BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns secured one of their biggest victories in recent years last week. And yet, their path to the playoffs now looks more daunting.
That's the kind of season defensive end Myles Garrett was having. And that's the void he'll leave on the Cleveland defense while serving a season-ending suspension, pending his appeal.
"Myles is a once-in-a-generation player, so obviously not having a guy like that on the field is going to be hard," linebacker Joe Schobert said. "But we've got other guys that can make plays, and as long as everybody on the defense knows their job and role and their assignment, I have full confidence."
Garrett is tied for fourth in the NFL with 10 sacks and tied for sixth with 13 tackles for loss. He created two fumbles. And the former No. 1 overall pick is a constant game-changing force off the edge, with a pass block win rate of 26.2%, which ranks seventh in the NFL.
Garrett probably wasn't going to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year, but he definitely would have been in the conversation.
"Myles was having an excellent season, and it's hard to replace somebody with that kind of production, but we have some guys that are mentally and physically up to the challenge," Browns coach Freddie Kitchens said. "I have total confidence that they will give us everything they have and produce when needed."
Kitchens said second-year end Chad Thomas is starting to make an impact and will step into Garrett's starting spot. Thomas has delivered sacks in back-to-back games off the bench. The Browns are also hopeful Olivier Vernon will return from his knee injury by next Sunday's rematch with Pittsburgh.
But even at their best, neither pass-rusher can impact the game like Garrett. Few in the league can.
"It's big," said defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, Cleveland's only healthy and non-suspended starting defensive lineman heading into Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins, with tackle Larry Ogunjobi also facing a one-game suspension for his actions in the Pittsburgh game. "Stats speak for itself. But more opportunities for the next man. Sad to say, but that's what it is."
If only that were the only hole the Browns have to plug.
Overshadowed by the melee that ensued in the closing seconds of the Cleveland-Pittsburgh game, culminating with Garrett swinging Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph's helmet at his head, the Browns also lost starting safety Morgan Burnett to an Achilles injury in the first half, shortly after he intercepted Rudolph. The Browns placed Burnett on injured reserve on Tuesday.
"Big loss. Been in this league a long time, savvy veteran, knows the system in and out, leadership," cornerback T.J. Carrie said of Burnett. "He has just so many capabilities that you can't replace, and so from that standpoint, we are going to have to have a younger guy or some of the guys that we've been playing, they're going to have to step up and play big. And this is the opportunity that they have been given."
The Browns are without safety Eric Murray, who's been out with a knee injury. They also cut their other starting safety, Jermaine Whitehead, earlier this month after he sent threatening messages over social media from the visitor's locker room in Denver. That leaves Damarious Randall, who missed multiple games with various injuries, as the only safety who began the season on Cleveland's Week 1 two-deep depth chart. To compensate, the Browns are going to have to rely even more on rookie Sheldrick Redwine, as well as Juston Burris, whom they picked up off waivers Sept. 20.
Issues at the back end of the defense only figure to be exacerbated by the loss of Garrett up front.
"Everybody has to do just a little bit more," Kitchens said. "Everybody has to do their job just a little bit more often. You can't rely on the fact that so many things can get covered up because you have an elite pass-rusher there. We have some other guys that can get after the quarterback, but his production will be missed, so we need some guys that step up in his production area. Also, we have to rely on our corners a little more. We have to rely on our linebackers a little more. We have 11 guys that can take up that slack a little bit."
The good news is the Browns are beginning to play better in all facets after struggling through the first half of the season. Improvement, notably offensively, hasn't been dramatic. But it has been gradual, starting with quarterback Baker Mayfield, who hasn't thrown an interception over his past three games (four, not counting a shovel pass the New England Patriots picked off on Oct. 27).
The 4-6 Browns also have the NFL's second-easiest remaining schedule, according to ESPN's Football Power Index, which gives them a 20.5% chance of making the playoffs.
Yet to keep its playoff push alive, Cleveland's patchwork defense will have to find ways to persevere without its biggest talent and most productive performer in Garrett.
"It's going to be tough," Carrie said. "We all have to look within ourselves and say, ‘What can I do better to help elevate [the defense] for the missing piece we now have?'
"Everyone as a whole, we're going to have to take it up another notch."