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RB-by-committee keeps Browns churning without Nick Chubb

CLEVELAND — Nick Chubb pulled down the Batman mask and began smashing the guitar.

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 breaking a guitar before kickoff to pump up the home crowd. Chubb did just that, as Cleveland went on to clinch 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 electric 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 really happy with all of them.”

At the time of Chubb’s injury, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski noted that no one player could replace such a prolific rusher.

He was correct.

Through its running back-by committee, Cleveland has found ways to still run the ball, especially in the playoff-clinching victory 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 to a 34-17 lead at halftime.

Ford, who led the way with 64 rushing yards, also caught two passes from Joe Flacco for two touchdowns, including a dazzling 50-yard score 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], get him the ball, and then the rest was all Jerome, and he just would not be denied.”

Cleveland’s rushing attack is no longer the NFL’s best, 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 yards rushing.

But dating to Chubb’s injury, the Browns are still 14th in the NFL, averaging almost 114 rushing yards per game. Cleveland is also eighth with 104 rushing first downs.

“We all can play,” Ford said of Cleveland’s three-back rotation. “We all bring different stuff to the table. I think that’s hard to prepare for as a defense.”

Unfortunately for the Browns, Chubb was off to a monster start before he suffered the injury in Pittsburgh that damaged his medial capsule, meniscus, medial collateral ligament and anterior cruciate ligament. Chubb had one surgery to repair the MCL in September, then another to address the ACL in November. He only recently began walking without crutches. But in that game-and-a-half, Chubb had rushed for 170 yards and was averaging 6.1 yards per carry.

To compensate for that massive loss in production, the Browns inserted Ford into the starting lineup and re-signed Hunt, a free agent who had been Chubb’s wingman in previous seasons. Cleveland has also utilized Strong as a third back.

All three have fallen into their roles.

“Obviously, Nick was a huge component of our run game, and he makes up for a lot of things that’s not perfectly blocked sometimes,” All-Pro left guard Joel Bitonio said. “But I think Ford, Kareem, Pierre have done a good job in finding their niche.”

Ford leads the Browns with 201 carries for 807 yards, averaging 4 yards per carry. Ford can both reel off big plays off a single cut and also push piles forward for tough yards.

In Cleveland’s 39-38 win over the Indianapolis Colts in Week 7, he had a 69-yard touchdown run on the game’s third play. Three weeks later, Ford had a 12-yard run in which he carried multiple 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 everybody else. It was stressful for me … getting pushed from both sides, getting the ball ripped at,” said Ford, a fifth-round pick out of Cincinnati in his second NFL season. “But that Ravens game is what had me like, ‘We’re playing against the best defense, this is what we’re able to do … and I can pound the ball against them.'”

Hunt has especially been pounding 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 scoring plunge against the Jets.

“Kareem, all season long, really all the time that I’ve been with him, has an incredible knack for short-yardage and goal-line running,” Stefanski said. “He has that nose for the end zone. He has the nose for getting the first [down]. He just has a great run style when you get in those moments, because he goes and gets it. … His style, the violence with which he runs, has been a big deal in those situational moments.”

Hunt is now fourth among running backs in rushes per touchdown (15.0) and seventh in first downs per rush (28.1%).

“I definitely know I’m the bruiser,” Hunt said. “And [Ford and Strong] are definitely quick, fast guys who can make some big plays for us.”

Strong has only 49 carries this year. But he has both a 41-yard reception and 40-yard run, underscoring his big-play potential as a third back. He also had 29 yards on just four rushes against the Jets.

“We’ve got a different mix of flavors in our [running back] room – power, speed, strength, hands, everything,” said Strong, who came over to the Browns in a preseason trade with the New England Patriots. “But it’s our O-line. A lot of people can run behind that O-line because it’s such a great 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 significant 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 pave running lanes.

“The O-line has been doing a heck of a job battling for us,” said Hunt, who’s one of Chubb’s closest friends on the team. “And I feel like our running back group has been great. We’ve all been able to rally and do our thing out there. … take advantage of situations that we get and making the most of our opportunities.”

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