1. Browns needed every bit of defense’s bounce-back performance
This, as defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi described it, was the kind of complementary football the Browns want to play every week.
On Sunday in yet another overtime nail-biter, the Browns scored 30 points less than they did the previous week in Oakland but left with the more desirable result. This time, it was Cleveland celebrating a game-winning field goal thanks to just enough offense and the best defensive effort in a season that’s been full of them for a retooled, rejuvenated unit.
“No touchdowns and huge stops,” Browns coach Hue Jackson said. “There was that where it looked like we were breaking a little bit one time, but boy, they just bowed up and made some plays and called on each other.”
The plays ranged from absolutely huge -- Denzel Ward intercepting Joe Flacco on the goal line, comes to mind -- to the relatively mundane that are buried in the stat sheet. Nonetheless, every last one mattered in a game that wasn’t decided until the 70th and final minute.
Coming into Sunday’s game, the Ravens were among the NFL’s best with an average of 33.5 points per contest. The Browns limited them to just three field goals despite surrendering more than 400 yards.
The Browns bent and bent but didn’t break like they did against the Raiders, who put up 45 on them in a game Cleveland led with less than a minute to play in regulation.
“They can get as many yards as they want to as long as they stay out of the end zone, then we are doing our job,” defensive end Myles Garrett said. “If we can keep them to field goals, then that gives our offense the best chance to win. Our goal is to keep them off the board completely, but I can settle with three points over six, obviously.”
Cleveland’s defense couldn’t settle for any when the Ravens took possession at their own 39-yard line with 3:22 to play in overtime. The Browns’ offense took a risk on the previous series when it went for it on fourth-and-5, and the unit ultimately came up short, putting the Ravens just a couple of first downs away from Justin Tucker’s field goal range.
The defense didn’t surrender a single yard on three straight plays, giving the ball back to the offense for the final time.
“That is faith in all of us as men,” Garrett said. “That is faith in the offense that they can get it, and if they do not, then we will go out there and take the ball away and we will give them another chance to win the game. That’s what we did today.”
2. Derrick Willies was the next man up, and he played the part
Desmond Harrison and Derrick Willies were the only two undrafted free agents signed by the team in May to survive final roster cuts. While Harrison was thrust into the spotlight as the season-opening left tackle, Willies hummed under the radar but was active for every game as a special teams fixture.
That all changed in Sunday’s second half after Rashard Higgins went down with a knee injury. Willies took over as Cleveland’s third receiver and made the same kind of big plays Higgins was making before he was hurt. Higgins caught a 19-yard touchdown in the second quarter, and Willies was on the receiving end of one of the game’s biggest plays, catching a third-and-8 pass from Baker Mayfield late in Sunday’s overtime period and running 39 yards with it.
It was the third and final on the day for Willies, who finished with the first 61 receiving yards of his NFL career.
“It was a great feeling to be out there and make plays when the ball came my way,” Willies said. “It was awesome for me.”
Higgins, who has 13 receptions for 178 yards on the season, is set to have an MRI on his injured knee Monday. If he’s out for any length of time, Willies has already made quite a case to pick up some of the slack.
“He has some more playing time coming. That is for sure,” wide receiver Jarvis Landry said. “He stayed the course since the moment he got here, undrafted guy. When Hig went down, it was the next man up mentality. He came in and made plays, did his job and he had a couple catches.
3. How does Baker Mayfield do it? ‘He just makes plays, man’
This wasn’t Mayfield’s finest performance by any stretch of the imagination. He threw an interception in the first quarter, missed some throws here and there and took some sacks he probably shouldn’t have. It was nothing out of the ordinary for a rookie in his second NFL start.
It’s just the big plays in big moments that has made those around him forget about his first-year status.
“He just makes plays, man,” offensive lineman Joel Bitonio said. “He is calm and collected no matter what happens – an interception or fumble - he is ready to play the next play. He has done that all year and we are hoping he does it for a long, long time here.”
When the Browns needed a jolt of offense at the end of the first half, Mayfield delivered, leading the offense on an efficient two-minute drill that was capped with a 19-yard touchdown pass to Higgins. And when the Browns faced second-and-21 from inside their own 10-yard line, Mayfield first dug them out of the hole with a 13-yard scramble and then produced his best play of the game when he evaded pressure and found Willies to jumpstart what became the game-winning field goal drive.
Mayfield finished with a season-high 342 passing yards. He got his second game ball of the season from Jackson.
“He hung in there when things were not always perfect. He made plays, really good plays down the field,” Jackson said. “He has some things that he has to get better at, too, but man, he gave us a chance to be put into position to win the game.
“I have not been around him a ton, but there is just something about this young man. He has a feel to him. He does not blink at situations or opportunities.”