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Deshaun Watson quiets critics with strong performance Browns hope will be one of many

Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) runs for a first down against the Tennessee Titans during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)

CLEVELAND — More than a year late, following a suspension and amid suspicions about his game, Deshaun Watson showed up.

For the first time in Cleveland, he delivered. Just one game, but it may have been a pivotal one.

It’s taken decades, but the Browns might have their elusive franchise quarterback. Watson looked like one Sunday — finally.

Days after losing his cool in a Monday night loss at Pittsburgh, Watson rebounded with his best performance since joining the Browns: 289 yards passing and two touchdowns in a 27-3 win over the Tennessee Titans.

Cleveland’s defense set the tone with its second dominant effort at home this season, but it was Watson who helped offset the loss of star running back Nick Chubb for the season, by doing more than he had shown.

He was on target (27 of 33), made plays with his arm and legs and displayed the kind of grit that made him a star at Clemson and with Houston.

Granted, it was against Tennessee’s suspect secondary, but Watson looked like the three-time Pro Bowler who led the NFL in passing three years ago.

This was what the Browns hoped for when they made their controversial trade for Watson 18 months ago, signing him to a fully guaranteed $230 million contract and waiting for him to serve an 11-game suspension for alleged sexual misconduct.

For the first time since Watson came back last season, there were no questions about his rust or long layoffs. There was no chatter about a lack of communication, his comfort with coach Kevin Stefanski’s offense or the elements.

No excuses. Watson’s ninth start with Cleveland was nearly perfect.

Now, he hopes to duplicate it.

The Browns are expecting this — or close to it — every week from Watson, who in addition to making numerous pinpoint throws and spreading the ball around, showed toughness by staying in after taking a blow to the neck.

Watson shook off that shot much like he ignored the biting appraisals aimed at him after the loss to the Steelers, who flustered him into two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for grabbing face masks.

“The biggest thing for me personally was just control my emotions,” Watson said.

WHAT’S WORKING

The defense might be in the market for a catchy nickname. The Browns are wrecking offenses.

Led by Myles Garrett, who had 3 1/2 sacks and was so disruptive that the Titans resorted to moving two tight ends to his side in an effort to protect quarterback Ryan Tannehill, the Browns held Tennessee to just 94 yards — the franchise’s lowest total since it was in Houston.

Through three games, the Browns have allowed 491 yards. Only the 1999 Tampa Buccaneers (430) and 1970 Detroit Lions (431) have given up fewer.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Chubb’s loss is a massive blow to Cleveland’s running game, which will place even more pressure on Watson and the passing attack.

The Browns picked up just 78 yards on the ground against the Titans with backup Pierre Strong Jr. getting a team-high 27 on six attempts. Jerome Ford, who has moved into Chubb’s role as the feature back, gained 18 yards on 10 carries.

STOCK UP

Garrett’s never been better. He was nearly unstoppable against the Titans, who inexplicably didn’t give left tackle Andre Dillard any help against Garrett before recognizing it was a monumental mismatch.

By the fourth quarter, Garrett was toying with the Titans. He forced them to burn a timeout when they couldn’t get the snap off because he was switching from side to side and they were shifting two tight ends to get him blocked.

“That was a first,” Stefanski said. “I’ve seen one, but I’ve never seen two. Maybe we’ll see three next time.”

STOCK DOWN

Watson’s critics.

His 123.4 passer rating has quieted the haters, who came in force following his uneven, emotional night in Pittsburgh. The 28-year-old said he was aware of the bashing, but was confident he would bounce back and did.

INJURIES

Cornerback Greg Newsome II (elbow) missed Sunday’s game. … The Browns didn’t sustain any significant injuries for the first time after losing starting RT Jack Conklin (knee) in the opener and Chubb against the Steelers.

KEY NUMBER

0 — The Browns have not given up a touchdown in two home games while outscoring Cincinnati and Tennessee 51-6.

WHAT’S NEXT

Lamar Jackson, Baltimore’s dynamic dual-threat QB, will be the most significant test so far for Cleveland’s revamped defense, which didn’t have to worry about Tannehill taking off and running for long gains. After hosting the Ravens on Sunday, the Browns have their bye week before hosting San Francisco on Oct. 15.

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