Browns quick hits: Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, defense regroup for win over Bengals in aftermath of OBJ saga
CINCINNATI — Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. forcing his way out of Cleveland did not derail the Browns.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield, cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Troy Hill, safety John Johnson III and running back Nick Chubb delivered stellar performances for the Browns as they prevailed 41-16 over the Cincinnati Bengals in a crucial AFC North game Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
The OBJ saga made last week the wildest stretch for the Browns (5-4) since coach Kevin Stefanski and General Manager Andrew Berry took control in January 2020.
Frustrated by a lack of targets and chemistry with Mayfield, Beckham wanted out of Cleveland, and the Browns announced Friday they would grant the three-time Pro Bowl selection the release he sought. The two sides signed a settlement Saturday, and OBJ's release will become official Monday.
Browns players talked a good game last week about blocking out distractions tied to the OBJ fallout, and the controversy appeared to galvanize them.
Dropping to .500 with last week's 15-10 loss to the division-rival Pittsburgh Steelers, the Browns knew they had been backed into a corner after losing three of their previous four games.
Stefanski almost never provides colorful quotes, but he didn't pull any punches Wednesday while describing what would be at stake for the Browns against the Bengals (5-4).
"We're 4-4," Stefanski said then. "We have to get a win. Our lives depend on it, is the way we look at it. We're desperate, and that's where our focus is."
The Browns answered the bell and are now in third place in the division. They became the fourth team in NFL history to record a passing touchdown, a rushing touchdown and a defensive touchdown of 60-plus yards in the same game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Wearing a harness on the his injured left, non-throwing shoulder, Mayfield went 14-of-21 passing (66.7%) for 218 yards and two touchdowns without an interception for a rating of 132.6. He took two sacks.
With the game out of reach, backup quarterback Case Keenum relieved Mayfield with 3:19 left to play. Mayfield suffered a cut on his left knee early in the third quarter, and his movement appeared to be affected afterward. In his postgame news conference, Mayfield downplayed the injury and labeled it "merely a flesh wound."
The Browns drafted Mayfield first overall in 2018, two years before the Bengals used the top pick on quarterback Joe Burrow.
Burrow finished 28-of-40 passing (70%) against the Browns for 282 yards without a touchdown pass and two interceptions for a rating of 69. He took five sacks, with Hill registering two of them and All-Pro end Myles Garrett 1½.
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The Browns have won six of the past seven games in the series known as “the Battle of Ohio.” They swept the Bengals last season, prevailing 35-30 at home on Sept. 17, 2020, and 37-34 in Cincinnati on Oct. 25, 2020, when Beckham suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
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With Beckham out for the rest of the 2020 season, the Browns took off and finished 11-5 to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. They earned their first postseason victory since Jan. 1, 1995, with a 48-37 win over the Steelers in the wild-card round Jan. 10 at Heinz Field, then lost to the Kansas City Chiefs 22-17 in the divisional round Jan. 17 at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Browns entered 2021 with Super Bowl expectations, and kept their hopes for a special season flickering by prevailing in Cincinnati.
The Browns used two takeaways, a turnover on downs and efficient play by Mayfield to seize a 24-10 halftime lead.
They weren't done, though.
On second-and-10 from the Cleveland 30-yard line, Chubb broke loose off the left side and ripped off a 70-yard rushing touchdown with eight minutes left in the third quarter. Chubb finished with 14 carries for 137 yards (9.8 average) and two touchdowns.
After Chubb's long TD, the Browns defense created a turnover. On third-and-4 at the Cincinnati 31, Burrow threw slightly behind receiver Ja'Marr Chase on an in route, Ward deflected the pass and Johnson intercepted it.
Johnson returned the interception 31 yards to the Cincinnati 8 with 6:34 left in the third quarter, but the Browns only got three points out of the takeaway. A false start penalty on running back D'Ernest Johnson on third-and-goal from the 1 pushed the Browns back to the 6, and Mayfield threw the ball away under pressure.
Then Chase McLaughlin made a 24-yard field goal to give the Browns a 34-10 advantage with 5:14 left in the third quarter. The Browns led by the same score entering the fourth quarter.
Browns spend fourth quarter holding off Bengals' attempt to rally
The Bengals trimmed their deficit to 34-16 when running back Joe Mixon rushed for a 2-yard touchdown with 13:51 left in the fourth quarter.
