On one of the biggest downs of his rookie season, M.J. Emerson Jr. had the exact matchup he was looking for.
The battle was between him and Chargers WR Mike Williams on fourth-and-1. Emerson, a 6-foot-2 cornerback, was going against Williams, a 6-foot-4 pass catcher who had already recorded 134 yards in the game. Los Angeles head coach Brandon Staley was taking a gamble against the Browns with just over a minute left and the ball being placed at the Chargers' 46-yard line, and Emerson had no hesitation where the play was going next.
"We kind of expected them to go for it in that situation," Emerson said. "Fourth-and-(1), the ball is money. That's what we always say. (I'm) a rookie cornerback, Mike Williams having a good game, so I feel like, if I was him, I probably would do the same thing.
"I had other plans, though. I was very excited to line up against him because I knew the ball was coming."
Emerson was right.
Chargers QB Justin Herbert immediately looked to Williams and fired his pass, but Emerson got his arm between the line to break it up.
"I jumped based on that and tried to get underneath him, but I ended up outside," he said. "Just played through his hands, a good play to try to give us a chance."
Emerson's big play unfortunately didn't yield a win in the 30-28 defeat — the Browns didn't advance the ball at all on the next offensive series, and K Cade York missed a 54-yard field goal in the final seconds.
But Emerson still showed he can be trusted to make big plays in key moments, even though his NFL career is only five games old. He played in 42 percent (30 snaps) of the defensive snaps against the Chargers and replaced Denzel Ward on the outside when Ward exited the game with a concussion. Emerson was targeted four times allowed two receptions for eight yards.
The Browns didn't win, but Emerson's stop on Williams to cap a productive day shouldn't be forgotten.
"I know he's a rookie, but we're counting on him a lot," head coach Kevin Stefanski said. "That was a big play to come through, especially with what was at stake there."
The fact that Emerson succeeded against Williams provided the best example yet of why the Browns drafted him in the third round for their first pick of the draft.
Few draft analysts expected the Browns to target a cornerback in the first few rounds given the depth they already had at the position with Ward, Greg Newsome II, Greedy Williams and A.J. Green. Emerson, however, was one of the tallest cornerbacks of the draft class and showed at Mississippi State that he could use that size to his advantage — his height and long arms allowed him to push receivers off their route at the line of scrimmage and gave him better odds at deflecting passes.
He could also match up evenly with the biggest receivers in the league.
That's why Emerson was eager to go against Williams in such a pivotal moment. Shut him down, and his trust with the team would grow even more.
"Mike Williams, he's a great receiver," Emerson said. "He's big, physical. Obviously, I'm big and physical. I was excited to line up against him whenever I could."
Emerson won — and might've earned himself into a bigger role in the process.
With Ward sidelined due to his concussion, Emerson would move a spot up the depth chart if Ward is unable to play Sunday against the Patriots. CB Greedy Williams was designated to return to practice last week from a hamstring injury that sidelined him all season, but Emerson would still likely garner a heavy snap count even if Williams returns.
That's fine with Emerson, who's hungry for more opportunities in critical moments.
"I'm getting comfortable, just trying to catch that groove," he said. "I feel like I have a lot to improve, and I will keep improving. I feel like I'm doing the best I can, honestly."
Emerson delivered Sunday on his biggest opportunity yet, and he knows more of them are coming his way as a result.
"I'm very blessed to step up and make a play in that situation," he said. "Honestly, that's what I'm here for. I've been making plays like that my whole life."