DENVER — Jabrill Peppers finally performed Saturday night like the game-changing player he wants to be and showed he's a microcosm of the ascending Browns.

A first-round draft choice (No. 25 overall) last year, Peppers had a rough rookie season individually as the Browns endured a horrific 0-16 experience.

Aided by a transition from free safety to strong safety, Peppers looks like a different player this year.

And the Browns, beneficiaries of General Manager John Dorsey's roster makeover and coaching changes, have proved they're a much different team — one whose slim playoff hopes were kept alive with a 17-16 win over the Denver Broncos in a nationally televised, prime-time showdown at Broncos Stadium at Mile High.

Peppers turned out to be the hero of the biggest Browns game in years, recording his first career sack and his first interception of the season in crucial moments.

"This was Jabrill Peppers' coming-out party, man," strong safety Damarious Randall said. "I've been seeing it in practice. I've been seeing flashes of it, but he put it all together, and I'm just happy for him."

The Browns (6-7-1) are putting it all together, too. They're 4-2 since they fired coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley on Oct. 29 and promoted interim coach Gregg Williams and offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens. They have won four of their past five games, and they defeated the Broncos (6-8) for the first time since Oct. 8, 1990, snapping an 11-game losing streak in the series and shattering Denver's playoff dreams.

Instead of summoning Greg Joseph for a field goal to go ahead by four points, Williams went for it on fourth-and-1 at the Broncos 10-yard line. The gamble didn't pay off because defensive end Adam Gotsis beat left tackle Greg Robinson and tackled rookie running back Nick Chubb for a 2-yard loss with 1:49 left in the fourth quarter.

"We came up here to win the ball game," Williams said. "I don’t think anyone was ever worried about me not being aggressive. We came up here to win it. Offensively, we were going to win it right there. If not, defensively we’re going to come back and do it."

Trust in defense

Williams' trust in his defense led him to make the aggressive decision.

"He knew that if [the offense] didn't make [the first down], we'd get the stop, and we proved him right," defensive end Myles Garrett said. "... We're not scared to go up against anybody."

The Broncos advanced to the 50, where quarterback Case Keenum threw incomplete as Garrett hit him on third-and-10.

Then on fourth-and-10, Peppers blitzed and sacked Keenum for an 11-yard loss to seal the Browns' win with 39 seconds remaining.

"That's what we're here for — make plays," Garrett said. "I set it up with that third down, and they sent the tackle and the tight end my way, [Peppers] came through free, and he's not going to miss that play."

"I knew [Peppers] was getting home because he's one of our best blitzers up on the team, and what better way to end the game?" Randall said. "He's been waiting for this moment."

Peppers explained he recognized what protection the Broncos would use based on how a tight end had motioned earlier in the game. On the decisive fourth down, tight end Matt LaCosse motioned in and then blocked Garrett as Peppers sprinted untouched toward Keenum, who finished 31-of-48 passing (64.6 percent) for 257 yards with two interceptions and a rating of 60.9. Keenum's second interception went to cornerback TJ Carrie and led to rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield and rookie wide receiver Antonio Callaway connecting for the go-ahead, 2-yard touchdown pass with 11:44 left in the fourth quarter.

But Peppers' sack clinched the victory.

"I just baited the quarterback," Peppers said. "Acted like I wasn't coming. I knew it was turn protection and came scot-free."

Another key play

Peppers made another pivotal play late in the first half.

On third-and-10 from the Browns 29, Peppers jumped in front of rookie receiver Courtland Sutton in the end zone and, with his arms extended, intercepted Keenum's pass with 1:42 left in the second quarter. The interception left Dorsey in awe as he watched from the press box.

"What did that kid eat for breakfast, man? Good gracious, man," defensive end Chris Smith said.

The interception was foreshadowed by Peppers' three picks in Wednesday's practice.

"It was an omen," Peppers said. "I knew it. I knew I was going to get one. There's no way I was feeling that good, catching three picks in practice to not come out here and have a pick. It's been a long time coming. I've just got to build on this, get better, learn from the mental errors and put it all together next week again."

None of this means Peppers is perfect. He knows he must continue to improve and produce consistently to live up to his draft status. He even pointed out he missed a sack on Keenum earlier in the game and got beat on a slant route.

Still, his growth is glaring. It had been evident earlier in the season, but not to this degree and not in front of national audience.

"Each and every week, his confidence level is through the roof," Randall said, "and it's just starting to show."

Sounds like the Browns, right?

They're not perfect, but winning ugly on the road with their postseason chances hanging in the balance is another step in the right direction.

"Absolutely," Peppers said. "You know it."

 

Nate Ulrich can be reached at nulrich@thebeaconjournal.com. Read his Browns coverage at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByNateUlrich and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.