1. Pivotal goal-line stand was nothing new for Browns defense
A common theme emerged from Browns defensive players Sunday as they reflected on the goal-line stand that essentially sealed the team’s third win in four games.
Been there, done that.
The stakes were much higher Sunday as Cleveland clung to a six-point lead with less than 3 minutes to play, but Browns players were unified in saying the defense played confidently with its collective back against the wall because of what it did a few weeks earlier against the Falcons. In that game, when the Browns stuffed the Falcons on back-to-back plays from the 1-yard line, the defense had the luxury of a multiple-possession lead. Still, there was a confidence during Sunday’s make-or-break situation that hasn’t been felt much at FirstEnergy Stadium in recent years.
Seeing was believing.
“We were in the same position as we were against Atlanta,” defensive back Briean Boddy-Calhoun said. “We were just thinking, ‘can’t let them in.’ You’ve got to find a way to not let them score, and that’s what we did.
“Not an inch, not an inch … not a blade of grass. If we’ve got to defend one inch, that’s what we’ve got to do.”
It looked precarious after Christian McCaffrey took a handoff from the 9-yard line to the 3 on first-and-goal. The Panthers just didn’t gain another yard, inch or blade of grass from that point forward.
A second-and-goal option pitch to wide receiver DJ Moore was stuffed for no gain. Cam Newton’s third-down pass to Curtis Samuel sailed out of the receiver’s reach. It did the same on his fourth-down throw to Jarius Wright, and the Browns had the game in their hands.
“The mindset does not change much. The execution does,” coach Gregg Williams said. “It is fun to see our guys expect the call that is coming in and then execute the call that is coming in. They knew down there in a couple of those situations what we were going to do and how we go about playing those situations. Our guys did a good job with those things. They really did.”
Asked for one more stop, the Browns delivered immediately on the Panthers’ last gasp drive. Newton’s first pass of the possession sailed well over Devin Funchess’ head and into the arms of safety Damarious Randall.
For the fourth time this season, the Browns offense was able to end the game in the victory formation thanks to a defense that made the big stops when it needed them most.
“We’re pretty good at it,” defensive end Myles Garrett said. “We’ve been doing it for a while now. Every time we get down there, we find a way to make a play.”
2. Same play call results in 2 of Browns’ biggest plays
The Browns spent a few weeks ironing out the kinks on a running play that resulted in two of the team’s biggest plays Sunday. After some fine-tuning, offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens felt comfortable enough to unleash it in two of the game’s biggest moments.
The Panthers weren’t ready for wide receiver Jarvis Landry to take the inside hand-off either time. The first went straight into the end zone on second-and-goal from the 3-yard line on Cleveland’s game-opening scoring drive. The second went for 51 yards on a crucial third down, setting up Nick Chubb’s go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
“Originally, that play was a red zone call and we wanted to only run it inside of the 10, thinking that is probably where it is going to score from. Any farther out, you have a chance to get a normal gain,” Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “Obviously, he broke that long one and showed otherwise.
“You will see they thought we were going to run the same type of play but actually pitch the ball, give the same look and do the opposite. I guess calling it twice worked. Jarvis made a great play, made a bunch of people miss and extended the play.”
Browns defensive players saw plenty of the play in practice over the past month. Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi said it didn’t have nearly as much success on the practice fields in Berea as it did Sunday.
Landry scoffed at that observation.
“That is because they have our scripts at practice, and they know all our plays before we run them so it did not look good,” Landry said. “But it worked today and that is all that matters.”
The Cleveland Browns play the Carolina Panthers at FirstEnergy Stadium.
3. No major adjustments needed to limit Christian McCaffrey. Just tackling.
The Browns looked like they were in for a long day against McCaffrey. The dynamic, do-it-all running back had seven touches and the touchdown on Carolina’s game-opening drive. He followed with another score to stake the Panthers to a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter.
McCaffrey’s impact from that point forward, though, was relatively minimal. He finished with a combined 101 yards of offense -- his lowest output since Week 8.
The Browns’ game plan for McCaffrey coming into Sunday was to “make everything tough” for him, Garrett said. Cleveland just executed that plan at a higher level in the second half by bringing him down when it had the opportunity.
“Always have somebody who is designated for him,” Garrett said. “Whether that was me taking him in the backfield and knocking him off his path or Scho (Joe Schobert) or Jamie (Collins Sr.) taking him down the sideline or the middle, there was always someone.”
Williams, though, wasn’t satisfied by the performance because of the lead McCaffrey staked the Panthers to with his two early scores.
“You can’t accept saying everything was good except for that,” Williams said. “We lost leverage a couple times on that one particular run. We lost a gap control and we lost leverage, and we have to do a better job with that. Improved but never good enough yet.”