In Only The Third Game Of The Season, Browns Depth Receives A Stern Challenge

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  1. Next men up: Everyone raved about the roster John Dorsey put together in his second season as Browns GM. In only the third game of the season, the quality of depth of Dorsey’s roster will be severely tested.

As the Browns enter the first of five consecutive games against so-far undefeated teams, they could have as many as five starters out Sunday against the NFC champion Rams (2-0).

The breakdown:

  • Tight end David Njoku is out with a concussion and a possibly broken right wrist. Coach Freddie Kitchens said further exams will determine whether Njoku will need surgery. If so, he’ll be out a significant portion of the season. It is expected that all the remaining tight ends will be active Sunday – Demetrius Harris, Pharaoh Brown and Rickey Seals-Jones. Of the three, Seals-Jones could be the one whose play time is greatly increased.
  • Linebacker Christian Kirksey is out with a chest injury. Kitchens said doctors also are determining the course of action with him. Rookie Mack Wilson will get his first NFL start in Kirksey’s place. Another linebacker, Adarius Taylor, is still not practicing after an ankle injury in Week 1. Which means if the Browns choose to field three linebackers against the Rams, the third could be rookie Sione Takitaki ahead of 2018 rush phenom Genard Avery.
  • Right tackle Chris Hubbard has missed all week with a foot injury. With natural backup tackle Kendall Lamm out with a knee injury, the replacement starter for Hubbard would be Justin McCray, an interior swingman whose last start at right tackle was the 16th game of the 2017 season for the Packers. McCray filled in at right tackle in the season opener and has been practicing at the position the past two weeks. The Browns have not ruled Hubbard yet.
  • Free safety Damarious Randall remains in concussion protocol after complaining of symptoms a week ago. His place was filled by Eric Murray against the Jets, and that could happen again.
  • Strong safety Morgan Burnett missed his second practice in a row with a quad injury suffered in the Jets game. He would be replaced by Jermaine Whitehead.

All that bellyaching about resting regulars in preseason games allowed the Browns to open the real season remarkably healthy. But after two games, none of that matters. The battle of attrition has begun.

  1. Don’t jump: Of Myles Garrett’s five penalties, the two offsides are far more agitating to the coaches than the three personal fouls for roughing or unnecessary roughness.

“The roughing penalties are going to happen at times,” said defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. “Freddie and I have talked about those. We’re an aggressive defense. The one thing we can’t tolerate is pre-snap and post-snap [penalties]. To me, that’s a lack of discipline.”

Garrett leads the NFL with five sacks. Two more were negated by roughing penalties against the Jets. Garrett’s 25.5 career sacks are the sixth-most in the first 29 games of an NFL player. The company he’s keeping: Aldon Smith (33.5), Reggie White (31), Shawne Merriman (29), Derrick Thomas (28) and Von Miller (27.5).

  1. Hodge podge: Wondering how receiver KhaDarel Hodge ended up on the Browns’ roster after the Rams waived him on Aug. 31?

Out of nowhere in his weekly press briefing, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer raved about Hodge.

He called the second-year player “a huge sign[ing] … our personnel people did a great job getting ahold of him … I can’t believe the Rams let him go. He is so talented.”

Turns out that Hodge in one season as an undrafted rookie with the Rams created quite a reputation for himself in special teams meeting rooms as a gunner on punts and in coverage on kickoffs.

“We [the Vikings] played them last year,” Priefer said. “I think he only had one game under his belt when we played them like Week 4 a year ago and I already knew about him because he had already made an impact in special teams in preseason and in that one game that he played.

“I am very glad that we have him. For a young guy, he has some leadership abilities and some leadership qualities. He plays very, very hard and he is very intelligent. He understands his role. He is also becoming a better receiver. I was telling the offensive coaches yesterday, please do not use him at receiver – I do not want to get him tired for special teams. Usually, it is the other way around. He has done a nice job for us so far.”

Through two games, Hodge and rookie Sheldrick Redwine co-lead the improved special teams with three tackles each.

Now, here’s the thing: Hodge never played special teams in college at tiny Prairie View A&M.

“I never played special teams in my life until I got to the league. I hadn’t tackled anybody since high school,” said Hodge, who is 6-2 and 205. “It was crazy. I just got out there and it was easier than I thought. Most of the time you have single blocks, and my mindset is nobody can block me running down. I enjoy doing it.”

Priefer has tapped Hodge’s brain this week for some insight on the always-unpredictable Rams special teams coached by John Fassel.

“He is a smart player that was very much involved with their special teams,” Priefer said. “He understands when they are going to run fakes, what type of fakes they are going to run, what their mindset is on kickoff return or whatever the case may be.”

  1. Brownie bits: Rams linebacker Clay Matthews III is excited about being on hand – even as an opposing player – for his dad’s induction in the Browns Ring of Honor on Sunday. Clay III won’t be able to witness too much of the halftime ceremony, but he appreciates the fact the Browns scheduled his dad’s induction for this game. He said he hopes to personally thank Dorsey for doing so. Matthews was the 26th overall pick of the 2009 draft by the Packers when Dorsey was director of college scouting.

And, yes, Clay III was as surprised as anyone when the Browns passed on him three times in the first round that year. Eric Mangini wound up taking center Alex Mack with the 21st pick after trading down three times from No. 5. “I thought it was going to happen,” Clay III told ESPN Cleveland. “I took a few visits and the Browns were one of them. I got to go there and that was pretty special. I thought there was a possibility I could’ve ended up in Cleveland.” In his 11th NFL season, first away from Green Bay, Clay has 85.5 career sacks.

Morgan Burnett, Matthews’ former teammate in Green Bay, said “it’s pretty cool” that Matthews followed his dad's footsteps to the NFL and got to hang around an NFL locker room while growing up. “I have two boys and they’re getting to the where they can understand [Burnett’s profession] now. I think it’s cool,” he said.