A torn ACL and MCL. Arthroscopic knee surgery. Wrist surgery. Seeking different opinions from an ankle specialist. A nagging quad. Another MCL.
You name the injury this season and the Cleveland Browns' defensive line has seen it.
Heading into the season, the seven-man rotation was supposed to anchor the defense. It was supposed to plug holes and set up the pass rushing outside linebackers to sack quarterbacks. But due to of all the injuries, we never saw the unit operate together. Every single person on Cleveland's seven-man rotation has missed at least one game in 2014 and a whopping 22 games total.
You'd think all of these injuries would decimate Cleveland's defense to the point of no return. Not exactly. Heading into the Monday Night Football contest, the Browns rank sixth in the NFL in points allowed per game (19.1).
These literal bumps and bruises haven't deterred the defensive line from exerting its force in the trenches and its will to get back on the field.
Coach Mike Pettine and the medical staff originally expected Phil Taylor to miss the Bengals game due to the short turnaround. Instead, Taylor used the national spotlight as extra motivation to return to the lineup, where he was a chief reason in shutting down Cincinnati running back Jeremy Hill for just 55 yards. Billy Winn is another player who made his return an emphatic one, by blocking a Tampa Bay field goal attempt a few minutes into the first quarter.
The exact opposite situation occurred for both Ishmaa'ily Kitchen and John Hughes, who were healthy scratches in September games. Kitchen and Hughes both admitted because they were competitors, it did bother them a little be watching from the sidelines in street clothes. But when Ahtyba Rubin and Winn both fell to the turf in pain in the same game against the Titans, Kitchen and Hughes were called upon to help wrangle the Steelers 31-10 in Week 6 for must-have AFC North win. Hughes set up a Buster Skrine interception by deflecting a pass, while Kitchen was unmovable in the middle, racking up six tackles.
"We kept preparing the same way no matter if we were playing or not," Hughes said shortly after assuming a starting role. "You have to be ready. It's the NFL."
Armonty Bryant had been pegged as the breakout candidate and a unique player who had the ability to be a pass rushing specialist as a 265-pounder. A torn ACL against the Steelers left a void for the Browns' defensive line in terms of a pass rusher. It took a few weeks to reshuffle some roles, but Desmond Bryant looks as if he's fully undertaking his new duty to harass quarterbacks, sacking Andy Dalton twice last Thursday to prove it.
And now, for three straight weeks against the Raiders, Buccaneers and Bengals, the Browns' defensive line has all but jettisoned the weakness of stopping the run. In the three-game span, Cleveland is surrendering a much-improved 91.6 yards per game on the ground. Correcting that issue through coaching in practice is clearly helping elevate the Browns' defense to a whole other level.
"We talked all week that that is a technique deal; pad level and the desire on top of it," coach Mike Pettine said after the win at Cincinnati. "And I think when you can stop the run and get a team behind the sticks, you can cut it loose."
Just when the defensive line was counted out and labeled lost from the local media is when the unit chose to rise up. The depth of the d-line is a reason the Browns sit in first place of the AFC North and now looks like the big boys upfront could develop into a strength as the cold weather hits road games like Buffalo and Baltimore -- as well as Lake Eerie on the home front.