BEREA, Ohio (AP) — When Nick Chubb crumpled to the ground in Week 2 with a season-ending left knee injury, the Cleveland Browns knew there was no way of replacing one of the NFL's best running backs.
One player couldn't possibly do it.
Turns out, it takes at least three.
The Browns have somehow survived without Chubb and maintained their identity as a run-first offense under coach Kevin Stefanski by using Kareem Hunt, Jerome Ford and Pierre Strong Jr., — a trio whose combined skills give Cleveland inside power and breakaway speed.
It has taken a committee to fill Chubb's sizable cleats.
“With Nick, you kind of have all that in one,” said All-Pro left guard Joel Bitonio. "Reem (Hunt), understands his role and then Ford and Pierre can take it the distance if they need to on those outside runs. So, it’s very complementary and we’re still trying to get the fill, but I think we’ve been slowly progressing.”
Chubb's gruesome injury — he tore ligaments and is awaiting a second surgery — on Sept. 18 at Pittsburgh knocked Cleveland's season sideways.
It took a few weeks for the Browns (5-3) to find their footing, but since their bye week, they've rushed more than 150 yards in three of four games while also dealing with quarterback Deshaun Watson's shoulder injury.
Hunt, who was re-signed by Cleveland two day s after Chubb's injury, has made the most of his second homecoming.
For a while, it appeared his career might be over when the Browns decided not to bring Hunt back after last season.
But an injury to one of his closest friends has given Hunt another shot, and he's making the most of it.
Other than voicing his frustration at not getting the ball late in a loss at Seattle two weeks ago, Hunt has given the Browns a jolt of energy while becoming their short-yardage back. He has scored five rushing touchdowns in the past four games.
“That’s just a grinder, man,” Browns offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said, describing Hunt. “He’s a hard runner. He makes good cuts, gets positive yards.”
A fifth-round pick in 2022, Ford leads the team with 425 yards and showed his big-play ability by ripping off a 69-yard TD run against Indianapolis a few weeks back. He also has 20 catches and two receiving scores.
Strong, acquired in a trade from New England in late August, has had some nice moments as well.
The trio gives Stefanski and Van Pelt interesting options.
“It’s a good complement of backs, and they do complement each other,” Van Pelt said Thursday as the Browns prepared to play the Baltimore Ravens (7-2) on Sunday. "It’ll be giving them all touches and then finding out who’s feeling it that day and maybe giving them a few more.”
Getting any one of their three backs going this week will be imperative if the Browns intend to knock off the AFC North-leading Ravens, who have the NFL's top-rated defense and are playing as well as anyone.
The Browns gained just 93 yards on the ground in their 28-3 loss to the Ravens on Oct. 1, but Cleveland was also without Watson and had to start rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who struggled in his pro debut.
A new issue has surfaced this time as the Browns will be without starting left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr., who hurt his knee last week and went on injured reserve.
Also, rookie right tackle Dawand Jones, who has bailed out the Browns by stepping up after All-Pro Jack Conklin suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener, is dealing with shoulder and knee injuries and his status is unknown.
“They’ve been playing lights-out lately,” Bitonio said of Baltimore's defense. "You just look at their last few games and they’ve been very dominant. The first time we played them, they did a good job with us and they’re very complementary.
“They run a lot of games, picks, their linebackers are very good on the blitz, so it’s a tough challenge, especially at Baltimore.”
NOTES: Jones didn't practice for the second day in a row. While he rode a stationary bike, the Browns were working out several line combinations during the potion of practice open to reporters. James Hudson III is expected to start at one of the tackle spots. ... CB Greg Newsome II (groin) returned to practice after missing last week's game. Strong (hamstring) and TE David Njoku (knee) were also back.
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