The Browns gained a leader and lost a leader from the same position group on the same day.
Hours after the Browns announced Christian Kirksey was headed to the season-ending injured reserve, middle linebacker Joe Schobert participated in his first practice in three weeks. Although he was limited Wednesday, Schobert anticipates he’ll be back in the center of Cleveland’s defense for Sunday’s game against the Falcons if he doesn’t experience any setbacks.
It just won’t be alongside Kirksey, the player with whom he shared the field for every single snap in 2017. Because of an injury Kirksey sustained earlier this season, Cleveland’s linebacking duo will finish 2018 having played just three full games together.
“Kirko’s kind of the heart and soul of the defense, the heart and soul of this locker room because of what he does on the field, how he goes about his business and the energy he brings,” Schobert said. “It’s a next man up mentality but there’s things you’re going to miss.”
Kirksey was one of three players lost to injury in Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs. Cornerback E.J. Gaines, who sustained his second concussion in less than a month, was also placed on injured reserve. Star rookie cornerback Denzel Ward didn’t practice Wednesday because of a hip injury that kept him out of most of the Chiefs game, but coach Gregg Williams anticipates he’ll be able to practice in some capacity Thursday.
“I feel for both those guys – I really do,” Williams said. “They mean well and we have to do what is right for them first, and then we have to have the next man up.”
During Schobert’s three-game absence, rookie Genard Avery saw the biggest elevation in playing time. That’s likely to continue because Kirksey was filling Schobert’s spot in the middle of the defense, where he relayed calls from the sidelines and made necessary adjustments to the players around him. In the event Schobert isn’t ready, Tanner Vallejo and Ray-Ray Armstrong could be tasked to take on responsibilities that go well beyond their typical special teams work.
No matter who fills the void, Kirksey won’t be the easiest to replace. Not only is Kirksey incredibly productive -- he had a combined 286 tackles over the past two seasons and 29 in seven games this season -- but he’s also one of the team’s biggest leaders. A captain for a second straight year, Kirksey is a tone-setter for the entire Browns locker room, one of the stabilizing forces amid the constant change that’s surrounded him since he landed with Cleveland as a third-round pick in 2014.
Kirksey’s seen it all, on and off the field.
“The experience factor is always a part of anything you are doing at this very level. He has things – or has been through things – that are common sense things to the league,” Williams said. “They experience things you do not have to go through every little detail. His leadership is very good. He is a vocal guy, he is an inspirational guy, he is a fun guy and very well-respected on our team.”
The return of Schobert, though, should certainly help a Browns defense that is once again facing one of the league’s top passing attacks. The third-year linebacker is still third on the team in tackles despite missing three games and has had his hands in a number of the team’s league-leading 23 takeaways.
Williams liked what he saw from Schobert at Wednesday’s practice.
“I thought he bounced back fine and I thought he moved from his coaching role the last few weeks to right back into the playing role,” Williams said. “It was also good to see the reaction of the players around him all of a sudden – how vocal he is and how much he knows. It simplifies the game and some of the alignment worlds for a lot of the people around him, because he can get you lined up in a hurry.”