With a chance to make it a two-score game, the Bengals went for 2 points, but linebacker Malcolm Smith stuffed Mixon's rushing attempt.
McLaughlin then missed a 45-yard field goal wide left with 9:04 remaining in the fourth quarter, giving the Bengals a glimmer of hope. McLaughlin entered the game 11-of-12 on field goals this season, with the only miss a blocked attempt.
But the Browns defense registered a turnover on downs to essentially ice the game with 6:59 left to play.
On fourth-and-14 from the Cincinnati 31, Burrow threw a deep jump ball to receiver Tee Higgins. The ball hit Higgins in the hands, but he couldn't secure the pass with rookie cornerback Greg Newsome on his back.
Cleveland Browns capture early lead with defensive touchdown
The game's opening series ended with Ward registering the Browns' sixth takeaway and first defensive touchdown of the season.
On third-and-goal from the 7, Burrow threw a pass intended for Chase in the front right corner of the end zone, but Ward cut in front of the rookie receiver, intercepted the pass and returned it 99 yards for a touchdown to give the Browns a 7-0 lead with 8:43 left in the first quarter.
On the play before the interception, defensive tackle Malik McDowell lined up offside. The penalty negated a sack by Garrett, giving the Bengals another chance at third down, but Ward came to the rescue.
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Ward had missed last week's game with a hamstring injury. With Ward, a Nordonia High School and Ohio State product, receiving oxygen on the sideline for most of the next series, the Bengals struck back with a nine-play, 75-yard scoring drive. On second-and-1, Mixon rushed off the left side for an 11-yard touchdown, and the Bengals tied the score 7-7 with 4:10 remaining in the opening quarter.
When the Browns offense finally got on the field late in the first quarter, it didn't waste its first opportunity.
Chubb rushed for a 1-yard touchdown on second-and-goal, finishing a nine-play, 75-yard scoring drive, and the Browns went ahead 14-7 with 14:45 remaining in the second quarter.
The Bengals responded by marching into Cleveland territory, but Hill sabotaged the drive. He sacked Burrow for a 9-yard loss on first-and-10 from the Cleveland 47. When the Bengals went for it fourth-and-3 from the Cleveland 40, Hill covered receiver Tyler Boyd as Burrow threw deep and incomplete for him, resulting in a turnover on downs with 10:18 left in the second quarter.
Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield gets off to scorching start
On the next play, Mayfield threw a 60-yard touchdown pass off play action to receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, who ran past cornerback Eli Apple to catch the deep ball.
In the first half, Mayfield went 7-of-8 passing (87.5%) for 121 yards and a touchdown without an interception for a perfect rating of 158.3.
It was quite the statement for Mayfield on the heels of Beckham's father, Odell Beckham Sr., disparaging the quarterback's performance this season by sharing a video Tuesday morning on Instagram showing plays from Week 3-6 on which Mayfield either didn't throw to OBJ or missed him.
Cleveland Browns find a way to create turnovers
The Browns entered the game with just five takeaways this season, and the coaching staff had been emphasizing the need for many more.
On the series following Mayfield's touchdown pass to Peoples-Jones, Johnson forced Chase to fumble, and cornerback A.J. Green recovered the fumble while filling in for Ward, who had lost his shoe on the previous play and summoned Green from the sideline.
Green returned the fumble 16 yards to the Cincinnati 30 with 7:31 left in the second quarter, and after a botched pitch from receiver Jarvis Landry to Chubb on third-and-1 from the 4, McLaughlin made a 28-yard field goal to give the Browns a 24-7 advantage with 4:10 remaining in the second quarter.
During the next series, a pass-interference penalty on Hill negated an interception by linebacker Anthony Walker Jr., and defensive tackle Jordan Elliott was flagged for unnecessary roughness during a skirmish with the Bengals along the Browns' sideline.
On second-and-11 from the Cleveland 17, Ward pulled down the right arm of Higgins while he tried to secure a would-be touchdown pass in the end zone with 24 seconds left in the second quarter.
The Bengals wound up settling for Evan McPherson's 27-yard field goal with two seconds left in the second quarter and a 24-10 halftime deficit.
The Browns finished the job in the second half, proving they still have plenty of fight left in them with Beckham out the door.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com.
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