CLEVELAND – Without Myles Garrett, the Cleveland defense bent a little.
And ultimately inflicted the backbreaking plays itself.
Behind Sione Takitaki’s pick-six and Olivier Vernon’s sack safety, the Browns weathered the rain – and absence of their top defensive player – to knock off the Philadelphia Eagles 22-17.
Two days earlier, Garrett was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list after the team announced a player had tested positive for the virus. Coming into the weekend, Garrett had almost as many sacks – a league-leading 9.5 – as the rest of the team (12.5) together.
But Sunday, several of Garrett’s defensive teammates stepped up with big performances, most notably Takitaki and Vernon.
In the second quarter, Takitaki intercepted an ill-advised swing pass via quarterback Carson Wentz and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown to break a scoreless tie.
Then in the third quarter, Vernon took down Wentz in the end zone for the defensive end's career-high third sack of the day, putting Cleveland ahead 12-7.
Thanks to those two plays, the Browns became the first defense since 1997, according to ESPN Stats &Information, to produce both a pick-six and a safety in multiple games in a season. Cleveland accomplished the feat earlier on Oct. 11 against the Indianapolis Colts, when Garrett forced Philip Rivers into an intentional grounding call from the end zone, resulting in a safety.
As its offense sputtered on yet another bad-weather game day at FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland had to lean on its defense once again. In fact, it was the first matchup of the entire NFL season to feature no offensive points in a first half.
But while the Browns' defense continued to stifle Wentz, Cleveland finally got its vaunted running game rolling in the fourth quarter to put the Eagles away. Nick Chubb bounced off several Philadelphia tacklers on the way to a 54-yard run, setting up Kareem Hunt's acrobatic hurdle over a defender for the 5-yard, game-clinching touchdown.
Through 10 games, the Browns now have their best record -- 7-3 -- since 1994, when Bill Belichick was the coach.
QB breakdown: Baker Mayfield had an underwhelming outing, although he was playing in rainy weather for a third straight game. He completed only 12 of 22 passes for 204 yards. Mayfield also turned the ball over the first time this month, as Fletcher Cox batted the ball out of his hands after penetrating the pocket. The fumble led to Philly's first touchdown. Mayfield, however, bounced back on his very next snap, connecting with KhaDarel Hodge for a 42-yard completion off play-action. The pass set up a 46-yard field goal, which put Cleveland up for good, 10-7.
Troubling trend: The Browns have scored only two offensive touchdowns in their past three games. Weather has been a big factor, and Cleveland won two of those games. But in the wake of the season-ending injury to wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. last month, the Browns have got to uncover more explosive plays in the passing game. Playing next weekend in Jacksonville should help.
Buy a breakout performance: The supporting cast along the Cleveland defensive line easily had its best overall performance of the year. Rookie defensive tackle Jordan Elliott forced a fumble inside the Browns' 5-yard line to thwart a Philly scoring drive. Vernon was all over the field, on top of the three sacks. Reserve end Adrian Clayborn, one of Cleveland's top defensive free-agent additions this offseason, had 1.5 sacks, as well. Philly's offensive line is banged up and struggling. But once Garrett returns, there's no reason the Browns defensive front can't perform at this level flanking him moving forward.