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3 Big Takeaways: Down 2 defensive stars, Browns' resiliency will be tested yet again

Cleveland’s next men up have answered the bell all season

1. Down 2 defensive stars, Browns resiliency will be tested yet again

This is nothing new for the Browns. That's just how 2020 has been.

Tuesday's news that CB Denzel Ward would miss some time with a calf strain is another body blow for a team that has sustained plenty of them on the injury front throughout the season. The Browns aren't unique in that sense — every NFL team deals with injuries in some way, shape or form — but how this year's team has responded to them sets them apart not just from other teams around the league, but also from previous teams in Cleveland.

One week after RB Nick Chubb went down with a knee injury that would sideline him for a month, the Browns, who were also without G Wyatt Teller for most of the game, beat the Colts in a win that gets even more impressive as the season unfolds. Two days after TE Austin Hooper underwent an emergency appendectomy, the Browns rallied for a thrilling win in Cincinnati that featured rookie TE Harrison Bryant catching two touchdowns and also saw the Browns wide receivers rally after Odell Beckham Jr. was lost to a knee injury. On Sunday against the Eagles, Cleveland's defense posted its third consecutive game of allowing 17 points or fewer and did so with relentless pressure on the quarterback — all without Defensive Player of the Year candidate Myles Garrett, who was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list and will remain there for at least one more game.

"You lose a guy of Myles' caliber, you are not going to replace him," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said Sunday. "You need guys to step up, and it is a committee approach. I thought the guys really played hard."

Sunday's game in Jacksonville will be the Browns' first without both Garrett and Ward on a defense that has taken its lumps, at times, throughout the season. The unit has thrived on turnovers, and Garrett and Ward have been involved with plenty of them. Ward, for instance, was directly involved with both interceptions against the Eagles, as he forced a bad throw with a delayed blitz on Sione Takitaki's pick-six and sealed the game late in the fourth quarter with his second interception of the season.

Ward, who leads the NFL in passes defensed and has solidified himself as one of the best cornerbacks in the league, will be missed. There's no question about that. 

Without Ward, the Browns likely will rely more on players such as Kevin Johnson, Tavierre Thomas, M.J. Stewart and Robert Jackson. Of the four, Johnson has played the most this season, serving as the team's top option in the slot. Much like Garrett's absence, it will take more than one player to fill the shoes of Ward.

How the Browns respond, though, will be what matters most. So far, those responses have been just what Stefanski expects from a team that has seemingly heard "next man up" on a weekly basis. 

"I think when we have a singular focus and that singular mindset of just one game at a time and we can be pretty good," QB Baker Mayfield said. "Not lose sight of the big picture, one game at a time but the job is not finished yet."

Check out the best photos from the Browns win over the Philadelphia Eagles yesterday by the Browns photo team

2. No Regrets

Had the Browns come out on the wrong side of Sunday's game, there may have been more discussion and lamenting about a four-play sequence on the goal line that resulted in no points.

With 2:34 to play in the first quarter, the Browns lined up at the 1-yard line for first-and-goal after an Eagles pass interference penalty. Cleveland had already amassed 95 yards on the drive and just needed 1 more to break the 0-0 tie.

Kareem Hunt’s first-down run went backward to the 2. On second down, Mayfield sailed a pass over the head of Hooper, who was open in the back of the end zone. Hunt gained back a yard on third-and-goal and appeared to score on fourth down but a video replay showed he was down just before crossing the goal line.

Sequences like this haven't been the norm for Cleveland this season. The Browns have been rock solid in the red zone, thanks largely to the bruising running of Hunt and Chubb. It just didn't come together on this particular drive.

"In most cases when you get down there that tight, I like our chances to score," Stefanski said. "That was very disappointing that sequence of four plays to not score. That is kind of where I go back and we have to be better. In big games and really every game, if you get down there to the 1-yard line or the 2-yard line, you have to come away with seven. That is our mentality, and it will continue to be our mentality. 

"I know the guys understand that, and we have to do anything – we have to run it, pass it or whatever it is – we have to be able to get those yards."

3. Browns quietly among league's best at stopping the run

Sunday's first half was not a true reflection of Cleveland's rush defense this season. The second half very much was, and that's why the Browns were able to stave off the Eagles and come away with a victory.

The Eagles rushed for 96 yards in the first half, many of them coming on a dominant opening drive that ended with a Miles Sanders fumble. They got just 10 in the second half, as the Browns tightened up and looked much more like the team that ranks eighth in the NFL in rush defense.

"Just made the adjustments on the sideline," LB B.J. Goodson said. "It was really that simple."

The Browns have allowed their opponent to clear the century mark on the ground in five games. Take away the Week 8 loss to the Raiders, when the Browns allowed 209 rushing yards, and Cleveland is allowing an average of 93.4 rushing yards per game.

Why does this matter? Seven of the top eight rush defenses would make the playoffs if they started today.

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