Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb suffered a horrific injury in the Cleveland Browns’ 26-22 loss in Pittsburgh on Monday Night. In a wacky game that featured six turnovers, a litany of strange penalties, and the first quarter ending twice, Chubb’s injury overshadowed everything. In the early second quarter, the running back took a handoff up the middle and took a low hit from Steeler safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
On the hit, Chubb’s knee seemed to simply collapse, bending in a way that made the Pittsburgh crowd cringe and which made ESPN refuse to show the replay immediately after. Chubb was eventually taken out on the cart to the Steeler faithful cheering his name.
It is the same knee that Chubb had completely reconstructed in 2015. Chubb tore his MCL, PCL, and LCL eight years ago with significant cartilage damage.
How the Cleveland Browns Can Replace Nick Chubb
Spoiler alert: There’s no way the Browns can simply replace Nick Chubb. He certainly won’t return in 2023. However, the Browns need to think both short and long-term here.
Chubb’s returned from a significant injury in the same knee before, but that was eight years ago. If he does make it back, there’s no guarantee that Chubb will be the same. Even if he is, how much tread will be left on those tires? He’s about to turn 28 and won’t play again until he’s at least 29. That’s about the end of the road for most running backs, even those with two healthy knees.
With the Browns in a win-now mode, they have to be aggressive in their efforts to compensate for losing their star. That takes on multiple forms.
Options to Replace Nick Chubb on the Roster
The Browns have needed a better understudy for Nick Chubb from the moment they decided not to sign Kareem Hunt. Jerome Ford, the current backup running back, broke a huge, game-changing run in the third quarter but is inconsistent. He shows little pop out of his stance, not much power, and thinks way too much before hitting his holes. He got better as the game went on Monday night, but he’s not ready to be the bell cow back.
Luckily for the Browns, there’s never been a more flooded market for talented running backs than there is right now. In addition to the available free agents, which include Hunt and Leonard Fournette, there are potentially a few on the trade market.
Topping the list for the Browns scheme would likely be Rashaad Penny, who is stuck in a too-deep situation in Philadelphia. Though Penny has never lived up to his first-round billing, he has a combination of speed and power similar to Chubb.
At this point, the Browns likely need two backs, as third-string running back Pierre Strong Jr. has shown little since his acquisition.
Simplify the Scheme
Watson’s taking far too many five-step drops and waiting for receivers to make double moves. As a result, the plays are taking too long to develop. By the time Watson’s ready to throw, he has to use his feet to clear the collapsed pocket.
Sometimes, the scheme just gets in the way. Stefanski has to let his talent be talent and get out of the way. Watson can’t find any kind of rhythm in his passing game. In Houston, No. 4 favored the shotgun. With Nick Chubb gone, there’s no reason not to adjust back to that. Put Watson in the gun, let him hit quick slants, ins and outs. The Browns have talented options at receiver. Amari Cooper and David Njoku can take hits over the middle. Elijah Moore is someone who you need to let get out in space and find a way to athleticism take over.
Stefanski’s double moves, play actions, and RPOs are predicated on having an elite running back in the backfield. Those need to go away now — Watson’s clearly uncomfortable with them anyway, so it’s no big loss. A quicker passing style will also help account for some questionable blindside protection from offensive tackle Jed Wills, who was manhandled by the Pittsburgh defensive line on Monday night.
Improve the Punt Returns
It’s a simple thought, but the better the offensive field position, the less the Nick Chubb-less offense needs to do.
But Cleveland’s punt return game has been virtually non-existent so far in 2023. Donavan Peoples-Jones returned three punts in Week 1 for 15 yards, an anemic five years per return. Against the Steelers, things got even worse. Not only did Peoples-Jones not even attempt a return, he let two whiff way over his head, pinning his team inside their own 10-yard line on consecutive drives.
Lean on the Defense
The offense has been built around Nick Chubb. But the defense is full of highly talented players. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has them playing together and at a very high level. Not only that, but the defense is playing with aggression and swagger, much more so than any Cleveland Browns team in recent memory.
Plenty of teams have won the Super Bowl with elite defenses and average or even subpar offensive units. The Steelers have done it several times. The 2000 and 2012 Ravens ran through Ray Lewis. The 2015 Denver Broncos compensated for a quickly degrading Peyton Manning with one of the best defenses in memory.
Few teams can weather the loss of a superstar like Nick Chubb. But if the Browns truly consider themselves a Super Bowl contender, they’ll have to find a way.
Main Photo: Charles LeClaire – USA Today Sports