Thursday night brought the fourth and final game of the 2019 preseason to Cleveland for the Browns, who hosted the Detroit Lions at FirstEnergy Stadium for a contest that began as an ugly affair.
Luckily for everyone in attendance and those watching at home, things eventually turned around. The Browns came away with a 20-16 win, finishing the preseason 3-1 and with some momentum as a much-anticipated regular season awaits just around the corner.
Here are the six plays that changed the Browns’ win over the Lions.
1. Dontrell Hilliard’s long first-half run
The Browns have only seen seven carries from Kareem Hunt, leaving the majority to D'Ernest Johnson, who has performed admirably. But all the while, there was something missing, and it wasn’t Nick Chubb — it was Dontrell Hilliard.
After we spent an entire offseason raving about Hilliard’s improvements, we didn’t see much of him after a lackluster Week 1 performance against Washington. He returned at full strength Thursday and made the most of it, starting with the team’s longest rushing attempt of the preseason.
Hilliard’s run off left tackle for a gain of 22 got the Browns’ offense going and jump-started a drive that ended in Austin Seibert’s first field goal attempt of the night, a successful try from 36 yards.
2. Ray-Ray Armstrong’s sack of Tom Savage
Detroit began the ensuing drive with enviable field position, starting at the Browns’ 36, and appeared poised to respond. Ray-Ray Armstrong ended that on second down, sacking Lions quarterback Tom Savage after a prolonged rush up the middle for a loss of 14. The takedown essentially pushed Detroit out of field goal range thanks to an incompletion on the next play, forcing Detroit to punt and waste the excellent field position.
The Browns flashed the high-pressure proficiency they’ve showed off in small moments during this preseason late in the first half Thursday. Only this time, it was Gilbert at the controls, not Baker Mayfield. Gilbert was precise and efficient, finding Ishmael Hyman — who got off to a rough start before getting back on track just before the half — for an 11-yard gain. He followed with the completion to Willies, which took the Browns from a long look down the field from the end zone to a quick glance.
Gilbert’s connection with Willies put the Browns at the Detroit 33, where he found the wideout again and did a little more work, setting up…
Check out photos of the Detroit Lions at Cleveland Browns by team photographer Matt Starkey
4. Gilbert’s 7-yard touchdown pass to Hilliard
Less than a week after the Browns repeatedly failed to take advantage of red-zone opportunities, Gilbert got the offense on the doorstep of pay dirt and capitalized.
Before the Browns scored the game’s first touchdown, though, Gilbert had to do all of the work within a single play by himself. While Gilbert dropped back and looked for an open target, the pass rush ran upfield on both sides of Gilbert, parting like the Red Sea. He took advantage, sprinting up the middle for a gain of 11.
One play later, Gilbert locked onto Hilliard, split out wide and running a zig route that left his defender chasing after him and the pylon in vain.
Detroit seemed to possess a healthy amount of momentum in an otherwise inconsequential second half and held the ball at the Browns’ 34. Josh Johnson had already led a touchdown drive on a short field and appeared poised to do it again when Carl Davis and Genard Avery showed him they had other plans for the outcome.
Avery and Davis combined to pressure and sack Johnson for a loss of 8 yards, backing the Lions up to the Browns’ 42, where they eventually picked up 9 on third-and-18 and were forced to settle for a 51-yard field goal attempt. Detroit kicker/punter Ryan Santoso missed wide left, keeping the score at 10-9 early in the fourth.
6. Trayone Gray’s 19-yard reception and eventual touchdown
Gray is the anonymous running back in this group (even local Mid-American Conference fans know of A.J. Ouellette), but he introduced himself late in Thursday night’s final preseason contest by carrying the load on a scoring drive that helped the Browns regain breathing room. Gray carried the ball four times on the drive, but his biggest contribution was in the passing game.
David Blough found Gray in the right flat with plenty of room to run. The big back rumbled through the defense, showing off surprising footwork before being tripped up with more green grass in front of him. He slammed the ground with his fist, knowing he was that close to a touchdown.
He earned that three plays later, running around the edge of the Detroit defense for a score.