Denzel Ward slowly began to feel the pain in the hours after the Browns' Week 11 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Something didn't feel right in his calf. He felt a pinch when he walked around, but he figured it was just the same bout of postgame soreness every player deals with after each game. He sought an MRI just to be sure, but the results weren't what he had hoped.
Ward had suffered a calf strain, and he needed to miss some time to heal. The news came as a bit of a surprise after Ward, who said he originally felt the soreness in the fourth quarter of the 22-17 win, made a late-game interception that helped seal the win. He had been one of the most reliable defensive players for Cleveland before the injury — he led the NFL in pass-breakups at the time — and left a sizable hole to replace in the defense.
Now, he's back at practice and getting closer to making more game-changing plays as the Browns continue to push for the playoffs.
"I feel great," Ward said. "Just glad to be back with the guys, glad to be back on the practice field and working toward game time. It was tough, but that is how life goes sometimes. Just fighting hard to hurry up, get healthy and get back out there to play with my team."
The Browns defense has done a serviceable job of staying strong without their leader of the secondary and went 2-1 while holding opposing quarterbacks to an average of 252 passing yards per game. One interception was made in that stretch, and even though the Browns received quality snaps from top cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Kevin Johnson, their secondary was always going to miss Ward.
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Despite missing three games, Ward is still on pace to make 2020 his best NFL season. He's recorded 15 pass-breakups, which is already a career-high and is tied for fourth-most in the NFL, while making two interceptions — tied for a career high — and one forced fumble.
His steady presence at cornerback has helped suppress No. 1 receivers all season. Just ask A.J. Green (29 receiving yards in Week 2), T.Y. Hilton (69 receiving yards in Week 5) or Brandin Cooks and Will Fuller (77 combined receiving yards in Week 10), among others. Ward has pushed himself further into the conversation of a player worthy to be listed in the group of top cornerbacks in the NFL, and he's looking to uphold that case even more as the Browns finish out a thrilling season.
"Very special to be a part of this group," he said. "We are just trying to take it a game at a time. We are not trying to look too far ahead. Just trying to take it a game at a time and see where we are come to the end of the year. I feel that we are definitely changing the narrative of the Browns over the past years."
With Ward on the field, defensive coordinator Joe Woods' job gets a little easier. He can trust the three-year veteran in man or zone coverage and doesn't have to worry about which receiver Ward lines up against — he knows he can lock anyone down, and he believes his performance this year could lead him to a Pro Bowl selection.
"He has been a big playmaker for us this year," Woods said. "Having him there just gives us a little bit more comfort in terms of what we are doing and what we can run coverage wise so definitely looking forward to seeing him in action. I feel like he is playing really well for us. Maybe it is a Pro Bowl level. I just want him to continue to do those things he was doing."
With his return to practice this week, Ward is closer to doing just that. The pain he felt after a big Week 11 performance has subsided enough for him to lace the cleats back up and hit the field, and when Ward makes a return on gameday, there's no doubt that the Cleveland defense will only be better.
"I know making plays and getting (pass-breakups), interceptions or whatever it might be helps my team win," he said, "so that is definitely a goal of mine to kind of get back on top and help my team."