The 2021 season didn't go the way Cleveland hoped, but the Browns finished it out with a nice, feel-good win to build upon heading into the offseason.
We're steering our Takeaways one last time for the 2021 season to the defense, where Cleveland yet again saw some of its best football being played.
1. Browns D delivers one more time to cap its strong season
There's one stat that best sums up the improvement between 2020 and 2021 for the Browns defense. With more stats to track the efficiency and success of a defense than we've ever had before, it boils down to the original one that matters most: points.
In 2020, Cleveland's defense had four games in which it limited its opponents to 17 points or fewer. The Browns won three of those games.
In 2021, the Browns had nine, including Sunday's 21-16 victory over the Bengals. Those games accounted for six of the team's eight wins.
That's up there with some of the best defenses in the league, and the Browns, despite some hiccups early in the year, played like one through the better part of the 2021 season.
"It took us a while to start playing together," LB Jacob Phillips said, "but once we did, we have so much talent it all panned out."
Entering Week 18, no NFL team allowed fewer than 17 points per game and just four allowed fewer than 20. The Browns will finish in the top half of the league in scoring defense (21.8 points per game) just one year after it surrendered an average of 26.2 points per game — the second-most of any 2020 playoff team.
The Browns entered 2021 with hopes of greatly improving its defense, and it's clear they succeeded. Needless to say, it's a bright spot to build upon and perhaps the biggest source for optimism heading into 2022 after the team came up short of its overarching goals of winning the AFC North and making the playoffs. The Browns went 3-1 in those 17-points-or-fewer games in 2020. This year, the Browns went 6-3.
On Sunday, facing a Bengals offense that held out most of its starters, the Browns used the same recipe that worked in their previous top defensive efforts.
It started up front with relentless pressure from Jadeveon Clowney and Myles Garrett, who combined to sack Bengals backup QB Brandon Allen three times to give them a combined 25 sacks on the season. Entering the 4 p.m. games, the Browns were tied for seventh in the NFL with 43 on the season.
"We have become real good guys and close to each other because we play together," Clowney said. "I pick his brain, and he picks mine. We feed off each other out there. It is a good thing to have someone on the other end that you do not worry about. You are just like, 'Hey, I will meet you there [at the quarterback]."
It continued in the back seven, as the Browns bottled up the kind of big plays that gave them issues during the early part of the season. Cincinnati had just two plays go for 20 or more yards with just one coming in the final three quarters.
The Bengals gained 182 yards of offense, marking the second-stingiest performance of the season from Cleveland's defense. Entering the 4 p.m. games, the Browns ranked third in the NFL in total defense (311.5 yards allowed per game).
"It is all about having something to play for, and I think there was something to play for and multiple things to play for today," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. "I think the guys understood that. To see them fight for each other and with each other one last time, I think that tells you a lot about our guys."
Check out photos of the Browns against the Bengals in Week 18
2. More on Clowney's strong finish
Clowney finished his 2021 season by playing some of the best football of his eight-year career.
Clowney registered four of his nine sacks in the final two games, giving him the second-most sacks of his career. It could have been more if not for a two-game absence that preceded it, as Clowney missed time while being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
"It shows people, no matter what the circumstances – we are not in the playoffs or anything – I just really love this game of football," Clowney said. "I do not care if [we are] 0-and-whatever, I go out there and play the same way in a game. I just love to play this game. Do not take it for granted. It can come and go like this. I have been on the other end of this and the opposite end of it, never get to play some games or miss them. I just want to be out there, playing at high level with my teammates."
Clowney, who has battled injuries throughout his time in the NFL, missed just one game in 2021 to an injury. On top of all the games Clowney was able to play, he also logged as much time on the practice field as he has in years.
"I think so many times in his past he has not been healthy and has been unavailable due to injuries," Stefanski said. "He plays the game very hard. He plays with reckless abandon. I think he was fortunate in a lot of areas to be healthy. He missed two games due to COVID so unlucky there, but all in all, he was available."
3. Bookend TD catches for Felton
Demetric Felton caught the first and last touchdown passes of the Browns' 2021 season.
The rookie RB had one of the highlights of the season when he spun his way out of a handful of tackles on a 33-yard touchdown catch in Cleveland's Week 2 win over the Texans. His next touchdown catch would be Sunday's, as he hauled in a screen from Case Keenum and darted his way 10 yards into the end zone for a fourth-quarter score that all but sealed the game.
Felton, who held down roles as a kick returner and punt returner at points throughout the season, finished his rookie year with 19 catches for 163 yards and two touchdowns. He also carried the ball six times for 18 yards.
"There were a lot of ups and downs about it and a lot of learning that went into it," Felton said. "I wouldn't trade this year I had with anything else. I'm blessed to be here. I'm happy I'm on this team, I learned a lot and I can't wait to get back to next year and do what we came here to do."