach. That is the best record for any new coach this season. It is the best mark for a Browns rookie head coach since Bud Carson also started 7-3 in 1989. The only other time a Browns head coach started his career 5-1 at home, 1946, the great Paul Brown.
IN THE NICK OF TIME: Nick Chubb went more than 3,000 career yards with his 114 rushing yards in Sunday’s win. His eight rushes of at least 20 yards leads the NFL. His two carries over 50 yards is also tops in the NFL. Chubb now has 15 100-yard games in his career. That leads all players since 2018.
BAKER’S DOZEN: Sunday was Baker’s 13th win as a starter at FirstEnergy Stadium, tying Bernie Kosar for the most home wins through the first three years of his career.