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'Next man up' mentality permeated through Browns all season as backups, rookies produced in big way

From late-round rookie draft picks to undrafted practice squad players — and even assistant coaches — here are some of the most defining 'next man up' moments from 2020

The phrase is one of the most common clichés in all sports. 

Every team uses it each year. Every coach utters it to their players each season. Everyone knows what it means — they just hope they don't have to say it too much, or else their roster could be in trouble.

"Next man up." 

Head coach Kevin Stefanski first used it at the start of training camp, when he discussed the Browns' player opt-outs due to COVID-19 and contingency plans in the event coaches are unable to coach. He used it again just a week later, when injuries started to stack up and forced the Browns to plug and play new faces in first-team reps on a near-daily basis.

"For every single position – it's not just the coaching staff; we have really done this throughout our football operation – we have made sure who is the next man up, the next person up," Stefanski said. "We have that laid out. We talked about your roles, what your duties are and what your responsibilities are day to day because the bottom line is we have to be prepared. The worst thing you can do in a situation like this is not be prepared and start to have those conversations in the moment."

The phrase was used again and again for the Browns — all the way up to their first playoff game since 2002. To get there, they relied on serviceable — and, at times, game-changing — performances from backup players, rookies and, just as Stefanski planned, coaching assistants to step in on short notice and find a way to get the job done.

"It starts with our players and coaches, but it also extends to the entire football operation," Browns EVP and General Manager Andrew Berry said. "This group has dealt with a ton of adversity and challenges over the course of the year. At every turn and every pass, everyone has responded in a fantastic manner with positive attitudes and really found solutions to some challenging problems."

That's the definition of the "next man up" mentality the Browns embraced to the fullest level in 2020. Here were some of the most notable instances of backup players, rookies and coaches who rose to the occasion.

Donovan Peoples-Jones catches game-winning 24-yard touchdown pass

Donovan Peoples-Jones had only played 46 offensive snaps before he took the field at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati in Week 7.

Peoples-Jones, a rookie receiver from Michigan, made his offensive debut three weeks earlier. In Week 6, he was only on the field for three offensive snaps and was thrown his first NFL pass, an incompletion.

But the Browns turned to Peoples-Jones when star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. suffered a season-ending knee injury on the second offensive snap of the game. Peoples-Jones, as well as Rashard Higgins and KhaDarel Hodge, were immediately thrust into bigger roles to fill the void. 

Peoples-Jones' first career catch was recorded on a throw from receiver Jarvis Landry. The trick play, which went for a gain of 19 yards, was a sign Stefanski wasn't afraid to put any of his receivers in position to make plays.

And none was bigger than Peoples-Jones' third and final catch of the day.

The throw — this one from quarterback Baker Mayfield — traveled 24 yards to Peoples-Jones in the end zone. He torqued his body to the right, extended his arms at the last second and made the catch to give the Browns a touchdown in the final minute to give the Browns a 37-34 win.

"He is Mr. Reliable," Stefanski said. "He can line up anywhere, a very intelligent player. To see him go make a play with the ball in the air was outstanding. There are going to be opportunities for him moving forward just like that.

And there were.

Peoples-Jones finished the season with two touchdowns — the other was a 75-yard deep strike from Mayfield that went for the longest touchdown of the season — and helped aid a portion of the deep ball void that was missing without Beckham. Higgins and Hodge filled the gap, too, and both ended 2020 with career-best seasons and helped efficiently pace the wide receivers room for the rest of 2020.

But Peoples-Jones' touchdown will be remembered as one of the most defining moments of the season. In a game that could've been defined by the loss of a top receiver in Beckham, the next man up at wide receiver made the most-needed play.

Offensive line shows strength in entire depth

The five starters from the Browns offensive line transformed the unit into one of the best in the NFL in 2020.

Jedrick Wills Jr. completed a crisp rookie season at left tackle. Joel Bitonio and JC Tretter were constant cogs in the interior. Wyatt Teller ascended to become one of the best guards in the league. Jack Conklin built an All-Pro season at right tackle in his first year in Cleveland.

But the group wasn't always on the field together. Injuries and ramifications of positive COVID-19 cases forced the Browns to call on several linemen who had little NFL experience. Each of those players, however, contributed to some of the biggest wins of the year.

Nick Harris, a fifth-round rookie from Washington, got his call in Week 15 against the New York Giants on Sunday Night Football. Chris Hubbard, who had performed well as the next man up after Teller was injured at right guard, exited the game on the first snap and suffered a season-ending knee injury. 

Harris entered. He had only taken one offensive snap all season.

But the offensive line didn't look any different. Mayfield took just one sack that night in a smooth 20-6 victory, and Harris earned praise from players and coaches for filling in seamlessly.

"He did his job," Stefanski said. "He played hard. He was assignment-sound, got people on the ground, and I was very pleased with how he performed."

The shuffling wasn't done.  

When Bitonio was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list before the Browns' first playoff game, Michael Dunn and Blake Hance — two undrafted players who combined for one snap of NFL experience — were the next players to receive their calls. 

Dunn started and performed at a high level. He earned an excellent 81.0 grade from Pro Football Focus, but when he went down with an injury in the fourth quarter, Hance stepped in and provided zero drop-off in protection. 

Hance, who was signed off the New York Jets practice squad a week earlier and didn't even meet Mayfield until they had a quick pregame introduction in the locker room, played the final 14 snaps and helped the offense seal the Browns' first playoff win in over two decades.

"We have been without guys for various reasons all year, and guys step up," Stefanski said. "That is just the nature of this beast. That is what is required. Really proud of the guys who were in there who had not been in there before."

Assistant coaches, coordinators step in for Stefanski to win playoff game

No week for the Browns was harder than Wild Card week.

Just as Cleveland began preparations for its first playoff game since 2002, news trickled in about positive COVID-19 tests that would impact game day availability of players and coaches.

Stefanski was among the coaches ruled out. So was defensive backs coach Jeff Howard, tight ends coach Drew Petzing and offensive line coaches Bill Callahan and Scott Peters, and the contingency plans Stefanski alluded to back when he first spoke of a "next man up" mentality were in full effect.

Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt was set to call offensive plays while special teams coordinator Mike Priefer assumed all other gameday head coaching duties. Chief of Staff Callie Brownson, who had filled in for other coaching absences during the season, coached the tight ends. Offensive coaching assistant Ryan Cordell was in charge of the offensive line. 

But the coaching absences didn't affect the Browns all game. They led from the first play from scrimmage, when the defense picked up a botched snap in Pittsburgh's end zone, and dominated the Steelers early for a 48-37 win. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was intercepted four times, and three of the picks were made by backup players. 

"It was a great team effort, a great team win," Stefanski said. "You saw guys stepping up and making plays and people in different roles doing a great job. Very, very proud of the effort."

The win was full of adversity, but it was also a symbolic way for the Browns to open the playoffs. Their season had been full of "next man up" moments, but Cleveland always found a way to pull through and deliver.

"The resilience and the 'next man up' mentality that we have been talking about the whole season," Mayfield said, "that just permeates through the whole team."

Check out the best photos from the Browns game against the Kansas City Chiefs yesterday by the Browns photo team