The last five days have been a roller coaster of emotions in Cleveland, but the Browns will coast into a much-needed 10-day break after a crucial 27-19 win Thursday against the Steelers.
Four days after a difficult Week 2 defeat that was dealt in the game's final seconds, the Browns rallied with a win that propelled them into first place in the AFC North and a satisfying 2-1 record. The offense looked sharp, the defense recovered from a rough start to the season and the Browns delivered plenty of feel-good vibes as they zip into the longest break they'll have until the season's end.
We're beginning our takeaways with the offense, where the Browns once again looked crisp with QB Jacoby Brissett.
1. Brissett perfectly pilots offense
What more could the Browns have asked of Brissett in the last two weeks?
The answer: very little, if anything at all. For the second consecutive game, the offense looked smooth and in control with Brissett under center — he protected the ball and found ways to deliver it to the top playmakers, which allowed the Browns to generate points in all four quarters. At no consistent stretch of the game did the group look slow, and that's largely because Brissett looked comfortable and confident.
Brissett completed 21-of-31 pass attempts for 220 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions and passed like a quarterback who knew where he wanted to throw each play. He was supported by a stout offensive line and a strong run game that generated 171 rushing yards to keep the Steelers' defense offset and guessing.
In other words, Brissett followed the exact blueprint the Browns have built for him.
"At first we started out slow, but I think we settled in and started to get things going, "he said. "We knew it was going to be a 60-minute football game. They're a good team with great coaches and great players, so it came back to us, and I think we did a good job of settling back in and making our routine plays."
The routine plays for the offense were always supposed to include WR Amari Cooper and TE David Njoku, and both guys delivered with their best performances of the season.
Njoku, who we'll cover in the next section, caught a career-high nine catches for 89 yards and looked as good as he's ever had in a Browns uniform. Cooper stacked his second straight game with 101 receiving yards and caught his second touchdown of the season.
Both of them were open all night. They accounted for 21 of Brissett's 31 pass attempts and caught 16 of them, and they combined for 190 of his 220 passing yards.
"I think (Brissett) has proven we can win," Cooper said, "but I don't think he's proven anything we didn't already know about him."
The idea of "proving himself" hasn't been on Brissett's agenda since he became the Browns' starting quarterback because of Deshaun Watson's suspension. He quickly became beloved among teammates and earned trust in the locker room when he arrived in Cleveland this offseason because of his candid attitude and quiet confidence, and now it's showing at great lengths on the field.
He's carried the Browns to a 2-1 record and first place in the AFC North as a result.
"I'm not in this to answer any (fan's or outsider's) questions," Brissett said. "I'm here to play good football, play for my teammates and enjoy this moment. That really is what it's all about, and I can look at all those guys in their faces and tell them I've given them my best."
2. A crucial career day for Njoku
Njoku arguably played the best game of his six-year career in Cleveland.
The big total in the receptions column backed that up, but there were several points of the game where Njoku was wide open and difficult to tackle when the ball arrived in his hands. He caught three consecutive passes for 6, 19 and 10 yards at one point of the game and moved the chains on five of his nine grabs. His touchdown — a 7-yard pass where he jumped over a defender and snagged an intentionally high pass from Brissett — was a perfect execution of a play the Browns have always looked to use with Njoku.
"We saw that it was one-high (coverage), and the concept that we had was good for one-high coverage," Njoku said. "Jacoby threw an amazing ball, and we came down with it and scored."
Njoku recorded receiving totals of just seven and 32 yards in the first two games. His contributions as a blocker were still key for the offense, but the pass game needed to include him more to reach its full potential, and the Browns activated him by using screen plays and throwing blockers in his direction. Then, they watched to see how many defenders it took to bring down his 6-foot-4, 246-pound frame.
"He always tells me he's always open (laughter)," Brissett said with a laugh. "Every time in the huddle, he's like, 'I got you. I got you. I got you.'"
Brissett made sure he got plenty of touches Thursday, and Njoku didn't waste an opportunity.
Check out photos of the Browns against the Steelers in Week 3
3. Defense redeems itself in second half
The stress of Sunday's late-game letdown to the Jets didn't immediately disappear when the defense started against the Steelers — QB Mitch Trubisky drove the Steelers into Browns territory on three of the first four drives and turned two of the scoring chances into touchdowns and another into a missed field goal.
By the second half, however, the Browns buttoned things up.
Pittsburgh was held to 111 total yards in the second half and only mustered a field goal. They halted the Steelers for three-and-outs on three consecutive drives and capped the game with a touchdown on the final play when the Steelers fumbled their lateral sequence into the end zone from the 4-yard line.
The Browns were looking for that type of finish the last two weeks and needed it badly Thursday to seal the win. After a rough first half, the defense didn't flinch.
"I thought we were assignment sound, flying around to the football and tackling together," Stefanski said. "It's never perfect as we know. There are things that I know we will clean up. After wins and losses, we have to clean a lot of things up, but I'm really proud of how those guys responded."
The Browns solved the communication errors that plagued them in the first two games by huddling up more frequently between plays to ensure the playcall was efficiently communicated to everyone.
It worked. The biggest play of the day the defense allowed was a 36-yard pass to WR George Pickens, who made an incredible one-handed catch while his body was twisted in mid air — a play that might stand as the catch of the year.
But beyond that, the Browns showed large improvements in their coverage and kept the Steelers' offense locked down, and it appears as though they'll continue to huddle up for the rest of the season.
"I think it has to (help)," S John Johnson III said. "I think you have to get the call and communicate. It was sending and receiving. It was a lot better than last week so I think we have to (stick with it)."