The Browns defense knew all about what was at stake before they took the field against the Washington Football Team on Sunday afternoon at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Cleveland hadn't yet intercepted a pass in its first two games, and the defense, which had allowed at least 30 points in those matchups, was determined to post its first big game of the season. Sure, injuries have taken a toll on the Browns' depth at key positions, but they believed they had the personnel capable of creating game-changing plays.
And if they could find that performance Week 3 against Washington, the Browns would have a record over .500 for the first time since 2014.
"I made that quite clear to the guys," defensive end Myles Garrett said. "This is a chance that we haven't had in a long time, just to have a winning record. We've got to start taking advantage of the opportunity."
The defense seized that opportunity to the fullest.
Cleveland's defense dominated quarterback Dwayne Haskins and Washington's offense with a 34-20 win that featured five turnovers — three interceptions and two fumble recoveries. All of them came at crucial times for the Browns, who generated points on four of the drives created by the turnovers and rode the defense for a fourth-quarter comeback.
The Browns won thanks to an all-around team effort — the offense scored four touchdowns and the special teams unit was perfect on four extra-points and two field goals — but the defense was the catalyst of it all.
"The defense was outstanding," head coach Kevin Stefanski said. "I challenged them to get the rock, and they did."
Check out photos of the Browns against the Washington Football Team
The defense answered Stefanski's challenge at the beginning of the second quarter. Karl Joseph was the leader.
Joseph, the Browns' fifth-year safety, put himself in perfect position to catch a deep, but errant pass attempt from Haskins for his first interception with the Browns. After he made the catch, Joseph ran the ball 49 yards back into Washington territory and nearly gave possession back to Washington on a fumble.
Thankfully CB Tavierre Thomas was in the area and pounced on the loose ball, which actually moved the Browns closer to Washington's end zone for the offensive possession.
RB Nick Chubb danced around a group of Washington defenders three plays later on an impressive 16-yard touchdown run, giving the Browns a 10-7 lead.
"We knew we would have to make turnovers to win this game," Joseph said. "One thing we learned is turnovers come in bunches."
Yep, he's right.
The Browns didn't wait long to snag their next turnover. Two defensive series later, LB Malcolm Smith took his turn to make an interception after he followed Haskins' eyes, staring directly at Washington WR Dontrelle Inman. Smith lunged in front of Inman as soon as Haskins released the ball, and he made the grab to give the Browns excellent field position again.
Three plays later, RB Kareem Hunt muscled his way into the end zone for another touchdown. The Browns were leading 17-7, and the defense was humming.
"A lot of guys were starting to get their opportunities," Joseph said, "and they capitalized on it."
Cleveland found plenty of offensive success when the defense made big plays. When they began drives in their own territory, however, they struggled.
The Browns only scored 10 points on drives that began on their half of the field. That's a credit to Washington's defense, which brought plenty of pressure to QB Baker Mayfield and slowed down the Browns' usually-stout rushing attack to just 59 yards in the first half. Cleveland needed to find a way around Washington's defense, which entered Sunday with the most sacks in the league.
A lack of offensive consistency cost the Browns a lead for the fourth quarter. Washington used two third-quarter touchdowns to build a 20-17 lead, and, even though the Browns defense had already accrued three turnovers, they needed to make some quick stops to earn back the lead.
The defense did that, and more.
LB B.J. Goodson took advantage of an under-thrown pass with 10 minutes left in the quarter to hand Haskins' his third interception. The offense was fired up — Goodson intercepted the ball at Washington's 35-yard line — and scored another touchdown on a 20-yard run from Chubb.
And on Washington's final meaningful offensive series, Garrett made arguably the most impressive play of the season: a strip-sack fumble recovery.
"No sack is complete without getting the ball," he said.
Garrett did it all himself and stashed another highlight into his always-building resume for Defensive Player of the Year. The Browns, meanwhile, could safely celebrate a Week 3 win.
"We knew it was a 60-minute fight," said Stefanski, who is now off to the best start by a new Browns head coach since Butch Davis in 2001. "We talked to the guys about that all week and even today, so we were totally ready for that."
The defense certainly supported those sentiments, and they looked strong despite the absences of CB Denzel Ward, who didn't play in the second half due to injury, and CB Greedy Williams. LB Mack Wilson, who returned to practice this week after missing several weeks due to injury, returned Sunday but played sparingly.
None of that stopped the defense from making big plays. They knew they needed them for the Browns to have their best start to a season in quite some time — they haven't started 2-1 since 2011 — and they plan to keep the winning trends alive every Sunday the rest of the season.
"We've got to start changing history here, and our legacy is right now," Garrett said. "This was an opportunity to do it."