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What potential return of Robertson, Haden, Gipson means to Browns defense

Mike Pettine took a question Thursday about the potential impact Joe Haden will have on the Browns defense if he returns Sunday against the Cardinals.

The Browns coach was quick to emphasize there's more than just the Pro Bowl cornerback potentially returning to the Cleveland defense. Safety Tashaun Gipson and linebacker Craig Robertson are back at practice, too, and could very well give the Browns an injection of three starters back on a unit that is tasked with stopping one of the NFL's best all-around offenses Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium.

"All three of them," Pettine said. "If we do get them all back, that would be a big boost for us."

Each one brings a unique wrinkle to a defense that is looking to build off a productive first half last week against St. Louis and apply that style of play to all four quarters against the Cardinals.

Haden's absence was significant enough to alter some of the scheming Cleveland draws up for its opponents. When healthy, the Pro Bowl cornerback often marked the opposing team's top receiver and stuck with him for most of the game's plays.

Pierre Desir performed well while Haden was sidelined and gained valuable experience in the process. Still, there's no short-changing the impact a player such as Haden can have back in the lineup.

"Anytime you take a guy that is of his caliber and he's not in the lineup, it changes some things you do schematically and you don't just replace that guy," Pettine said. "There's bound to be some form of a drop off and you try to work around it as best you can."

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Gipson's return comes at an optimal time. His replacement, Jordan Poyer, was lauded for his performance in the Browns' last three games, but he played through Sunday's second half with an injured shoulder and is expected to "miss some time" as he recovers.

If Gipson and Haden start, it will mark just the fourth time this season Cleveland trots out all four of the Pro Bowl players in the secondary it expected to utilize at the start of the year. It would be just the third time all four play along with nickel back K'Waun Williams.

"We had to change some things," Pettine said. "We'll be able to highlight some different areas of our inventory, some of the things that we were able before to take advantage of both Joe's ability and Gip's ability."

The potential return of Robertson upgrades the Browns in three facets.

There's the on-field performance, of course, as both defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil and Pettine said Robertson was playing at a "high level" before he injured his ankle. In two-plus games, Robertson had 18 tackles and a forced fumble.

Then there's the chain reaction on special teams, as Christian Kirksey and Tank Carder saw more snaps during games and repetitions at practice on defense rather than special teams while Robertson was sidelined. The Browns have added two special teams-focused players since Robertson's injury, safety Don Jones and linebacker Jayson Dimanche.

The final facet is Robertson's vocal leadership, which was hampered a bit "when you're in sweats," Pettine said.

"He's still had a degree of that vocal leadership but it's just hard to do when you're not out there playing with them," Pettine said. "I'm looking forward to getting that aspect of it back as well."

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