Donovan Peoples-Jones has a knack for being in the right place at the right time when he's playing in Cincinnati.
Paul Brown Stadium has been the scene for two of Peoples-Jones' five career touchdowns, and both have been symbolic of his importance to the Browns. His first one, of course, was his first career touchdown last season in Week 7, when he caught a 24-yard dart from QB Baker Mayfield in the final seconds to give the Browns a thrilling Week 7 victory. That touchdown let the Browns know he was capable of blocking out pressure and making big plays in big moments.
"He's 'Mr. Reliable,'" head coach Kevin Stefanski said after the game. "There are going to be opportunities for him moving forward just like that."
One of those opportunities happened again Sunday
In the second quarter, Peoples-Jones caught another bomb from Mayfield. The play was a 60-yard completion made possible after Peoples-Jones raced through the Bengals backfield and safely tracked the ball. The pass was perfect, and so was the catch — in stride so he could finish the play with an easy sprint to the end zone.
"In the moment that the play was called, I felt like I had a chance on it," he said. "I did my part and ran my route. I looked up, and the ball was in a perfect location."
Check out the best photos from the Browns win over the Bengals yesterday by the Browns photo team
The touchdown didn't happen in the final seconds, and it happened on a day where several players on the Browns offense found big plays, but it still spoke volumes about what Peoples-Jones is ready to do in his second season and beyond in Cleveland.
He's ready to make big-time plays every week. He's ready to become a high-target receiver, one who could make just as many plays in the passing game as veteran Jarvis Landry, the top receiver on the depth chart. The Browns have a weapon in Peoples-Jones, and they're getting ready to use him in bigger ways than before.
Oh, and Stefanski hasn't forgotten about his nickname, although it has a minor change.
"He's 'Mr. Dependable,'" Stefanski said. "You feel good when No. 11 is out there because he does his job. The ball is in the air, and he goes and gets it."
Peoples-Jones registered two completions on three targets and led the Browns with 86 receiving yards, a trend that could continue the rest of the season. Sure, the target volume wasn't as high as most primary receiving options, but the Browns completed passes to eight different receivers, and just three of them — Peoples-Jones, TE David Njoku and WR Jarvis Landry — were given three or more targets.
The Browns offense isn't designed to target specific receivers on every pass play. It's designed to hit receivers whenever they're open as Mayfield goes through his reads and zips his eyes from one spot on the field to another.
Peoples-Jones has been the man open for him 38 times in his career. That's how many career targets he's accumulated, and he's caught 29 of them for 618 yards and five touchdowns. He's amassed an astounding 21.3 yards per reception and currently leads all NFL receivers in 2021 with 20.9 yards per reception.
Yes, no receiver has averaged more yards per reception than Peoples-Jones, a 2020 sixth-round pick.
"He's all about ball," Mayfield said. "He doesn't say anything — he just does his job. He shows up and is the same guy every day. We appreciate that. He never complains."
Peoples-Jones has totaled 11 receptions for 257 yards and three touchdowns in his last three games, a period that actually extends back five weeks after Peoples-Jones missed Weeks 7 and 8 with a groin injury. He's appeared ready for a breakout season since he became one of the top standout players in training camp, and after a bit more patience in the first half of the season, he's become an even more important piece of a Browns offense looking to build on their 41-point total from Week 9.
No one on the Browns is surprised to see Peoples-Jones make the leap. Coaches and teammates have always remarked on his attention to detail as soon as he began working with them as a rookie last year. His intelligence and quick learning abilities were one of the reasons why he was the top high school recruit in the nation in 2017, and even though he never quite consistently showed his potential at Michigan, the Browns have always believed that his tools could pan out well at the NFL level.
"I think back to last year, just early getting him in there on certain personnel groupings, he just was so dependable in terms of knowing what to do, which is difficult for a young receiver," Stefanski said. "I think he gained our trust very early. When (the ball) finds its way to him, he makes a play."
The Browns appear ready to continue to give Peoples-Jones a high role in their passing game, which looked similar Sunday to what transpired in the second half of 2020. That was when Mayfield was connecting with all receivers en route to throwing 15 touchdowns and two interceptions in the Browns' final 11 games, including the playoffs.
Cleveland needs a similar stretch in 2021 to stay in the playoff race.
Week 9 was a good start, and for the Browns to keep it up, they'll need Peoples-Jones to be a heavy part of the equation.
"He's one of many that we have that are all about winning," Mayfield said. "Anything they can do to contribute. He's a great player and will continue to be that for us."