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Browns take 'next man up' mentality to playoff-winning level

Cleveland made a chunk of game-changing plays Sunday with the help of several backup players

The Browns knew all last week leading up to their AFC Wild Card Round matchup versus the Steelers they'd have to rely heavily on their backup players.

As each day seemingly yielded more bad news surrounding additions to the Reserve/COVID-19 list, the Browns continued to tout their "next man up" mantra that has been used all season. No week, however, signified the importance of that mentality more than last week.

"We have had a 'next man up' mentality all season long, and that applies to the head coach, to coordinators, to other coaches on the staff and to every player on our football team," said special teams coordinator Mike Priefer. He served as acting head coach and was the "next coach up" for Kevin Stefanski, who couldn't coach the game due to testing positive for COVID-19.

"It's an exciting team in that regard," Priefer said. "We have a bunch of good people and we have a bunch of good young men who have played hard for us all year. We have weathered a bunch of storms and we have won a bunch of football games. I think it's an exciting time for our city and it's an exciting time for our organization."

That message is still accurate for a second straight week. It's still very much an exciting time for Cleveland and the Browns, who are preparing for the AFC Divisional Round playoff game versus the Kansas City Chiefs after stunning many people who believed they couldn't defeat the Steelers. 

One main reason for their doubt: Too many starting players were out, and the backups supposed to fill in weren't going to have ample time to prepare — the Browns practiced just once all last week.

Well, the backups proved those doubters wrong.

Pick a backup player. Any of them. Left guards Michael Dunn and Blake Hance, who were tasked with filling in for Joel Bitonio despite minimal NFL experience, played a nearly flawless performance and contributed to an offensive line that didn't allow a sack against a defense that led the NFL in that category. 

"That just speaks volumes to (the offensive line)," quarterback Baker Mayfield said. "It just says so much about those guys and their preparation, how much they truly care and want to help us win."

Cornerback Robert Jackson, who had only six defensive snaps this season until starting in Week 17, finished third on the Browns with seven tackles and limited the production of top Steelers' receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool early in the game. That effort ensured the Browns could build a 28-0 lead in the first quarter, the biggest lead ever after 15 minutes in an NFL playoff game.

Three of the four Browns' interceptions came from backup players, too.

The first came from M.J. Stewart Jr., who was a backup cornerback for most of the season but recorded his third interception in his last four games to continue a marvelous start from the defense.

Check out exclusive photos of the Browns preparing for their AFC divisional round matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs

Safety Sheldrick Redwine snagged the second pick. He had primarily played behind safeties Andrew Sendejo, Karl Joseph and Ronnie Harrison this season, but the Browns deployed him for 55 snaps Sunday, and he delivered with a game-changing interception that led to a touchdown three plays later.

The third interception came from Porter Gustin, who filled in for defensive end Olivier Vernon after he was placed on Injured Reserve following Week 17. Gustin made a full-extension dive to catch a tipped Roethlisberger pass and give the Browns another massive push toward their first playoff win since 1994. The pass was tipped by Vincent Taylor, a rotational defensive tackle who typically plays 15-20 snaps per game.

Three of the biggest plays of the historic win all came from backup players. Cleveland truly has playmakers all across its depth chart, which is precisely how a playoff-winning team should look.

"That is what the year has been about," defensive coordinator Joe Woods said. "I talked to you guys earlier when the season started, I just felt like it was going to be the year for everybody to contribute, just based on what we were going through. Throughout the season, we played multiple guys. We were short-handed – players and coaches – and just for those guys to step up and make big plays to help us, it was just awesome to see. It just felt truly like it was a team win."

The Browns were fortunate enough to add two key secondary players this week back from the Reserve/COVID-19 list in Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson, but Stefanski, who returned to the team facility and resumed normal coaching duties Thursday, knows the Browns will still need production from the backup players to extend their season another week.

The "next man up" mentality has been with the Browns all season, and it's not going away no matter how far the Browns make it in the playoffs.

"We're going to need contributions from everybody," Stefanski said. "It's going to take everybody that is dressed on Sunday."

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