PITTSBURGH – Nick Chubb has spent the better part of a decade as the heart and soul of the Cleveland Browns.
There is no player more respected in the locker room. No player more committed on the field.
All of which made the sight of the star running back being carted off in the second quarter of a 26-22 loss to Pittsburgh on Monday night — his left knee shredded, his season over — gut-wrenching.
“It (freaking) hurts,” defensive end Myles Garrett said.
The 27-year-old four-time Pro Bowler has been one of the constants for a franchise trying to establish itself as a perennial contender. His sixth season in the NFL ended on the second play of the second quarter when Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick came in low for a tackle at the end of a 5-yard run early in the second quarter and delivered a hit to Chubb's legs. Chubb's knee buckled underneath him.
After the play, a teammate grabbed Chubb's hand to try to help him to his feet, and Chubb shook his head while clutching his left knee. He undid his chinstrap and rolled over onto his side.
Chubb suffered a major injury to the same knee in 2015 while in college at Georgia — a dislocation with three torn ligaments. Like the previous injury, the one Monday night was difficult to watch, and ESPN declined to show replays of the play where he was hurt.
Chubb remained on the ground for several minutes while teammates gathered in prayer nearby. He eventually left on a cart and was taken to a local hospital as a precautionary measure but was on his way back to Cleveland by the time the Browns were packing up after a 20th straight regular-season loss in Pittsburgh.
Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanki did not have the specifics on the extent of Chubb's injury but expects him to be out for the remainder of the season.
“We feel, obviously, for Nick,” Stefanski said. “But I know Nick and his teammates know, and you have to move on.”
That won't be easy, particularly after such a publicly painful injury.
NBA star and Ohio native LeBron James and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson were among those who expressed support for Chubb on social media.
Chubb has been here before.
He missed the second half of his sophomore year after getting hurt against Tennessee but returned to top 1,000 yards rushing in both 2016 and 2017. He was a second-round pick by the Browns in 2018.
He's averaged over 1,250 yards rushing a season during his career, his work ethic and humble nature providing a blueprint for the culture Stefanski is trying to imbue in a locker room that hasn't won consistently in decades.
Jerome Ford, Chubb's replacement, scored on a 3-yard reception immediately after Chubb's exit and added a 2-point conversion to put the Browns ahead 11-7. Ford ran for 106 yards and had three catches for 25 yards.
It just wasn't enough. It never seems to be for Cleveland when it makes the short trip southeast to face a rival that always seems to have its number, especially when playing at home.
Alex Highsmith returned a tipped DeShaun Watson pass 30 yards for a touchdown on the first snap. The Steelers outside linebacker later stripped Watson midway through the fourth quarter. Teammate T.J. Watt picked it up and raced 17 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, denying Cleveland's bid to win at Pittsburgh in the regular season for the first time since 2003.
“The penalties ... the turnovers, it's just hard to win on the road, period,” Stefanski said. “It's real hard to win on the road if you make it hard for yourself.”
Cleveland fell to 1-1. There are still four months to go in a season that began with promise and a dominant victory over Cincinnati in the opener in which Chubb churned for 103 yards.
It looked like more of the same for exactly 15 minutes and 51 seconds on Monday night. Chubb was slashing his way through Pittsburgh's porous defensive front. He ran for 59 yards on his first nine carries. His 10th ended with his left leg tilted awkwardly beneath him and his teammates in shock.
There isn't much time to recover. Tennessee visits next Sunday. The Browns will collect themselves and try to do what Chubb would want them to do: rid themselves of any excuses and soldier on.
“He’s a man of few words who just keeps his head down and he’s always working,” Garrett said. “And that’s the integrity he has for the game. That’s what we hope to have now, especially for him.”
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