PITTSBURGH — The Cleveland Browns lost their best offensive player Monday night to what is expected to be a season-ending knee injury.
In the grand scheme of an all-in season that’s off to a terrible offensive start, I hesitate to call Nick Chubb the most important player on the team. That’s debatable, as are many things involved in a Browns team that followed a dominant Week 1 win with a bizarre, avoidable 26-22 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Chubb is virtually irreplaceable, and now the shell-shocked Browns must figure out how to keep the offense going without him. Early in the second quarter, Chubb carried the ball to first base and was heading toward the end zone when he was hit in the left knee by Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Chubb’s knee buckled, and Steelers defenders close to the play immediately waved to the sideline for help. It was clear that Chubb had suffered a significant injury, so serious that he had to be transported to a local hospital as a precaution.
The Browns led in the fourth quarter Monday night, and there’s a long list of alarming reasons why they ultimately didn’t win. But in many ways, it felt like they lost the moment when the cart came out for Chubb — and that might be a lost season, too. Deshaun Watson can act as an independent and threaten defenses with both the run and pass, but he struggles to turn the pass threat into anything resembling consistent results. Second-year guard Jerome Ford scored immediately after replacing Chubb and later showed he has real juice. But it’s not Chubb.
Few of them are. Nobody really is. Chubb’s rare blend of power and explosion makes him difficult to play against and makes Cleveland difficult to defend. He is a respected player in the locker room who rarely says much but always keeps his promises. Always. For an organization now in its third decade of fighting for relevance and respect across the league, Chubb had earned both. He is a low-maintenance superstar and a high-volume producer.
All spring and summer we listened and guessed the shape of this new offense that had Watson with less rust, more entry and full availability. The Browns brought in Elijah Moore, Marquise Goodwin, Cedric Tillman and Jordan Akins to help them become a more versatile and dangerous passing team. We heard Watson promise “fireworks” after the final preseason game.
When the real games started, it was Chubb who was the spark. It was Chubb cutting back to extend drives and wear down defenses. In the first quarter Monday night, Chubb rushed nine times for 59 yards — and there weren’t anywhere near 59 yards available to the average running back on those plays. Then came the ugly collision and the immediate realization that Chubb’s season was over. The Browns scored on their next play, but ended up scoring just three yards on the ensuing 10 plays. Of the Browns’ 36 yards the rest of the second quarter, 29 came on a pass from Watson to David Njoku. The Browns went 0 for 4 trying to convert third downs the rest of the half.
Ford ended up rushing 16 times for 106 yards. He had a huge run and two more impressive ones to keep the Browns going. Watson had a few hits and several misses. The Steelers scored a defensive touchdown via an Alex Highsmith interception return on the first play of the game, then got the winning points when they turned a Highsmith strip-sack into a TJ Watt fumble return touchdown with 6:58 left. The Browns had two more chances but didn’t really threaten to score. Their defense was good, but the Steelers defense was dominant, sacking Watson six times and giving Cleveland offensive linemen four holding penalties.
ANOTHER HIGHSMITH AND WATT COMBO. TOUCHDOWN STEELS.
– NFL (@NFL) September 19, 2023
The Browns offense has a lot to clean up, as is the case in the NFL this early in the season. But in the five quarters of the season before Chubb’s injury, we were reminded – yet again – of Chubb’s importance, explosiveness and ability to turn standard runs into meaningful gains. The Browns’ plan for this season was to score a bunch of points with a more open offense, free up the pass rush, then let Chubb be one of the closers with his punishing running style and ability to drive down the potential tacklers beyond the goal. Chains.
After two games, the Browns have a poor pass rush and major questions in all areas of the offense. After two games, the Browns have lost major sections of the first and last parts of this plan.
Chubb, 27, has one year remaining on the contract he signed before the 2021 season. He is currently set at a salary cap hit of $16.2 million for 2024, but the Browns would only incur $4 million dead money dollars if Chubb wasn’t on the team. Now is not the time to fully explore Chubb’s future with the Browns, but it’s clear that Cleveland isn’t the same team without him and it’s fair to at least wonder if he started the Chubb’s last big season in 2022 to get Watson. At this point, the Browns are only sure that the aforementioned plan was carried out on very expensive paper.
Chubb entered the game averaging 5.3 yards per carry over his career, and last season he became the only running back in NFL history to average at least 5.0 yards per carry in each of his first five seasons. Only Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and Chubb have recorded 1,000 yards, averaging at least 5.0 yards per carry and at least eight rushing touchdowns in four different seasons. Chubb, in recent years, has placed second to Brown in almost every major rushing category for Cleveland, and Chubb had surpassed Brown’s career average of 5.2 yards per carry.
Last season, Chubb had a career-high 1,525 rushing yards and tied a career-high with 12 rushing touchdowns. In Week 1, he ran for 106 yards on 18 carries and would have been in contention for more carries if the Cincinnati Bengals had kept the game a little closer. They didn’t, so the Browns saved Chubb for what everyone involved hoped would be bigger situations and games.
At a time when Chubb certainly seemed as valuable as ever and probably more necessary than ever given the stakes of the season, the Browns must now move forward without him.
That Ford was willing to produce is one of the few bright spots on a miserable night for Cleveland. On the first play after Chubb’s injury, Ford caught a touchdown pass from Watson. In the third quarter, Ford cut down the field and broke free after the Steelers cut off his initial route. He continued toward the goal line but had to settle for a 69-yard run after officials ruled he tripped inside the 1.
.@JérômeFord discount and take off for 70!! 😱
– Cleveland Browns (@Browns) September 19, 2023
Ford has big league speed. The Browns trusted Ford even though he rarely used him last season, and he missed most of the preseason with a hamstring injury. Before Monday night, he had 23 career carries — and 15 of them came in the previous week.
Watson was on the verge of tears after the game when talking about the importance of Chubb in the locker room. Head coach Kevin Stefanski said the Browns lost “a great football player and an even better person.” Myles Garrett said it “hurts” knowing Chubb’s season was over.
“We have to keep pushing,” Garrett said. “That’s what he would want us to do.” That’s what he would do.
Stefanski essentially said the same thing, acknowledging that Chubb’s injury shook players up.
“The guys knew what they had to do,” Stefanski said. “You empathize with people, and in Nick’s case, you empathize with Nick. But I know Nick, and his teammates know Nick, and we have to move forward in football. We have to go and win matches. We didn’t do enough things that contribute to winning today.
“It’s hard (to lose) Nick. This is not an excuse for performance. Nick would tell the team that they must continue. There are no wounds to lick. You need to move on.”
The Browns need to move forward quickly. But it will be difficult to come close to replacing what Chubb gave them, and they leave their second game of the season not only having squandered a chance to win, but also having lost a player who made their offense unique – and who has always made a positive difference. .
(Photo: Justin K. Aller / Getty Images)