As he continued to gather information about two of his injured running backs, Mike Pettine was in standby mode Sunday when it came to his assessment of the position with one more preseason game left on the schedule.
Pettine anticipated the position group to be among the top areas discussed during an afternoon full of personnel meetings with general manager Ray Farmer. Since the Browns first donned pads at the start of the month, Cleveland's running backs have not been all healthy at the same time, and Saturday's win at Tampa Bay only furthered that trend.
Rookie running back Duke Johnson Jr. had his highly anticipated preseason debut short-circuited by a crushing, second-quarter hit from Tampa Bay's Mike Jenkins. Johnson was diagnosed with a concussion and will be under the watch of the league's protocol.
When he's practiced, Johnson has been an impressive, change-of-pace player capable of making an impact as both a runner and pass-catcher. He was in Saturday's starting lineup but touched the ball just twice.
"We have seen what he can do in practice and that is important. That is why we were so positive and optimistic about it," Pettine said. "Football is about availability. He hasn't been available for much of the preseason. While we are hopeful about the potential, at the same time, it is discouraging to not have him out there."
Shaun Draughn, who is dealing with an injured hand, has yet to carry the ball in a preseason game but he made his first on-field appearance Saturday on special teams. Pettine said he would need to see a medical report on Draughn before being able to gauge how close he is to being ready to carry the ball.
On the plus side for the Browns backfield, fullback Malcolm Johnson saw his first preseason action Saturday after dealing with a shoulder injury.
Pettine did not rule out adding a running back over the next few days as the team pares down the roster from 90 to 75 players. The deadline to be down to 75 is 4 p.m. Tuesday, but many teams around the league got a jumpstart on the process and flooded the free agent market with new faces.
"If we do come to the decision that we need to add a back that is not here, we'll look at the list of backs that are available," Pettine said.
Second-year running backs Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell have played in all three preseason games and have seen their production steadily increase with each one. Both had double-digit runs during the Cleveland first-team offense's two scoring drives Saturday to help "take the pressure off" quarterback Josh McCown.
West is the team's leader in the preseason with 78 yards on 22 carries while Crowell has 47 on 17. It's uncertain how much playing time the pair will get in Thursday's preseason finale, a game in which Cleveland is expected to rest many of its starters.
"It's a fine line with the preseason," Pettine said. "You want to minimize guys' exposure, but at the same time, you want to get them work. You see what the whole league is going through. You want them out there, but then there's the risk of injury. Young guys that haven't played against NFL competition, you always want to get them out there and get an evaluation so you can get a taste of what regular season will be like."