From Kevin Stefanski to D'Ernest Johnson, there are plenty of reasons for thought after the Browns took down the Denver Broncos in a dog fight at FirstEnergy Stadium.
This win gets the dogs off of the backs of this team after they dropped to 3-3. The Cleveland Browns stay above .500, now get a 10 day break before taking on the Pittsburgh Steelers, and have a chance to get a bit healthier. While the score showed just a 17-14 win, there were plenty of sighs of relief to go around.
What stood out after the Case Keenum-led Browns came away with a primetime victory?
Kevin Stefanski earns his money by reversing the tide
In a game where your top-two running backs are out, your starting quarterback is sidelined, and your right tackle is out, who would have thought the Browns would have ran as much 11 personnel as they did?
Early in the game, Stefanski dialed up 11 personnel on nearly 62 percent of snaps against the Broncos. No extra backs or tight ends to help with protection, just playmakers on the field. And it paid off. Keenum did not do anything spectacular, but he found a playmaker to choose from given the personnel groupings.
This could not have been what the Broncos gameplanned given the circumstance, but instead got pushed back on their heels early on as the Browns moved down the field quickly and jumped out to a 10-0 lead early on. The playcalls weren't particularly sexy either, but Stefanski allowed for his guys to get into space and make plays.
Boots, tight end screens, motion sweeps, and quick-hitting concepts. Stefanski obviously trusted Keenum to get his eyes in the right spot on the easy tasks, and put together a plan to calm the nerves early.
Then the second half rolled around, and what did the Browns do? They dialed back their 11 personnel usage back to just 26 percent of their snaps as they looked to milk the rest of the clock away. Stefanski played his cards right, went out and grabbed an early lead, and dialed up what the doctor ordered to get out of this ugly game with a victory.
Browns can stop the run in nickel just fine
What if I told you the Browns actually stopped the run better with one less linebacker on the field against the Broncos? In fact, the Browns came out in nickel on the majority of first and 10s early in the game rather than in their base 4-3.
Especially while dealing with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah on Injured Reserve, the Browns are better off staying in nickel much more often than base. Even against teams with good running backs like the Broncos have.
The desire to match personnel is understandable. But at this point, and as it played out against the Broncos, the Browns are better off in pursuit out of base rather than in it. Troy Hill played well in run support, but if the Browns really wanted to, they could get John Johnson III back in the box in big nickel packages by adding Grant Delpit back on the field.
The Browns did a good job mitigating the lack of Owusu-Koramoah, sliding in Malcolm Smith with Anthony Walker in nickel situations. This put Mack Wilson at WILL on the field in just base formations as well.
However, as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals come to town the next two weeks, getting more speed on the field to match their receivers is the move. Even on early downs.
D'Ernest Johnson, your table is set
Running back D'Ernest Johnson is one of the easiest players to root for. The career arc of Johnson is one that very few can claim. After a career at the University of South Florida where Johnson finished as the school's all-time leader in all-purpose yards, Johnson went undrafted after a poor showing at the NFL Scouting Combine.
It is hard for a running back to come back from a 4.81 40 yard dash and agility drills that fell below the top-50th percentile. This led to Johnson going undrafted in the 2018 NFL Draft, where he was then subsequently signed by the New Orleans Saints. He did not make it any further than rookie mini-camp with the Saints.
This is where Johnson went all out to continue his career in football. This is the part where Johnson direct messaged every Alliance of American Football team on Instagram to get a tryout. This is the part where Johnson led the AAF in rushing yards and earned himself a contract with the Browns.
He has not found himself off the active roster since signing with the team in May of 2019. In his first career start, Johnson did not let the moment get the best of him. A tip of the cap to Johnson who took on a massive workload of 24 total touches.
The clear workhorse on the day, Johnson racked up 146 yards rushing, averaging over six yards per carry. He added another 22 yards on two catches in the passing game as well. It was only fitting for Johnson to find the endzone as well.
While Chubb is likely back after the 10 day break until the Steelers come to town, Johnson has proven he is more than capable of taking over Kareem Hunt's role while he is on IR. This may be just the beginning for Johnson.
Can the Browns find sustainable success with Case Keenum under-center?
A pretty big elephant remains in the room despite a gritty win from this Cleveland football team: can they consistently find success with Keenum under center?
Keenum thrives at staying on schedule, getting his eyes in the correct spot, is a complete genius in the wide zone offense. However, there are very clear limitations to his game as well as his arm is just not up to snuff. When the Browns were forced behind the sticks, they struggled to move the ball.
He did not complete a pass over 20 yards the entire game, and it looked like gravity was going to pull away the two deep balls he did throw like a balloon. The hard answer to this question is no. The Browns are not going to find sustainable success with Keenum under-center.
However, the Browns may be catching a good break in their schedule as well. While Keenum will not beat any gunslinger in a shootout, the Browns have the favorable schedule of going up against Ben Roethlisberger, Mac Jones, and Jared Goff over the next four weeks. While Keenum can't push the ball down the field, neither have these quarterbacks.
If the defense can hold these quarterbacks to limited points the way they did Teddy Bridgewater this week, then the Browns have a definite chance of coming away with a few wins. This may also give the Browns the liberty to give Mayfield a little extra rest if necessary.
Keep relying on Keenum to keep the team on schedule, but it will be hard to see him leading the Browns to the offensive fireworks they have seen earlier in the season.