CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Browns have lost star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to a torn ACL, sidelining him for the remainder of the season. And while his loss is a devastating blow to the offense, the team must strive to, in the words of Beckham himself, “go be great.”
Next man up
With Beckham out for the season, his teammates will have to continue the “next man up” mentality they’ve rallied around this season—something they’ve so far showed they’re capable of doing.
After Beckham left the field Sunday with a knee injury, the Browns had to find a way to account for his loss while also dealing with a depletion of offensive weapons.
Running back Nick Chubb is out for a while. Tight end Austin Hooper was out after having an appendectomy and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge is still on the injured reserve list recovering from a hamstring injury, although he is expected to return this week. The only active wide receivers on Sunday were Jarvis Landry, who is playing through a broken rib, Rashard Higgins, who hasn’t seen much playing time since 2018 for reasons unbeknownst to everyone, and Donovan Peoples-Jones, a rookie who has been almost exclusively used this season as a return specialist.
Despite that, Landry, Higgins and Peoples-Jones came out strong, making big plays and helping quarterback Baker Mayfield come back from a tough first quarter to have a perfect remainder of the game, completing 22 of his 23 passes for five touchdowns. The one incomplete was a spike to stop the clock down the final stretch.
The trio of wide receivers combined for 214 yards. Landry took another turn at quarterback, completing a 19 yard pass and is now 2/2 when throwing this season. Higgins was involved in five game-changing first-down passes, one of which allowed the Browns to push downfield and find the end zone for the win, which happened thanks to an incredible catch by Peoples-Jones.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski called Peoples-Jones “Mr. Reliable” on Monday and said that there will be opportunities similar to Sunday moving forward.The receiver room is loaded with talent, even talent that is new or at times overshadowed. Making the most of their time on the field is something Browns players have excelled in this season. With Beckham out, that mentality will be even more important.
“We have high expectations for our guys," Stefanksi said. "As an offense, and as a team, we don't adjust our expectations. We want our offense to be able to move the ball down the field and score a bunch of points and, vice-versa, we want our defense to throttle that opponent, regardless of who's out there. That's something important to the Cleveland Browns in terms of how we play."
Other ways to win
Mayfield had to win by being a gunslinger on Sunday with just over a minute left in the game and no timeouts. Running the ball wasn’t in the cards, but it will be moving forward.
Nick Chubb is still out with an MCL injury he suffered in Week 4, but the team has said how hard he’s working to get back on the field and pick up where he left off, noting that he's on schedule to return and possibly even ahead of schedule. In the meantime, the Browns have Kareem Hunt to pound the rock, and he does that explosively.
Hunt has carried the ball 101 times this season for 463 yards and three touchdowns. He’s caught 16 passes for 106 yards and four touchdowns. Hunt is the type of player that makes you confident in the ability to establish the run game despite missing Chubb.
Running backs D’Ernest Johnson and Dontrell Hilliard have also stepped up amid Chubb’s absence, and while the threat of having Chubb and Hunt together in the backfield will have to wait at least a few more weeks, the Browns still can rely on their running back room to help them win on the ground.
It’s not just the running backs that are capable of stepping up and helping the Browns secure wins with the absence of Beckham, though—the tight ends can as well, and we’ve already seen them in action.
On Sunday after Beckham left, the tight ends stepped up, too. Rookie Harrison Bryant caught four passes for 56 yards and two touchdowns.
“Coming into the game, we knew that there would be opportunities. We just wanted to take full advantage of those opportunities. We did that today,” Bryant said after the game. “Obviously, there’s stuff we can still improve on, but going out and scoring two touchdowns in a game like that and winning at the end, it is huge. A lot of emotions. It was a great feeling.”
Fellow tight end David Njoku also made plays, catching two passes and scoring a touchdown of his own.
“He went out and made an amazing catch, an amazing play in a big moment of the game. I was happy for him. It was an incredible moment of the game. It is one of the best plays of the game, honestly, was that catch. It was impressive,” Bryant said of Njoku’s touchdown.
Stefanski is known for using multiple tight ends in his offense, so with Beckham out that might be more prominent than ever.
The Browns are set up to win games in different ways, and despite losing a star wide receiver, they still have a plethora of weapons at their disposal.
Something to note
The Browns are not doomed by the loss of Beckham, but if they play well in spite of losing him, it should be noted that's what is happening.
Losing a star player is never good news for a team, and the Browns will in no way be better off without him.
"You never replace a player of Odell's caliber with one player. We're not doing that with Nick Chubb. It's going to take multiple guys," Stefanski said. "Odell—the energy he brings to practice, the energy he brings to games—no one else is going to be able to bring that kind of juice."
Mayfield’s success on Sunday came from spreading the ball around to an array of offensive weapons. That has been the key to his success with and without Beckham on the field.
When the Browns look good without Beckham, that’s more a testament to the players and coaches stepping up and finding ways to fill that void, rather than a justification for the theory that the Browns are somehow better off without one of the best wide receivers in the game.
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.