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3 Big Takeaways: Short-handed Browns D kept comeback hopes alive

Cleveland’s defense was without a number of key starters for a 2nd straight game and held its own against Aaron Rodgers and the prolific Packers offense

Needless to say, it's been a tough five days for the Browns, who dropped their second consecutive game Saturday in Green Bay.

Cleveland entered the week 7-6 and now sits at 7-8 with two games to play. The team's playoff hopes — and division hopes — are plenty alive, though, with matchups against the Steelers and Bengals left on the schedule.

We'll get to the Browns' playoff hopes in the coming days. For now, we're looking back on Saturday's 24-22 loss and starting with the defense, which delivered another commendable effort while dealing with plenty of adverse circumstances.

1. Patchwork Browns D delivers strong 2nd half in loss to Green Bay

Myles Garrett didn't sugarcoat how he felt in the moments following Saturday's loss. The Pro Bowl pass rusher admitted he didn't feel good at all after playing through the pain of a groin injury he suffered just five days earlier.

Garrett, though, never seemed to consider the possibility of him missing Saturday's game. He knew just how much a depleted Browns defense needed him in a game against one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history and an offense that can hurt you just as much on the ground as it can through the air.

Garrett's gutsy effort was just one of many from a patchwork Cleveland defense that was without two starters on the defensive line and four key members from the secondary. Almost all of those players were on the reserve/COVID-19 list with S John Johnson III, who was out with a hamstring injury, as the lone exception. Additionally, DE Takkarist McKinley was lost for the season Monday because of an Achilles injury.

Points-wise, this wasn't one of the Browns defense's best performances, especially when compared to the previous games in an eight-game stretch in which it surrendered fewer than 20 in all but two of them. Green Bay on Saturday had 21 by the end of the first half, all of which coming from possessions that followed a Browns offensive turnover. Rodgers threw for three touchdowns and Davante Adams caught two of them to go along with eight receptions.

Cleveland's defense, though, was front and center of a comeback that came up just short.

The Browns allowed just a field goal in the second half. That, in itself, was a big victory at the time, as Cleveland prevented the Packers from breaking the game open with a touchdown on their opening drive of the third quarter. Instead, the Browns kept the deficit at 12 and kept Green Bay off the scoreboard for the rest of the game. That stretch included two three-and-outs and a pivotal stop late in the fourth quarter that set up the offense with a chance to win with a little more than 2 minutes to play.

The Packers' 311 yards of offense was its third-fewest of the season and fewest since Week 7 in a game Rodgers quarterbacked. Pro Bowl RB Aaron Jones was limited to 66 yards on 12 carries, almost half of which coming on a single run.

Unfortunately, it just wasn't enough, as the Browns' hopes of a comeback were vanquished on their final possession.

2. Anthony Schwartz gives Browns a spark

Rookie WR Anthony Schwartz touched the ball three times Saturday and gave the Browns a lift every time he did.

The first two came on end-around handoffs — the kind of plays where Schwartz had some of his moments at Auburn. His first came in the first quarter and went for 11 yards. His next came in the fourth and went for 13. Both moved the chains.

Then, with the Packers defense reeling following a 30-yard run by D'Ernest Johnson, Schwartz found himself wide open in the back of the end zone. Baker Mayfield located him for the easy 5-yard touchdown, and Schwartz celebrated his first NFL touchdown with a Lambeau Leap into the arms of Browns fans who made the trip to Green Bay.

It's been a difficult second half of the season for Schwartz, who was sidelined for four games with a concussion, but he found a way to make a significant impact Saturday on an offense that has been looking for more production from its wide receivers.

3. A tip of the cap to M.J. Stewart

Before Monday, S M.J. Stewart hadn't seen the field much on defense. Over the past two games, though, Stewart has been absolutely everywhere.

Stewart followed his career-best 11-tackle performance Monday with 10 more Saturday. He was at the center of a number of big defensive plays that kept Packers runners and receivers short of the sticks.

A converted cornerback, Stewart has been thrust into every-down snaps in the wake of Cleveland losing multiple safeties to injuries and COVID-19. On Monday, the Browns were without Grant Delpit and Ronnie Harrison Jr. On Saturday, they were without Harrison and John Johnson III. Additionally, Stewart has stepped into the slot, where the Browns have been without their top two options (Troy Hill and Greg Newsome II) for the past two games.

Simply put, Stewart has embodied the Browns' "next man up" mantra, and he's done it by filling the void of multiple players.

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