CLEVELAND — With the Cleveland Browns offense reeling, the defense delivered again — much in the way it’s done all season. In a tie game, the Browns were left with 1:18 to go and a realistic goal of about 30 yards to set up a kick to win it. Considering they’d gained 58 yards the entire second half on six possessions against a rugged Pittsburgh Steelers defense and had only short passes in the game plan, overtime seemed as inevitable as the approaching sunset.
An electric home crowd that had been at a fever pitch for most of the day understandably seemed to be running out of juice. But somebody — more like a few hundred somebodies at first, then a few thousand — apparently still believed. As the Browns offense broke the huddle to start the last drive, chants of “D-T-R, D-T-R” rang out.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson, the Browns’ new starting quarterback, had been decent in the first half. He’d been somewhere in the range of erratic and struggling in the second half, and what had been a 10-0 Browns lead became a 10-10 tie. DTR, as he’s commonly known, hadn’t completed a pass for positive yardage on first down since the final 30 seconds of the first half. So he picked a good time to break that streak by hitting Elijah Moore for 15 yards to start the final drive and get the Browns to midfield. Then he hit some more, and amid what felt like a mad scramble, he calmly directed the Browns into clock-killing mode as they set up Dustin Hopkins for what became his third game winner of the season.
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) November 19, 2023
Hopkins hit from 34 yards and the Browns defeated the Steelers, 13-10. Thompson-Robinson became the third different starting quarterback to direct the Browns to a win this season as they moved to 7-3, just as they were during their playoff season in 2020. In coming alive late to beat the 6-4 Steelers, the Browns took what might eventually be regarded as a giant step toward getting to the postseason. Headed to Monday and a two-game road trip, the Browns are a half-game behind the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North and hold the first of the AFC’s three wild-card spots with seven weeks left.
It would have been a miserable Monday in the Browns’ facility — and largely across Northeast Ohio — had Thompson-Robinson not completed all four passes he threw on the final drive. The Browns went from their own 35 to the Steelers’ 37 on those throws, then ran the rest of the way to drain the clock and set up the game winner. The D-T-R chants continued during that last drive — the quarterback acknowledged that he heard them — and as Thompson-Robinson stopped near the Browns’ tunnel after the game to sign autographs and take a photo with two young fans, the chanting and singing had turned into sheer screams of joy.
“Those are big moments where you’re looking for your guy to come through,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. “He came through. Made some big plays throughout that drive, made big plays throughout the game. I know it wasn’t perfect at all times, but he came through when it mattered.”
It had been a wild week for the Browns. Deshaun Watson led last week’s fourth-quarter rally in Baltimore, but he then found out he’d have to miss the rest of the season due to a broken bone in his throwing shoulder.
Thompson-Robinson was driving to dinner to celebrate his 24th birthday last Tuesday night when Browns general manager Andrew Berry called with the news that the rookie would get another chance to start — and to keep the job in what now can be considered a full-on playoff push. Thompson-Robinson and the Browns had failed miserably — and in many ways, Stefanski failed his rookie quarterback — in Week 4 when Cleveland believed Watson would play up until around two hours before kickoff. Thompson-Robinson never had a chance in what became a 28-3 Ravens rout, and the more experienced P.J. Walker then passed Thompson-Robinson on the depth chart.
The case could be made that Thompson-Robinson even being back out there to hear those chants and complete those clutch passes to Moore, Kareem Hunt, Amari Cooper and David Njoku were as surprising as the way Cleveland’s offense suddenly came to life.
In the third and fourth quarters ahead of that game-winning drive, Thompson-Robinson had been 7-of-20 passing for 28 yards and an interception. Before the last drive, the Browns had four total first downs in the second half. The furthest they’d gotten was the Steelers’ 36-yard line, and that drive ended with Thompson-Robinson’s interception.
Stefanski was going to let his defense work against a Steelers offense that doesn’t scare anyone. He was going to let his rookie quarterback scramble a little and extend plays in certain windows, too. But what now stands as another well-managed game was Stefanski’s most conservative yet. Simple and safe were the themes. The Browns struggled to run in the second half, too, so they kept putting things in the hands of Thompson-Robinson.
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“Follow my keys, follow my rules,” Thompson-Robinson said of his mindset. “If it’s not there, take the checkdown and don’t make any play worse than what it is.”
Add that to what Thompson-Robinson said after he was asked what this win means to him personally — “I’m already focused on next week” — and you’ll have at least part of the reason why Stefanski went back to the rookie this week.
The Browns are riding this defense as far as it drags them. At least this week, four well-timed throws were enough.
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“Dorian doesn’t lack for confidence,” Stefanski said. “I’d say that’s just who he is. He’s a confident kid. He trusts in his ability. So, from the first snap to the last snap, he was ready to roll.”
The confident kid came up big. Then he left the stadium in a really big coat.
You know you’re good when you wear this coat. pic.twitter.com/npH0LXo1gA
— Zac Jackson (@AkronJackson) November 19, 2023
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Thompson-Robinson said. “I just can’t thank (enough) the fans, Kevin, our whole program, every guy in that locker room. Everybody’s been helping me out. Everybody let me know they had my back.”
Browns cornerback Greg Newsome II stopped at Thompson-Robinson’s locker after the game and screamed “hero!” Newsome joked with Thompson-Robinson about his “arrival” and his big final drive. Thompson-Robinson tried to shoo him away from his locker and toward the showers, telling Newsome, “this doesn’t happen without you guys.”
Newsome’s walk-off reply: “S—, this doesn’t happen without you.”
After an upset of the San Francisco 49ers in Week 6, Newsome said the Browns defense “already knew it was the best in the world.” With few exceptions, it’s been just as good since. But in a slog of a game that had started to seem more likely to end in a 10-10 tie than in a Browns regulation win, Thompson-Robinson made the biggest throws. He only threw two over 10 yards down the field all day. His average depth of target, per RBSDM.com, was 3.6 yards. He had several good throws dropped as Pittsburgh crept back in, and he said afterward he thought he “might lose it” on the sideline after his interception.
But he kept his cool. He got one last chance, and he delivered. The crowd chanted his name. The Browns won in dramatic fashion for the fourth time in six weeks, scoring another big victory that sets up even bigger games ahead. The Browns added Joe Flacco to the practice squad, as expected, Sunday night. But Thompson-Robinson is the starter for now, and he has a game-winning drive on his resume.
“I said it was going to be night and day out there (from the Ravens game),” Thompson-Robinson said. “I’ve been working my tail off, and I’m just glad my teammates were with me.”
(Photo: Nick Cammett / Getty Images)