BEREA — For the Browns to remain in contention for a spot in the playoffs, they need to beat the Denver Broncos — a team they’re 5-20 against in the regular season (no one wants to talk about postseason) and haven't defeated since 1990 — on their home field.

In the Browns' favor, the Broncos passing attack has been hobbled by injuries to star wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Jake Butt, who has been out since September. Former Ohio State standout Jeff Heuerman filled in ably for Butt, only to fracture three ribs several weeks ago to end his season.

That leaves the Broncos running game to take center stage.

For the Browns to win, it could boil down to stopping rookie running back Phillip Lindsay, a 5-foot-8, 190-pound undrafted free agent from Aurora, Colo., and the University of Colorado playing for his hometown team.

“This would be one, and it is not saying anything about the other facets of the game, but they thrive very well on that and they have had some very good success doing that,” Browns interim coach Gregg Williams said of Denver’s running attack. “Defensively, if you don’t start there, then it is hard to play any other place. It is typically each and every week there, but some weeks more than others.”

Considering how the unheralded Lindsay entered the league, some might think that will be an easy task. Think again.

Lindsay ranks fourth in the league with 967 yards rushing and is first in yards per carry with a 5.8-yard average. He has gained the lion’s share of his yardage (714 yards) before contact.

“He is explosive. He is a small guy, but he is fourth in the NFL in rushing. He has obviously been effective, and he has great burst of speed and acceleration,” Browns middle linebacker Joe Schobert said. “He has hit a couple of home runs for them this year so [we] always have to be aware of where he is at.”

Williams agreed, but credits another trait for Lindsay’s success — his ability to see the field.

“There were several examples last week and the weeks before where the defenses were pretty gap-sound and he has enough vision to press it to the one leak or one area,” Williams said. “Then he has the speed and the open-field burst to make chunk plays. I think his vision is very good.”

For a Browns defense that has shown a proclivity to get sloppy with respect to tackling, that could prove problematic. Browns cornerback T.J. Carrie characterized last week’s first-half tackling performance against the Carolina Panthers as poor. He said Lindsay, who he believes plays with a chip on his shoulder, will hurt the defense if that happens again.

“You're not going to tackle him with one person. It's definitely a gang-tackle situation,” Carrie said. “We've got to tackle. Week in and week out, the key thing is tackling in this league. When you can tackle somebody and funnel them in, your chances are better.”

If Lindsay hadn't played with a chip on his shoulder before this week, he may very well be doing so as he prepares to face the Browns. He endured his worst game of the season in a 20-14 loss to the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday, rushing for 30 yards on 14 carries (2.1 average).

“This past week, they had a great plan,” Broncos quarterback Case Keenum said of the 49ers. “They came out and played really well. For whatever reason, we didn’t execute and adjust, and early on we were stalled out. You’ve got to give them a lot of credit.”

The Broncos are looking to him to bounce back, but Lindsay said the yards come when the Broncos play in concert.

“At the end of the day, we just have to go out and play how we played in the second half and play Bronco football,” he said. “That’s it. We can’t worry about anything else.”

The Browns, meanwhile, limited Panthers star Christian McCaffrey, arguably the most productive running back in the NFL, to 101 total yards from scrimmage (63 rushing, 38 passing) in a 26-20 win on Sunday.

“They’re talented. They’re going to be just like the 49ers up front — they’re talented and they do a lot of blitzing,” Lindsay said of the Browns. “We’re going to have to be sharp on everything and we’re going to have to play ball. We’re going to have to be physical. We can’t let anybody come into our house and punch us in our mouth; we’ve got to punch first.”

 

George M. Thomas can be reached at gmthomas@thebeaconjournal.com.  Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.