MINNEAPOLIS – As the Browns offense walked off the field with a look of frustration late in the fourth quarter Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, the defense walked on with a look of confidence.
Those emotions had been maximized by both sides in the first 59 minutes against the Vikings, who trailed Cleveland by a touchdown with 1 minute left. The Browns had only scored 14 points. Minnesota had seven — and a chance to at least tie the game if they could crack the defense for the first time since an opening touchdown drive.
Myles Garrett, however, wasn't going to allow that. Neither was Denzel Ward. Neither was Greedy Williams. Neither was, well, anyone on the defense.
"We can hold up against just about anybody and everybody," Garrett said.
After 10 consecutive drives that ended with zero points from the Vikings, the Browns halted Minnesota one final time to secure their 14-7 win and advance their record to 3-1. The game ended on a short 26-yard "Hail Mary" attempt from quarterback Kirk Cousins, which fell incomplete and silenced a thunderous crowd of 73,000 Vikings fans while the Browns sideline breathed a collective sigh of relief.
The defense, which has now held opponents to single-digits in consecutive games for the first time since 1995, deserved to do more than just exhale.
They appeared to be in trouble in the first quarter after the Vikings used a 14-play, 80-yard drive to score seven points first, but what followed was a stretch of dominance that looked similar to their historic Week 3 performance in their previous game against the Bears.
Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins was held to just 144 passing yards in the final three quarters. RB Dalvin Cook, who left in the middle of the game but returned in the second half, was limited to 34 rushing yards on nine carries. After totaling 33 yards on four catches on that first touchdown drive, Pro Bowl receiver Justin Jefferson recorded only three more catches for 51 yards. Adam Thielen, another Pro Bowl talent, was limited to 46 yards.
The Vikings didn't return to the end zone. That's what mattered most.
"Once we got rolling, we started looking really good and really competitive," Garrett said. "Once we settled in, we were looking dominant."
Check out photos of the Browns against the Vikings in week four
One slip-up by the defense could've changed the game.
That's because the Browns offense was not at their best. Quarterback Baker Mayfield went 15-for-33 with 155 yards and no touchdowns. His performance was sputtered by several overthrown balls and three sacks, and even though the Browns' run game balanced the mistakes with 184 rushing yards and one touchdown — complemented by a two-point conversion from Mayfield to FB Andy Janovich — the offense didn't perform to their expectations.
"We were lucky to have (the defense) on our side," Mayfield said, "because if I think that piss-poor performance is going to cut it, it's not. I just didn't get into a rhythm. There were a lot of easy throws I missed.
"I pride myself on being extremely accurate, and today ... I don't know what the hell that was."
But the defense backed their quarterback up with a series of clutch stops made possible by big, timely plays.
One of the biggest came from CB Greedy Williams. He started in place of first-round rookie CB Greg Newsome II, who was ruled out this week with a calf injury. Williams hadn't started a game since 2019 due to a season-ending shoulder nerve injury suffered in training camp in 2020 that forced him to miss the entire season.
Williams was up against Jefferson and Thielen, one of the top receiving tandems in the league.
But Williams won the battle when he snagged an interception with six minutes left in the fourth quarter. He followed Thielen perfectly on a deep-ball attempt and couldn't have been in better position to intercept the pass, which was Cousins' first interception of the season — and Williams' first interception in the NFL.
The Browns sideline erupted as Williams marched back to them in celebration.
"I got slapped in the head about 15 times and hit in the right shoulder about 10 times," he said with a smile.
The D-Line made heavy contributions, too. After grabbing 4.5 sacks last week and snagging the franchise record for most sacks in a game, Garrett slammed Cousins with heavy pressure, totaling four quarterback hits and a half sack. He tied his 2019 total with six sacks through four games, which is also the most sacks any Browns player has recorded through four games.
Yep — Garrett has done that twice.
He also who wore a Muhammad Ali T-shirt and sunglasses in his postgame press conference and compared the defensive slugfest to a boxing match.
"It was like a 12-, 15-round fight," he said. "It was two defenses slugging it out, and I wouldn't have it any other way."
Other top performances came from Denzel Ward, who shut down multiple pass attempts to Thielen and Jefferson and dove to swat away a Jefferson deep-ball on the Vikings' final drive. DT Malik Jackson was credited with two pass deflections, while CB Troy Hill made plenty of big tackles and played tight defense in the slot.
All of them helped ensure the Browns finished the week 1-0 despite a sluggish, low-scoring affair.
"What a great performance by our defense," head coach Kevin Stefanski said. "That's a really good team we played today, and they have an explosive offense. We settled in after that first drive and played outstanding."
That type of game, though, was what the Browns envisioned from their defense when they assembled the group of top veterans and promising youth this offseason. The group struggled to sustain quarterback pressure, lock down opposing wide receivers and get off the field on third downs in the first two games.
Those problems have been almost nonexistent in the previous two games.
The questions about whether the defense has meshed have subsided. The group is dominating, and the Browns believe this type of success is here to stay in Cleveland in 2021.
"We're hoping we can make this a trend," Garrett said. "We were just doing what we do, doing the best we can. We showed up when we needed to."