BEREA: Dick Jauron’s mission to fix the Browns’ inept run defense became more difficult when starting tackle Phil Taylor tore his left pectoral muscle in May.
Then it got even harder when starting weakside linebacker Chris Gocong suffered a season-ending injury, tearing his right Achilles tendon Aug. 4.
And now with only two of the defense’s starting front seven healthy, it seems virtually impossible.
In addition to Taylor and Gocong, strongside linebacker Scott Fujita (left leg), middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (shoulder) and defensive end Frostee Rucker (right knee) are sidelined with injuries. Of the group, only Fujita played Friday in the Browns’ preseason opener against the Detroit Lions. None of them is expected to play Thursday night in an exhibition game against the Green Packers at Lambeau Field.
“You never want to have injuries, but everybody has them,” Jauron, the Browns’ defensive coordinator, said Tuesday. “The bad side — real bad side, obviously — is with Chris, who’s not going to come back this year. That’s a blow. And it’s a blow to him. I felt really badly for him, [knowing] how hard he’s worked, how much it means to him. Phil will be back later in the year, so he’ll miss a good deal of time. That’s not a good thing. The other guys should be back relatively quickly — we’re hoping.”
In the meantime, Jauron must attempt to stop the bleeding caused by opposing rushing attacks. After switching from a 3-4 scheme to Jauron’s 4-3 system last year, the Browns’ defense ranked 10th overall (332.3 yards allowed per game), second against the pass (184.9 yards allowed per game) and 30th (147.4 yards allowed per game) against the run. Last Friday, the Lions rushed for 198 yards on 33 carries.
“You don’t like those big plays, and you don’t like being 30th against the run, so we will keep working on it,” Jauron said. “I know we are a better defense, a deeper defense, and I believe we are a tougher defense than we were a year ago. How that translates statistically, I don’t have a clue.”
Jauron has a better idea of how his players will be used and which ones are vital to his contingency plans.
Dimitri Patterson technically isn’t a starter, but because he’s the Browns’ top nickel cornerback, his recent injury is cause for concern. Patterson injured his right ankle against the Lions and won’t be available against the Packers. He’ll be replaced by rookie Trevin Wade, a seventh-round draft pick.
If Patterson misses part of the regular season, it could be devastating because starting cornerback Joe Haden is reportedly in jeopardy of receiving a four-game suspension for testing positive for Adderall in the offseason. Patterson, if healthy, would fill in for Haden in the event of a suspension.
“We’ll just wait and see what happens,” Jauron said. “I don’t know or have any information how those things will work out.”
If Patterson and Haden are both out, Jauron suggested second-year pro Buster Skrine could be considered for a starting role opposite veteran Sheldon Brown.
“We’ve got to give Buster a lot of work at corner, see what happens as we move along,” Jauron said. “Buster rotates in some at nickel, but he hasn’t been taking as many snaps because we want to keep developing him outside.”
As for the back end, Eric Hagg has a hold on the starting free safety job opposite strong safety T.J. Ward. Jauron said he doesn’t plan on rotating free safeties like he did last season when Mike Adams and Usama Young split playing time.
“It’s [Hagg’s] for the taking, and so far, he’s embraced it and he’s taken it,” Jauron said. … “There’s no reason to expect he won’t just keep getting better.”
Jauron believes Jackson won’t be out for long. In the meantime, undrafted rookie L.J. Fort is expected to start at middle linebacker against the Packers.
“I’ve been around a lot of people that hate to miss time,” Jauron said. “[Jackson] hates it as much as anybody I’ve been around. He can’t stand not being on the field, so I anticipate he’ll get back really quickly.”
If Fujita misses time because of injury or the three-game suspension he received from the NFL for his alleged role in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal (he’s fighting the punishment in federal court), rookie linebacker James-Michael Johnson, a fourth-round pick, will be summoned to start on the strong side. Meanwhile, Kaluka Maiava is set to start for Gocong on the weak side.
“[Johnson has] done a really good job so far in training camp,” Jauron said. “I believe that from the OTAs [organized team activities] he’s really progressed. He’s playing with more confidence. He’s playing faster. He’s the player that we thought we drafted. … Now we’re kind of settling him [on the strong side] for a while and letting him get comfortable there, and I think he’ll just continue to improve at the position.”
Rookie tackle John Hughes, a third-round selection, is being relied on to start in Taylor’s spot until he returns — that won’t happen until late October at the earliest.
Rookie tackle Billy Winn, a sixth-round pick, also figures to become a regular in the rotation.
“In their cases, they are getting a lot of valuable reps now in practice and in games,” Jauron said. “Hopefully it accelerates their development because we are counting on them to perform for us and so far they have. They have not disappointed.
“John is stout and is gonna get better. He has through training camp. And Billy’s quick. Billy can make plays.”
As long as Rucker remains idle, Emmanuel Stephens and Marcus Benard will vie to start at right end. Tackle Ahtyba Rubin and left end Jabaal Sheard are the only regular starters in the front seven who aren’t out with injuries.
Jauron believes the Browns have better depth in the trenches than they did last year, his main source of hope for an improved run defense. He complimented several young backups, including left end Brian Sanford.
“He’s playing well,” Jauron said. “I anticipate he’s gonna make a run at making this football team.”