ATLANTA (AP) — Arthur Smith said his Atlanta Falcons won’t always be able to run the ball as effectively as they did against the Cleveland Browns, who were missing three starters on their defensive line.
Clearly, the Falcons coach will be happy when he can lean on his ground game.
Dee Alford intercepted Jacoby Brissett’s pass with less than a minute remaining and the Falcons held on to beat the Browns 23-20 in Sunday’s matchup of top-five rushing attacks.
Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett sacked Brissett for a loss of 8 yards on the play before the interception.
The Falcons outrushed the Browns 202 yards to 177 despite another strong game by Cleveland’s Nick Chubb.
“When you can run the ball and they know you’re going to run it, that speaks volumes for your guys,” Smith said.
Cleveland didn’t have All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett, who was hurt in a one-car crash last Monday. He suffered injuries to his shoulder and biceps, several cuts and bruises and a broken blood vessel in his left eye.
The Browns still held Atlanta’s passing game in check. Marcus Mariota threw for 139 yards with an interception.
“I always felt the team that ran the ball better today was going to win, and it held true thankfully,” Smith said.
The Falcons (2-2) spoiled the Georgia homecoming of Chubb, who ran for 118 yards and a touchdown with his high school team watching.
Younghoe Koo’s 45-yard field goal, his third of the game, with 2:28 remaining gave the Falcons the lead.
The Browns (2-2) moved past the 50 but on third and 23, Alford picked off Brissett’s pass intended for David Bell.
“It was a bad decision because he picked it,” Brissett said.
Brissett, the Browns’ fill-in starter while Deshaun Watson serves his 11-game suspension for alleged sexual misconduct, completed 21 of 35 passes for 234 yards with no touchdowns and the interception.
“He did some good things,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. “He wants plays back like I want play calls back. That’s the really frustrating part of this game when you come up short, so we’ll look at it and grow from it.”
Mariota called it a “complete team win.”
“To be able to play all three phases that way I think is huge for us,” Mariota said.
Stefanski second-guessed himself for passing up points on Cleveland’s opening drive. On fourth and 3 from the Atlanta 4, Stefanski left his offense on the field and Brissett, forced to throw on the run, threw an incompletion.
“I need to own a large part of that,” Stefanski said. “A lot of things you wish you could take back. … We need to come away with points down there in the red zone, especially early.”
Brissett said he appreciated the opportunity to go for the touchdown.
“We respect Kevin for giving us that trust,” Brissett said.
The Falcons leaned on a balanced running attack led by rookie Tyer Algeier, who had 10 carries for 84 yards, including a 42-yarder. Caleb Huntley and Cordarrelle Patterson each ran for touchdowns.
Huntley had only one carry this season before he seized an opportunity in the second half. Huntley, who was on the practice squad before being elevated to the active roster on Saturday, had eight carries for 54 yards, including his 5-yard scoring run that gave the Falcons a 17-13 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Cleveland more than doubled Atlanta’s total offense in the first half — 245 to 120 yards — but had to settle for a halftime tie.
The equalizer was a lost fumble by Browns tight end David Njoku. Safety Jaylinn Hawkins forced the fumble, which was recovered by linebacker Rashaan Evans at the Cleveland 31.
Patterson’s 11-yard run three plays later gave the Falcons a 10-0 lead.
The Browns pulled even on Brissett’s 5-yard touchdown run and Cade York’s 29-yard field goal.
One week after setting a career rushing high for the second time in three weeks with 141 yards against Seattle, Patterson ran for 38 yards on nine carries. He was limited by a sore knee in practice most of the week.
Chubb, with his Cedartown (Georgia) High School team, family and friends watching from the stands, broke free around left end for a 28-yard touchdown run that gave Cleveland a 20-17 lead and pushed him over 100 yards. Chubb began the day as the NFL’s leading rusher. He worked out with his high school team, about an hour from Atlanta, in the offseason.
Rookie Alex Wright and Isaac Rochell were fill-in starters at defensive end for Cleveland. Jadeveon Clowney missed his second consecutive game with an ankle injury. Garrett, who was hurt when he lost control of his Porsche while speeding, was ruled out on Saturday.
Browns defensive tackle Taven Bryan (hamstring) also did not play.
Browns backup running back Jerome Ford left the game with an ankle injury in the first quarter.
Browns: Host the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday.
Falcons: At Tampa Bay on Sunday.