1. Browns get Myles Garrett back in time for a 'big challenge'
There's no better time to get a player like Myles Garrett back on the field than when you're gearing up for a game like the one the Browns have Sunday.
It's not just the stakes or the record on the other side of the field. It's the matchup.
The Browns still rank in the top half of the league in rush defense but have seen their numbers slip a bit in recent weeks. Garrett hasn't played in the last two games and was in and out of the lineup in the Browns' Week 8 loss to the Raiders, who racked up more than 200 rushing yards at Cleveland's expense.
The Titans, of course, are one of the NFL's best on the ground thanks to the bruising rushing of Derrick Henry, who won the rushing title in 2019 and currently leads the NFL with 1,257 through 11 games. The Titans' approach is a contrast to the Browns, who have relied upon the tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on their way to leading the NFL in team rushing, because Henry is a one-man show who seemingly gets better as the game and season unfolds.
"It is going to be a big challenge this week," Stefanski said. "I think we have to make sure that we are gap sound, No. 1. You have to defeat blocks versus a team like this. You have to defeat your one-on-one blocks, and then you have to gang tackle.
"Just understanding how this team plays and seeing them over the years, it does present a big challenge."
Forget about the Titans and Henry for a second. For the Browns to take a step forward on defense this week and in the weeks that follow, they'll need to be better against the run, especially in the first parts of games.
One week after Miles Sanders and the Eagles amassed 96 rushing yards in the first half, the Browns allowed Jacksonville's James Robinson to rush for 57 yards on nine attempts in the first quarter. The Browns tightened up in the second and third quarters before allowing Robinson to break off a couple of big runs in the fourth and finish with a career-high 128 rushing yards.
Even though Garrett is renowned for his pass-rushing abilities, he's also effective against the run. His presence, alone, makes the Browns defense better and deeper. Simply put, it gives the Browns one more star to combat Tennessee's biggest one.
Stefanski stressed he wouldn't go as far to say Garrett's absence has been the direct cause of the team's recent struggles against the run but made it clear he'll be welcomed with open arms.
"I would just tell you Myles is a very good player for us," Stefanski said. "Excited to get him back."
Check out the best photos from the Browns win over the Jaguars yesterday by the Browns photo team
2. Stefanski confident on 4th downs
Stefanski didn't have any regrets about his decision to go for a fourth-and-1 late in the action Sunday even though a field goal would have put Cleveland up by two scores. The Browns, leading by eight at the time, didn't convert and opened the door for a Jaguars comeback that came up short when they failed on a game-tying two-point conversion attempt.
It's the same mindset Stefanski had the previous week when the Browns came up short by inches on the goal line against the Eagles. His confidence in the offense is high and hasn't wavered.
"They know that I believe in them," Stefanski said. "When we are in those situations and we have a lead and we are running the ball … those are the scenarios where we are running it, they know we are running it and that is when you really rely on your guys. Very similarly in a short-yardage situation, you are relying on your guys.
"Now, that makes it sound like I am putting the blame on the players; I promise you, I am looking at how I can put them in a better position to succeed in those moments."
On the season, the Browns are 6-of-17 on fourth downs. One of those six came Sunday, when Baker Mayfield fired a sideline pass to KhaDarel Hodge to extend a third-quarter drive that ultimately ended with a 45-yard Cody Parkey field goal.
"Our offense has high expectations of themselves," Stefanski said. "If we get in those moments, they need to convert and they know that, and I can help them out with play calls, also obviously. I just think we have to have the mentality that if we are going for it there, we have to get it."
3. KhaDarel Hodge growing into his bigger role
Catches like the one Hodge made on that fourth down have become more and more routine.
One year after latching on with the Browns as a special teams ace, Hodge has embraced his role as the team's third wide receiver and taken on increased responsibility on the offense.
Over the past two weeks, Hodge has been targeted a combined eight times, catching six for 104 yards. In his previous four games — Hodge missed four weeks because of a hamstring injury — Hodge was targeted just seven times.
"I spent most of the offseason saying that I wanted to be a bigger part of this offense and that is what I was going to do," Hodge said. "For it to be happening right now is a blessing. Getting put into situations that I have been and coming through, it is just a blessing. I am grateful for it for sure.
"Whether that is blocking, catching the ball or being a leader in some type of way, I just wanted to be more involved in this offense, and I am glad it is going that way."