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Browns secondary ready to step up with Denzel Ward sidelined

Cleveland will be without its top leader in the secondary, but the Browns are confident their defense won’t regress from its recent high level of play

The Browns are preparing to play Week 12 without another one of its best playmakers from their defense.

Coach Kevin Stefanski announced Wednesday cornerback Denzel Ward will be out for Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars after suffering a calf injury in Week 11. Ward, who finished the game but reported the injury Monday and underwent an MRI, will miss his first game of the season.

The Browns defense will have to dig further into the depth of its secondary — which has also been without 2019 second-round pick Greedy Williams all season — and replace the gaping holes left from Ward and defensive end Myles Garrett, who missed Week 11 and will also be out Sunday after being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list last week.

It might be their toughest challenge of the season, but the Browns feel as though they're prepared to tackle it.

"I'm disappointed for Denzel, but it's really no different than we have talked about with all the guys: They are out, and the next man has to step up," coach Kevin Stefanski said. "I think you have seen our guys do that throughout this year. Excited for the guys that we will have available to us."

Check out exclusive photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Jacksonville Jaguars

Ward has built a Pro-Bowl caliber resume so far this season. He leads the NFL with 15 passes defensed and notched his second interception of the season in the fourth quarter of last Sunday's win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Ward is in the midst of a career-best season, but now the Browns must find ways to shut down an offense without him.

Terrance Mitchell and Kevin Johnson likely will be at the top of the list of players with an opportunity to step up. Mitchell, who has 10 passes defensed and a forced fumble, has been on the field for every defensive snap in the last two games, while Johnson has operated primarily as the top slot cornerback.

With Ward out, defensive coordinator Joe Woods could use a variety of looks in the secondary to fill the void. He said the defense has given Johnson a balanced workload of practice reps on the outside in case he needed to expand his role in the defense beyond the slot position, while M.J. Stewart Jr. and Tavierre Thomas are also candidates for more playing time.

"We have the ability to move multiple guys around based on what we are doing coverage wise and based on matchups," Woods said. "Different guys will get opportunities. Denzel I am sure will be cheering for them, but we have to move on."

Ward's dominance this season will be tough for any individual player to replicate, but the onus on replacing him will fall on the entire defense. The unit found a way to force pressure and shut down the Eagles last week without Garrett on the defensive line — defensive end Olivier Vernon won AFC Defensive Player of the Week after recording three sacks and a safety — and now the defense must function without its top secondary player.

The Browns, however, should be slightly aided by playing a favorable opponent. The Jaguars rank 29th in the NFL in passing offense and will start quarterback Mike Glennon, who hasn't started a game since 2017. Cleveland won't take the Jaguars lightly, but the matchups appear to assist the Browns as they attempt to navigate a week without their two biggest defensive leaders.

"There are some little adjustments here or there in terms of things that we are going to do, but for the most part, we are really just worried about us executing our game plan against them," Woods said. "If (Glennon) lets it rip, then we are doing our job and I feel like we will be in position to make the plays they're supposed to make."

The Browns will miss Ward, but they're ready for the challenge. The secondary has shown improved performances in the last three weeks and has helped the defense allow only 40 combined points over the last three games.

Maintaining those low scores will be tougher without Ward, but the Browns' secondary depth is eager for the test.

"We have a little bit of something for everybody to be honest with you," Woods said. "We feel like we are in good shape."

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