2021 NFL season, Week 7: What we learned from Browns' win over Broncos on Thursday night

Cleveland Browns
2021 · 4-3-0
Denver Broncos
2021 · 3-4-0


READ: RB D'Ernest Johnson breaks out in Browns win

READ: Fangio did not think of replacing Teddy: 'He is our quarterback'

READ: Broncos linebacker Von Miller sprains ankle in loss

READ: 'Calm and poised' Case Keenum gets Browns back on winning track

Around The NFL writer Nick Shook was in attendance for Thursday night's game between the Broncos and Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium. Here are his five takeaways:

  1. Give Kevin Stefanski a commemorative plaque for his play calling. Stefanski's Browns won the toss and he planted his flag by receiving to start the game in an attempt to gain early momentum in a game his team desperately needed. The coach scripted a beautiful opening drive, dialing up a pair of screens that quickly moved Cleveland into scoring range and turning to third-string runner D'Ernest Johnson to finish it off. Stefanski took to dressing the windows with exquisite pieces in the second half, incorporating a variety of pre-snap motion that opened up possibilities in the short passing game. The result was a balanced, well-paced scoring drive that needed a fourth-down scramble from Case Keenum to produce the perfect answer to Denver's best possession of the night. With multiple playmakers missing, the Browns couldn't afford to waste time getting cute or overly ambitious. Though it didn't produce a ton of points, Stefanski kept Cleveland in control throughout most of the night.
  2. In desperate need of a win, the Browns again turned to their greatest strength: the ground game. Bill Callahan's offensive line was missing its starting right tackle, but you couldn't tell if you didn't know it, as the group stayed true to its zone scheme and opened massive running lanes for Johnson, Demetric Felton and a cameo from practice squad elevation John Kelly. The offense was able to stick to its preferred style even without Baker Mayfield available, leaning heavily on the production of the former Alliance of American Football star, who finished with a new career high in rushing yards in a game (146) on 22 carries. It's as simple as this: Cleveland doesn't win this game without another strong performance from its offensive line, and Johnson capitalized well enough to turn the needle back toward the positive side of the dial for one (extended) week.
  3. Denver can't keep wasting the first half if it wants to end its losing streak anytime soon. The Broncos made it a third straight week in which their offense failed to show up for the first two quarters of a game, racking up a grand total of two first downs in the first half while watching the Browns build a 10-0 lead. Cleveland dominated time of possession in the first half (21:11 to 8:49), and Denver was able to run just 16 offensive plays. Teddy Bridgewater had a forgettable first half, so much that some were legitimately wondering whether the Broncos might replace him with Drew Lock to start the second half. They didn't, and much like the last two games, halftime adjustments injected life into the Broncos' offense. Once again, it proved to be too little, too late. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur should receive deserved criticism for Denver's tendency to sleepwalk through the first half. If the Broncos don't wake up earlier in the weeks ahead, they might soon be carrying with them an ugly losing streak that's already reached four games.
  4. We should praise Courtland Sutton more than we have to this point. Sutton finished with five catches for 68 yards and didn't reach the end zone, but he existed as a frequent mismatch no matter the defender covering him. His best grab -- and Bridgewater's best pass of the night -- produced a 31-yard gain via a one-handed catch down the sideline. Denver's offense remains stuck in the mud, but if there's one player capable of lifting it out of the sludge, it's Sutton. Bridgewater just needs the time to find him open and figure out how to better deliver the ball. On Thursday night, the whipping wind off Lake Erie proved to be the 12th man, but in better conditions, there will be no excuse for not feeding Sutton more -- especially earlier in the game.
  5. The Browns' biggest issue has been penalties. Cleveland again piled up plenty of penalties, finishing with nine for 60 yards. A few undercut positive momentum and stalled drives, explaining the Browns' 17 total points. For a team that's hurting due to a merciless string of injuries, the last thing Cleveland can afford to do is play sloppy football. A better team makes the Browns pay for their mistakes.

Next Gen Stat of the game: In his first start since Week 17 of the 2019 season, Case Keenum completed 10 of 13 play-action pass attempts for 129 yards and one touchdown.

NFL Research: D’Ernest Johnson became the third Browns running back to have 100-plus scrimmage yards in a game this season, joining Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The Browns are the only team to have three running backs with 100-plus scrimmage yards in a game in 2021, and Johnson's 146 rushing yards are the most by a Browns running back in their first start since 1970.

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