CLEVELAND – Nick Chubb took off his Batman mask and started smashing his guitar.
On Thursday night, Chubb, the All-Pro running back who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 2, appeared as the Dawg Pound captain, whose job is to smash a guitar before kickoff to cheer on the team. the local crowd. Chubb did just that, as Cleveland clinched its first playoff berth since 2020 with a 37-20 victory over the New York Jets.
Chubb’s big pregame moment in front of an electrified crowd served as a reminder of how much the Browns have overcome this season.
“Losing Nick was big,” Browns offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said. “It took a lot of feet to fill his shoes. But we’re very happy with all of them.”
At the time of Chubb’s injury, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski noted that no player could replace such a prolific running back.
I was right.
Through its running back committee, Cleveland has found ways to continue running the ball, especially in the playoff-clinching win over New York. Jerome Ford, Kareem Hunt and Pierre Strong Jr. combined to rush for 124 yards on 26 carries with a touchdown, as Cleveland jumped out to a 34-17 halftime lead.
Ford, who led the way with 64 rushing yards, also caught two passes from Joe Flacco for two touchdowns, including a dazzling 50-yard touchdown late in the second quarter.
“He was running hard,” Stefanski said. “And then the play he made at the end of the half was incredible. Joe, to get out of [the pocket]give him the ball, and then the rest was all Jerome, and they just wouldn’t deny him.”
Cleveland’s running game is no longer the best in the NFL, as it had been in recent seasons behind Chubb. Chubb averaged 90.6 yards over the past four seasons and eclipsed 1,400 yards twice in that span. Before Thursday, Cleveland had gone four straight games without 100 rushing yards.
But since Chubb’s injury, the Browns remain 14th in the NFL, averaging nearly 114 rushing yards per game. Cleveland is also eighth with 104 rushing first downs.
“We can all play,” Ford said of Cleveland’s three-running back rotation. “We all bring different things to the table. I think it’s hard to prepare for that as a defenseman.”
Unfortunately for the Browns, Chubb got off to a monster start before suffering the injury in Pittsburgh that damaged his medial capsule, meniscus, medial collateral ligament and ACL. Chubb had surgery to repair his MCL in September and then surgery to repair his ACL in November. He recently started walking without crutches. But in that game and a half, Chubb rushed for 170 yards and averaged 6.1 yards per carry.
To make up for that huge loss of production, the Browns inserted Ford into the starting lineup and re-signed Hunt, a free agent who had been Chubb’s teammate in previous seasons. Cleveland has also used Strong as a third running back.
All three have assumed their roles.
“Obviously, Nick was a big component of our running game, and he makes up for a lot of things that sometimes aren’t perfectly blocked,” All-Pro left guard Joel Bitonio said. “But I think Ford, Kareem and Pierre have done a good job of finding their niche.”
Ford leads the Browns with 201 carries for 807 yards, averaging 4 yards per carry. Ford can make big plays with a single cut and also push stacks forward for tough yards.
In Cleveland’s 39-38 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Week 7, he had a 69-yard touchdown run on the third play of the game. Three weeks later, Ford had a 12-yard run in which he carried several Baltimore Ravens with him, with the help of his offensive linemen, putting Cleveland in position for the game-winning field goal as time expired.
“That play was fun for everyone else. It was stressful for me … being pushed around on both sides, getting the ball,” said Ford, a fifth-round pick out of Cincinnati in his second NFL season. “But that Ravens game made me say, ‘We’re playing against the best defense, this is what we can do… and I can hit the ball against them.'”
Hunt has been especially hitting the ball. A short-yardage specialist at this point in his career, he has given the Browns a boost at the goal line. He leads Cleveland with nine touchdowns, including a 7-yard touchdown against the Jets.
“Kareem, all season long, really all the time I’ve been with him, has an incredible ability to run short yards and to the goal line,” Stefanski said. “He has that nose for the end zone. He has the nose to get the first [down]. He just has a great racing style when you get to those moments, because he goes and gets it. … his style, the violence with which he runs, has been very important in those situational moments.”
Hunt now ranks fourth among running backs in carries per touchdown (15.0) and seventh in first downs per carry (28.1%).
“I definitely know I’m the bully,” Hunt said. “AND [Ford and Strong] “They’re definitely fast, quick guys that can make big plays for us.”
Strong has only 49 carries this year. But he has a 41-yard reception and a 40-yard run, underscoring his big-play potential as a third-string back. He also had 29 yards on just four carries against the Jets.
“We have a different mix of flavors in our [running back] space: power, speed, strength, hands, everything,” said Strong, who came to the Browns in a preseason trade with the New England Patriots. “But it’s our offensive line. A lot of people may run behind that O line because it’s a cool O line. “They do a great job creating holes for us and making it work.”
Cleveland’s offensive line has dealt with its share of major injuries, losing its top three offensive tackles (Jedrick Wills Jr., Jack Conklin and Dawand Jones) to season-ending knee injuries. But the All-Pro guard pairing of Bitonio and Wyatt Teller, along with center Ethan Pocic, have continued to open up running lanes.
“The offensive line has been doing a great job fighting for us,” said Hunt, one of Chubb’s closest friends on the team. “And I feel like our running group has been fantastic. We’ve all been able to bounce back and do our thing… take advantage of the situations that come our way and make the most of our opportunities.”