The Browns had waited eight weeks for a full four-quarter, complementary performance, and they finally found one Sunday in a 41-16 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
The win, which boosts the Browns to 5-4 and should help them escape the bottom of the AFC North, was made possible from several players who helped the Browns deliver statements on both sides of the ball. We're focusing first on one player on defense who helped the entire group deliver their message.
1. Denzel Ward helps defense surge to best performance of the year
The Browns needed all of their star playmakers to step up to deliver a win, and arguably no star stepped up more than Denzel Ward.
Ward delivered one of the best games of his career against a Bengals offense that had been surging under second-year quarterback Joe Burrow and rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase. Ward helped the Browns shut both of them down with a pick-six and three passes defensed to completely dismantle the Bengals' top playmakers.
Chase was limited to 49 yards, the second-lowest total he's recorded in a game this season. Burrow was held to 282 passing yards and no touchdowns, the first time this season he failed to find the end zone.
The whole defense contributed to the effort, but no player made more game-changing plays than Ward.
"He's a great football player, and you need your great football players to play great" coach Kevin Stefanski said. "He played great today."
The team win was ignited almost instantly by Ward, whose pick-six occurred at the end of the Bengals' first drive, when they marched down to Cleveland's 3-yard line and looked for a quick pass to Chase.
Burrow had his eyes set on Chase the whole play. Ward, meanwhile, had his eyes set on Burrow and instantly moved to grab the pass. The catch was easy for Ward, and the touchdown run was, too — he made a quick juke move to put Burrow, one of the only Bengals players in front of Ward, to the ground and give himself a clear path forward for the score.
Ninety-nine yards later, Ward was in the end zone, surrounded by teammates and securing the Browns six points before the offense even stepped on the field.
"It was great team defense," Ward said. "Guys got pressure on the quarterback, and Burrow got rid of the football. I was able to step in front of it and go the other way with it."
The rest of Ward's day featured several other game-changing plays that maintained the Browns' big lead and set the rest of the defense up for one of their best performances of the year.
His pass breakup on a deep-ball attempt to Tee Higgins in the end zone helped limit the Bengals to a 27-yard field goal instead of a touchdown, which helped Cleveland preserve a 24-10 lead at halftime. Then, in the third quarter, he deflected a pass that landed in the hands of safety John Johnson III for the Browns' second interception and third takeaway of the game.
The Browns only had five takeaways in their first eight games. Ward helped the group turn that trend around in a hurry and was responsible for creating two turnovers in perhaps the Browns' most important game of the season.
"It's been an emphasis," Ward said. "We've been working on it in practice, finding ways to get interceptions. Whatever we've got to do."
The defense followed through, and it all started with the playmaking of Ward.
Check out photos of the Browns against the Bengals in Week Nine
2. Donovan Peoples-Jones ready for bigger role
Donovan Peoples-Jones has appeared ready to burst into a top Browns playmaker all season, and on Sunday, he was given an opportunity to do just that as soon as his first chance arrived.
The first opportunity arrived in the second quarter, when he was sprinting past the Bengals secondary and looking back for a deep ball from Baker Mayfield. The pass was perfect, and so was the catch — in stride for a clear path to the end zone and a 60-yard touchdown that put the Browns up 21-7.
That catch was the top highlight for a two-catch day from Peoples-Jones, who led the Browns for 86 yards in his first game back after missing the last two with a groin injury. Peoples-Jones was only targeted three times and recorded two receptions, but the Browns were simply waiting for matchups Peoples-Jones could exploit, and he did whenever he had the chance.
Peoples-Jones was given the name “Mr. Reliable” by Stefanski last season after he caught a 24-yard go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes of last year's dramatic win over the Bengals in Cincinnati. He came back to it again after this win over the Bengals.
"He's Mr. Dependable," Stefanski said. "He shows up and does his job. You feel good when (No.) 11 is out there because he does his job. The ball is in the air, and he goes and gets it."
3. Chubb helps Browns run game return to dominance
One week after he was limited to just 61 yards, Chubb returned to the form everyone in Cleveland remembers him for: a forceful running back who can break off a big gain on any play.
Chubb had several big runs Sunday. He averaged an astounding 9.8 yards per carry with his 137 rushing yards and one touchdown, which stemmed from a 70-yard run where he cut right through the heart of Cincinnati's defense.
Even though the Browns were without Chubb for two games and remain without RB Kareem Hunt, who missed his third consecutive game with a calf injury, the Browns still lead the league with 1,442 rushing yards. Chubb is also still in the contention for the rushing title — he entered Sunday third in that race — and certainly pushed himself closer to the top with his 20th performance of 100+ rushing yards in his career.
"Nick is a special, special player," Stefanski said. "With that size and power, to be able to run away from people, it's just so rare."