Tashaun Gipson and K'Waun Williams wore sweatshirts on the sidelines. Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden was in the locker room before the end of the first quarter. First-round pick Justin Gilbert joined him a quarter later.
What was left of the Browns' secondary for Sunday's second half against the Bengals wasn't ideal, but Cleveland, from an injury standpoint, must assume the worst and hope for the best as it begins its preparations for Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. With the status of all four of these players up in the air heading into the penultimate game of the regular season, the Browns may need big performances from some unlikely sources if they want to maintain their standing as one of the NFL's top secondaries.
Bent on running the ball and running out the clock, the Bengals didn't test the depleted Browns' secondary all that much in Sunday's final two quarters. Andy Dalton completed 7-of-10 passes for 58 yards, with only three of the passes going to wide receivers. There was little in the form of solace to take from pretty much anything that occurred Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium, but a secondary that held its own without two season-opening starters and a handful of players not anticipated to play many significant snaps filling vital roles might just be the closest thing.
The Browns have lost at least one defensive back in three of their last four games. Gipson was first, going down with a knee injury at Atlanta on Nov. 23. Williams left with a hamstring injury against the Colts and Haden (shoulder) and Gilbert (head) both had far-too-early exits Sunday.
Gipson, who leads the NFL with six interceptions, vowed last week he'd be back for Sunday's game against the Panthers but he's yet to practice. The status of Haden, Gilbert and Williams promises to be clarified by coach Mike Pettine either Monday or Wednesday.
Despite the seemingly constant attrition, Cleveland's secondary has yet to buckle. In fact, its standing as ProFootballFocus.com's top-ranked team in pass coverage has improved during the stretch, as its rating of 44.9 nearly doubles second-ranked New England's (23.7).
"(Pettine) knows how to find football players to play within the scheme he likes to play," Gipson said last week. "They've been doing a great job. I think right now whoever is coming in there, the ball is rolling and this defense is playing at a high level."
The transition between Gipson and longtime veteran Jim Leonhard has been mostly seamless. Though Leonhard didn't have his best game Sunday, he's been one of the defense's top playmakers with two interceptions, another pick on a two-point conversion attempt and a sack.
When Williams, the Browns' reliable nickel back, went down against the Colts, Gilbert saw his snaps at cornerback increase. For the quarters when Haden and Gilbert were still healthy, Gilbert would take Buster Skrine's spot in nickel defense while Skrine would drop into Williams' role. Gilbert made good on the opportunity, as he intercepted Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and returned it for a touchdown.
When Haden left the field Sunday, Gilbert was essentially a full-time cornerback for all of a quarter. Gilbert's departure prompted rookie Pierre Desir to receive his first-ever NFL action at defensive back. The fourth-round pick from Division II Lindenwood University was inactive for the first half of the season and had only played on special teams in the previous two games before he was thrust into action against the Bengals.
Jordan Poyer, a second-year player who was acquired midway through last season, has been used in a handful of formations that feature three safeties. Johnson Bademosi, who has been one of the Browns' brightest spots on special teams, can play cornerback or safety.
If the Browns need to add a body for this week's game, Kendall James, who was added to the practice squad last week, is a possibility. James, a sixth-round selection from Maine in this past year's draft, has played on the practice squad of three other teams this season.