The Browns fell to the Rams, 20-13, Sunday night in front of an inspired home crowd and a national television audience. The loss dropped them to 1-2, but there are still 13 games to play and plenty of work to complete.
In the meantime, here are our three big takeaways from the close defeat.
1. Hats off to the reserves
The Browns' inactives list and injury report this week resembled something one would see at the end of a disastrous season. But it was Week 3, and a primetime game awaited them against the defending NFC champions who also happened to boast one of the NFL's best offenses.
Cleveland's defense answered the call.
The Browns started an entirely new secondary Sunday night: corners Terrance Mitchell and T.J. Carrie played in place of Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams, and safeties Juston Burris, Jermaine Whitehead and Eric Murray helped replace Morgan Burnett and Damarious Randall. Rookie Mack Wilson started in place of Christian Kirksey. The result: three takeaways, a 43-yard rushing night from Todd Gurley and a 79.8 passer rating from Jared Goff. Those are impressive numbers against this offense.
"I thought the defense played incredible today," head coach Freddie Kitchens said. "They kept battling. For what they did with that offense, they kept those guys under 100 yards rushing. That was our goal. Our goal is to get over 100 yards rushing. We did not quite get there, but we were close. Those guys did an incredible job. Juston Burris did an incredible job. He picked one off, and he has been here 24 hours."
Los Angeles got its fair share of completions, sure, but the defense kept the Browns in the game while their offense pieced together possessions. Speaking of which…
2. Offense slowly getting there
This is going to be difficult to read while most everyone is still upset about how the game ended, but it's true: The offense is slowly making progress. Call it incremental or whatever you might want to call it, but on Sunday night, the Browns committed much more to the run than they had in their first two games. It produced a 23-carry, 96-yard night for Nick Chubb that also included four receptions for 35 yards and a big screen that set up the Browns' lone touchdown of the night.
Check out photos of the Browns in action against the Rams on Sunday Night Football
The added focus on the run, while Kitchens regretted not deploying it during the final push for the end zone inside Los Angeles' 5, will help keep defenses honest while the Browns still figure out their passing game, which they're starting to do as well. Baker Mayfield was excellent on quick throws, completing 12 of his first 13 attempts when releasing the ball in under 2.5 seconds, per Next Get Stats. The variety and limits on deep shots will help this offense build a foundation, and while it wasn't enough against one of the league's better defenses in Week 3, it will be in the weeks ahead.
"Yeah, I think it is hard to say after you lose, but I think it is starting to come together," Kitchens said. "We did flow better. It kind of felt like it was flowing better during the course of the game. This is about execution, calling the right plays and executing the plays. We just did not do a good enough job. I did not as a coach do a good enough job of putting these guys in good situations."
3. Home crowd brought it all night
For the second straight home game, Browns fans showed up early and filled the stadium in time for introductions. In fact, there were enough fans in the building to send chills down this writer's back during pregame warmups, when Mayfield played his signature air drums to Phil Collins' "In The Air Tonight" and the crowd exploded with cheers. It felt as if it was a building bursting at the seams for much of the night.
And to the Browns' credit, they delivered. They just didn't end up bringing a win out of it.
No matter. At 1-2, the season is far from over, and fans should feel encouraged to return when this team does in Week 6 against Seattle. They showed out for the national television audience, which they've been known to do in recent years, and forced multiple Rams timeouts, as well as some hurried pre-snap signaling. It wouldn't be far-fetched to say the fans positively affected the game, despite the overall outcome. Browns players noticed it, too, and enjoyed the raucous atmosphere.
"The crowd was great," Mayfield said after the game. "Unbelievable atmosphere until the very end, obviously. That is the kind of atmosphere that you dream of playing in."
Take it from one who's been here for many years and seen what these fans are capable of doing: The folks from out of town are starting to figure it out, too.