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M.J. Emerson Jr. showcases remarkable rookie growth with dominant Week 12 performance

Emerson shut down a Pro Bowl wide receiver taking passes from the sport’s all-time greatest QB


M.J. Emerson Jr. has known all season that opposing offenses were going to seize every opportunity to throw his direction. He's a rookie cornerback, and that's how all rookie cornerbacks are treated, especially when they line up against a team's best receiver. 

Emerson faced that challenge seven times — he counted them all himself — Sunday against the Buccaneers when he went against three-time Pro Bowl WR Mike Evans and seven-time Super Bowl champion QB Tom Brady.

Emerson won the battle by a wide margin.

Evans didn't catch a single pass when Emerson was in coverage and only caught two passes all game. The Browns shut him down for just 31 yards, and that's largely because Emerson, a third-round rookie who has blossomed into a stud cornerback for Cleveland, did his homework and was locked to him all game.

"I feel like I watched a lot of film, and I was very confident going into that game," he said. "It was just more about executing. I feel like I did pretty well."

Consider it an Emerson breakout game.

With four pass breakups against the Buccaneers, Emerson holds the team lead with 11 pass breakups, four more than Denzel Ward in second. The four batted balls is the most any Browns defender has totaled in a game this season, and it catapulted Emerson up to second among rookie cornerbacks for pass breakups on the year. He trails only Jets CB Sauce Gardner, who has 14 and is a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

The Browns have seen all sorts of benefits from picking Emerson with their first selection of the 2022 draft, a move that wasn't considered a need and surprised draft analysts due to the depth the Browns already possessed at cornerback. The Browns, though, were confident that Emerson's above-average size (6-foot-2, 201 pounds) would translate well at the NFL level, and they've been right through his first 11 games.

"One of the reasons we really liked him in the draft is a guy with that size who can run," head coach Kevin Stefanski said. "That's rare. Good height, good length, can win at the line of scrimmage and then can stay with the receivers down the field."

Emerson showed that beautifully against Evans, who's no small receiver at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds. Yet whenever Brady threw his way, Emerson wasn't open.

That's because Emerson had either thrown a few shoves at the line of scrimmage to disrupt his timing or was close enough to swat the ball away.

Emerson's opportunities over the last six games have largely come due to injuries in the cornerback room. Ward missed three games due to a concussion, and Emerson played nearly every snap in his absence. A week after Emerson was reverted to rotational duties because Ward returned, Greg Newsome also suffered a concussion, and Emerson was back to a full-time role.

Whenever the room is fully healthy, the Browns likely won't stop using Emerson. He's garnered seven pass breakups in the last six games, and his 73.2 overall grade for the season from Pro Football Focus ranks 20th among all cornerbacks. Players producing at that clip are hard to sit down.

"Weekly, I just feel myself getting better and getting my technique down," he said. "Muscle memory. It's felt natural now. It's coming together."

Perhaps opposing teams will begin to play Emerson differently soon because of his recent success, but doing so would require throwing more in Ward or Newsome's direction. Most teams won't find those options very attractive, either.

That's a problem the Browns don't have to worry about, though, and with the way Emerson has played all season, they'd probably prefer them to keep throwing his way.

"He, just to me, is somebody who just continues to get better," Stefanski said. "He works really hard at it with his coaches. People go after rookie corners. They just do. He doesn't shy away from it. He makes plays on the football."