CLEVELAND — In the past two games at FirstEnergy Stadium, Mother Nature has delivered driving rain, snow, sleet, hail, 40-mph wind gusts and lightning.
On Sunday, a cold front that briefly lit up the sky over Lake Erie prompted a 35-minute weather delay at kickoff. When the storm unleashed its fury during the national anthem, left guard Joel Bitonio said he thought it was “a Cat 1 hurricane.”
“There’s 12 different flags in our stadium and think they all blow in a different direction. I’m glad I’m not a kicker,” Bitonio said. “I also think we picked the longest national anthem ever. It might have just been the weather, but that thing was taking a little while out there.”
After the anthem, the two teams were pulled off the field.
“The beginning of the game was a shocker,” running back Kareem Hunt said of that decision by the league.
Against the Houston Texans, the elements again challenged the Browns to win in conditions in which they should be built to succeed. For three quarters they stumbled and bumbled, seemingly discovering few new wrinkles after last weekend’s bye. There were no dink-and-dunk passes to their now-full stable of tight ends, sorely underutilized this season. Coach Kevin Stefanski called an ill-timed trick play on the first series as they were methodically marching down the field.
But with Nick Chubb back in the fold, the Browns have the toughness to succeed when all hail breaks loose.
The Browns prevailed 10-7, with Chubb sealing the victory with a 59-yard run with 56 seconds left and running for a 9-yard touchdown with 13:32 remaining. They improved to 6-3 and avoided another disastrous outcome against a warm-weather team that carried some of the same dangers that a 16-6 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders on Nov. 1 inflicted.
Stefanski said the wind was worse than the Raiders game, when it was gusting past 40 mph.
“A couple times, my call sheet almost flew out of my hands. I have never been a part of that type of wind,” Stefanski said.
“It was crazy, I was like, I don’t think we’re going to be able to pass the ball if we play in this weather,” Bitonio said of the pregame conditions. “The wind was howling all game; it wasn’t as cold as last game. It’s tough to make some of those throws, that’s why you’ve got to be able to run the ball and execute because you can’t throw the ball downfield.”
Fortunately with Chubb returning from an MCL sprain suffered Oct. 4 and the bye giving Hunt’s broken rib time to heal, the offensive line was able to find its rhythm so its running backs could break free in the final quarter.
Chubb rushed 19 times for 126 yards and a touchdown. Hunt added 104 yards on 19 carries as they became the first Browns duo to rush for 100 yards in the same game since Leroy Kelly (113) and Ernie Green (103) on Oct. 8, 1966.
“That’s what good football teams do. We’ve got to be able to bleed the clock out, get those first downs and keep our defense off the field,” Hunt said.
After the loss to the Raiders, Hunt said the Browns were beaten at their own game. He was glad it didn’t happen again.
“We’ve definitely got to win those sloppy games and find a way to move the ball when the weather’s bad,” Hunt said. “I don’t care if it was 3-0, as long as you get a win, that’s the most important thing.”
If the game showed anything, it’s that when Chubb is healthy and able to break loose, he covers up a lot of flaws.
Leading 3-0 through three quarters, the Browns were so predictable and lackluster that a pesky pigeon that refused to leave the field, apparently seeking a birds-eye view of Chubb’s return, provided a needed distraction. At that point, it felt like the Browns and first-year coach Stefanski still have a long way to go — and a long way to grow.
The Browns defense was improved, with star defensive end Myles Garrett virtually unstoppable early on and his line giving him some help.
But there were two mind-numbing penalties. Receiver Jarvis Landry was called for taunting when he spiked the ball in the second quarter, helping stall a Browns drive. An unnecessary roughness call on linebacker Mack Wilson for spiking receiver Randall Cobb set up Deshaun Watson’s 16-yard touchdown pass to former Browns tight end Pharaoh Brown that cut the Browns’ lead 10-7 with 4:59 to play.
Fortunately as Stefanski searches for “smart, tough dudes,” the count is growing. Chubb and Hunt fit that bill, as does Stefanski.
“We all need to be smart and tough and I think for the most part we are. We’re getting there,” Chubb said. “That’s the sign of a good team.”
Losing to the Raiders hurt the Browns’ chances of securing an AFC wild-card berth, putting the Raiders back in the hunt. A loss to the Texans (2-7) might have sent the Browns into a death spiral.
Some may scoff at that, especially considering the Browns’ talent on offense. But it has happened before. After a 6-3 start in 2014 under former coach Mike Pettine, they finished 7-9.
This 6-3 felt nearly as precarious, at least until Chubb dashed down the sideline for 59 yards.
Chubb said it wasn’t until the final 10 yards that he remembered Stefanski’s instructions not to score if he got the first down. That thought would have never crossed the mind of former coach Freddie Kitchens, as overmatched as he was on game days last season.
But this season, come hail or high water, the Browns appear to be finding the toughness and the leaders they need.
©2020 Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)
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