In Thursday’s 17-14 win over the Denver Broncos, the Cleveland Browns' leading passer was Case Keenum (199 yards), their leading rusher was D’Ernest Johnson (146 yards) and their leading receiver was Austin Hooper (42 yards). If you would have shown that box score to Kevin Stefanski in August, chances are he probably would have reached for the closet case of Market Garden Summer Shandy. But any drinking Stefanski does this weekend will be out of joy, as his squad pulled out a gutsy win on national television. Ahead of the Browns' Halloween game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, here’s our takeaways from the win.
D’Ernest Johnson proved himself. Welcome to the national spotlight, D’Ernest Johnson. In his first career start, the third year back out of USF ran all over the Broncos defense, tallying 146 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. With Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb ahead of him on the depth chart, carries have always been hard to come by for Johnson since he joined the Browns (coming into Thursday’s game he had 198 career yards rushing, 95 of which came in the Browns win over the Cowboys last year). But with the two lead backs out, Johnson impressed. While the Browns offensive line gave him some huge holes to run through (what’s new), Johnson earned most of his yards with his elusiveness. John Kelly and Demetric Felton each had success in a changeup role, as they both broke off runs for more than 10 yards. With Kareem Hunt still out for the next two weeks, Johnson should still get his fair share of carries, whether that’s as the lead back or as Chubb’s backup.
Keenum was on the case. Make no mistake, Baker Mayfield is still the Browns quarterback. Still, Keenum’s solid play on Thursday might give Stefanski pause in terms of bringing Mayfield back. In his first start since December 2019, Keenum went 21-for-33 for 199 yards and a touchdown. His biggest play came at the end of the third quarter when he broke a tackle and scrambled up the middle to move the chains on fourth down in Denver’s red zone. On the next play, Keenum found fullback Johnny Stanton for a one-yard touchdown pass.
Keenum throwing his lone touchdown pass to Stanton is like listening to Fleetwood Mac on a record player. Sure, wouldn’t it have been more convenient to pull the album up on your streaming service of choice and then hook your phone up to a Bluetooth speaker? Probably. But does the sweet music sound the same regardless? You bet. The Stanton touchdown pass is just another example of how Stefanski excels in zigging when others zag. Most teams don’t have a dedicated fullback anymore, but Stefanski carries TWO on the roster, as Stanton was called up from the practice squad last week after starting fullback Andy Janovich was placed on injured reserve two weeks ago.
Ice up, son. After playing a game on a short week without their starting quarterback, running backs and right tackle, the Browns now have a much-needed mini-bye before their game next Sunday against the Steelers. All in all, the Browns walked away from Thursday’s game in an OK place health-wise. Receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, who both came in with nagging injuries, both spent time on the sideline with injuries but returned for the end of the game while Denzel Ward left and quickly ruled out with a hamstring injury. After the game, Stefanski said Ward and receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones will get MRIs on Friday. With the bye week still five weeks away, this weekend off couldn’t have come at a better time.
What’s next at quarterback? Another added bonus of the time off is that it gives Mayfield more time to heal from his shoulder injury. Before kickoff, Fox Sport’s Jay Glazer reported that Mayfield said he fractured his humerus in addition to tearing his labrum but hopes to play next weekend. Is Stefanski comfortable rolling the dice with Mayfield at 75% compared to Keenum at full health? Who knows? But Keenum’s gutsy showing on Thursday should impact Stefanski’s decision. While Keenum didn’t win the Browns the game, he didn’t lose them it either. He made sure to get Jarvis Landry (three first-half catches) involved early and would have hit him for a wide-open touchdown had he not gotten hit as he was throwing. There’s no doubting that Mayfield is the better quarterback and athlete, it just comes down to Stefanski’s preference in what he wants. Another thing to consider: The Steelers now have a week’s worth of game tape of Stefanski in the Browns offense, something Denver didn’t have.
Breaking: Baker Mayfield tells me in addition to his torn labrum he also fractured his humerus bone (shoulder) according to a scan this week. Baker said the fracture is preventing his rotator cuff from firing. @NFLonFOX (1/2)— Jay Glazer (@JayGlazer) October 21, 2021
The Browns defense needed this one. Outside of two drives, Cleveland’s defense spent most of Thursday afternoon dominating a Broncos offense that looks stuck in the mud. Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater finished 23-for-33 passing for 187 yards, two touchdowns and an interception that came at the hands of John Johnson III, his first of the season. While the Browns only had two sacks (Myles Garrett had 1.5 of them), the front seven flexed its muscles in the run game, limiting Denver to 41 yards rushing. There are still things to work on (both of Denver’s scoring drives were 10+ play, methodical drives), Thursday’s showing was a step in the right direction for a unit that was on its heels after Sunday’s performance against the Arizona Cardinals.