BEREA — Receiver Rashard Higgins expected the cornerback to play off coverage during the final drive Sunday and told Baker Mayfield to be ready to throw the back-shoulder route that had already worked a couple of times. Mayfield wasn’t settling — for a safe throw, or a tying field goal.
“Baker said, ‘To hell with that. I am throwing the ball down the field and you are going to get it.’ Those were his exact words,” Higgins said Thursday. “Looking back at it, I just went up and tried to high point the ball and come down with it. Whatever I can do to help the team, I am here for it.”
Bengals cornerback Darius Phillips didn’t drop off, instead challenging Higgins at the line and down the field as he ran an out-and-up out of the right slot. While the coverage made the throw less dangerous, it didn’t make the catch any easier. Higgins left his feet, fully extended and secured the ball as he turned back toward the sideline.
The 30-yard gain took the Browns to the 24-yard line, and 16 seconds remained when Mayfield stopped the clock with a spike. He won the game on the next play with a perfect throw to rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones down the same sideline against the same cornerback. Browns 37, Bengals 34.
Higgins led the Browns with six catches for a career-high 110 yards. He helped fill the huge void left when Odell Beckham Jr. went down in the first quarter with a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament and will be expected to continue to do so as he slides into the starting role opposite Jarvis Landry.
“I really do not expect anything to change,” Higgins said. “When the ball comes my way, just make the most of it. Still just doing what I do.”
The catch and the stat line qualify as surprises given the previous year-plus for Higgins.
He dealt with a knee injury early in 2019, clashed with then-coach Freddie Kitchens about when he was ready to return and finished with four catches for 55 yards and a touchdown in 10 games.
He lost the battle for the No. 3 receiver role to KhaDarel Hodge in camp this year, was a healthy inactive in Weeks 3 and 4 and entered Sunday with five catches for 53 yards and two touchdowns. But even when he wasn’t playing, the coaches continued to praise his work habits and attitude.
“I gave everybody a clean slate,” coach Kevin Stefanski said. “Since the moment he has been with us, whether on Zoom calls back in the spring or out here on the practice field when we finally got together at training camp, he does his job. It is somewhat as simple as that. He does his job, and he makes sure whatever the team needs, he is going to do.”
Higgins was a fifth-round pick in 2016 and was cut in 2017 before being brought back. His best year was in 2018 when he set career highs with 39 catches for 572 yards and four touchdowns after establishing a rapport with Mayfield during training camp.
The breakout vs. the Bengals was just the latest chapter in his story.
“At the end of the day, I had to work for everything I ever got,” Higgins said. “To God give the glory. I can’t be thankful for enough. I am going to keep working, keep putting my head down, not get too big-headed on myself. The sky is the limit.”
Coordinator Alex Van Pelt appreciates the perseverance.
“That is resiliency. That is what it is all about,” he said. “In this league it is very rarely easy. But you have to keep fighting and continue to work and then wait for your opportunity. That is what he has done. He made the most of that opportunity.”
Practice is huge for Higgins. That’s where he gets his confidence.
“I try to practice so hard,” he said. “When times like that come, it’s just like, ‘You know what? That is like a routine catch.’ It was nothing spectacular for me.”
The Browns track all the players’ movements during practice with GPS, so the data proves what the coaches observe.
“He is one of those guys that can just run all day, and I do appreciate that about him,” Stefanski said.
Higgins just can’t run nearly as fast as Beckham. He routinely acknowledges his lack of elite speed, and the absence of Beckham will require the offense to adapt without one of the league’s best downfield threats. Higgins is confident it will.
“Every receiver on the team is able to make the plays when it comes their way,” he said. “I feel like we all run the routes just about the same. Some people just run them faster. Odell was a little faster. I am a little slower, so Baker has to slow the ball down for me a little bit.
“I feel like Baker has playmakers all around so there is really not a huge difference.”
The catch reminded everyone Higgins can be a playmaker, even if running back Kareem Hunt already knew it.
“He has great hands. I saw him make some great catches in practices like that,” he said. “It is not shocking to me.”
Higgins said he made the same catch while at Colorado State but it’s his best in the NFL. It was one of many clutch ones as the Browns kept rallying to beat the Bengals.
“He made every play that came his way. That was really impressive and good for him,” Van Pelt said. “It is kind of the theme of our season as a team right now, the next guy up. He came in and did not flinch at all.
“I know Baker has confidence in all of our receivers. He showed up huge. That catch was one of the biggest ones in the game. Really proud of him because he puts in the work off the field, on the practice field. And to have that opportunity to step up and make one of the biggest plays in the game, that is what it is all about.”