There’s training camp and weeks of weeks of preseason practice for a reason, and it goes well beyond getting the projected starters ready for the season.
It’s a 90-man roster in August and a 53-man roster in September, and all of the players are prepared as if they’ll be counted on when the games matter. That’s the mentality Cleveland’s coordinators expressed Thursday when they were asked about a variety of players poised to fill big roles Sunday against the Rams.
Let’s start with the safeties, where the Browns are dealing with injuries to starters Morgan Burnett (quadriceps) and Damarious Randall (concussion). Without Randall on Monday, the Browns deployed Eric Murray and Jermaine Whitehead with more regularity. Whitehead, a midseason waiver claim last season who has found a definite niche in Steve Wilks’ defense, played every snap in the Browns’ 23-3 win.
Expect more of the same if Burnett and Randall are unable to play against the Rams.
“You guys already know, but if you haven’t, Jermaine is one of my favorites,” Wilks said. “I think he is smart, he puts himself in a position to be successful, I love the way he orchestrates and really runs the back end by communicating everybody. He is good in the run game, he can fit the run just like the linebackers and he is very adequate out in space as well.”
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On offense, the Browns are poised to be without tight end David Njoku, who suffered a concussion and wrist injury in Monday’s first quarter. Veteran Demetrius Harris, who had been sharing the field with Njoku on a handful of plays before the injury, played nearly every snap after it.
Playing primarily as the No. 2 tight end during his five-year tenure with the Chiefs, Harris caught 57 passes for 605 yards. He has one catch for 4 yards this season.
“There are challenges at any given position when you lose a player that is part of your 53. David gives us a weapon vertically down the field that you like to have and can be a matchup problem for opponents, but we will just have to next man up,” offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. “Demetrius Harris, who we bought in here for a reason, then and Pharaoh (Brown) and Ricky (Seals-Jones) will have to continue to improve.”
Right tackle Chris Hubbard is dealing with a foot injury that could keep him off the field Sunday. With backup tackle Kendall Lamm also sidelined because of a knee injury, the Browns would likely turn to veteran Justin McCray, who joined the team via trade from Green Bay at the end of the preseason. McCray was forced into action at right tackle for the better part of Cleveland’s season opener after the ejection of left tackle Greg Robinson and injury to Lamm.
“Justin is a pro. He has played in this league. He played pretty well against the Titans for a guy that just got here that week. I really did,” Monken said. “We expect him to play well. With all of our players, you are going to see how the week goes on and where you think you feel like you need to help, but he has been fine.”
-- Browns special teams coordinator Mike Priefer has been proud of rookie punter Jamie Gillan, who was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week on Wednesday, and particularly loves that only one of his punts has been returned.
Priefer, though, agrees with Gillan when he says the team’s gunners have played a key role in limiting returners’ abilities to do much of anything with Gillan’s booming punts. Cornerback Tavierre Thomas and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge have filled the roles to the level Priefer expects.
“Our guys protected well,” Priefer said. “Jamie got the ball of quick and did a good job for the most part with his directional punts. It makes the job for the gunners easier. We have good gunners. We have guys that believe in what we are doing, and they understand that.”
Thomas came to Cleveland as a preseason waiver claim last season and quickly became one of the Browns’ top special teams players. Hodge joined the Browns in similar fashion this year after he was waived by the Rams.
“I can’t believe the Rams let him go. He is so talented,” Priefer said. “I am very glad that we have him. For a young guy, he has some leadership abilities and some leadership qualities. He plays very, very hard and he is very intelligent. He understands his role.”
-- Wilks said Myles Garrett quick get-off, which has helped propel him to 25.5 sacks through the early part of his career, is a double-edged sword.
Garrett leads the NFL with five sacks in two games but has also accumulated a handful of penalties, including multiple offsides calls. Wilks said he won’t tolerate those kinds of pre-snap transgressions, which are essentially the football equivalent of unforced errors.
“That to me is a lack of discipline,” Wilks said. “His greatest strength is his greatest weakness. He is so quick off the ball that teams are going to hard count to try to get him to jump. They are going to change the snap count. We have to be locked in and focused so we do not put ourselves in that position.”