BEREA: Life without Joe Haden hasn’t been kind to the Browns this season, and unfortunately, they might be forced to endure it again.
Haden did not practice Thursday because he injured an oblique muscle Wednesday during practice. He might try to play through the pain Sunday, when the Browns (2-7) visit the Dallas Cowboys (4-5), but his status is uncertain.
Stopping Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and his top targets — tight end Jason Witten and wide receivers Dez Bryant and Miles Austin — certainly wouldn’t be easy without Haden.
“It’ll definitely put us in a bind,” middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “Having him out there, the guy practices hard, he plays tremendously hard, he loves to do it. You can’t replace him. The guys we have behind him, I got total confidence in those guys, I really do. But you want Joe out there.”
Haden is the team’s top cornerback, and the Browns discovered his true value earlier this season. When Haden served a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances — he said Adderall use triggered his failed drug test — the Browns went 0-4.
In the four games Haden missed, the Browns allowed 1,141 yards and 10 touchdowns through the air. In the four games since he returned from his suspension in Week 6, they have yielded 874 passing yards and four passing touchdowns.
“You see how talented he is,” free safety Usama Young said. “In this game, when guys go down, you’ve gotta have guys that are gonna step up and play at a high level. … We’ve got some young boys that are hungry, ready to play. Hopefully [Haden] will play, but we don’t know yet.”
Oblique injuries can sideline players for different lengths of time depending on the severity. Rookie strongside linebacker James-Michael Johnson hurt an oblique Aug. 30 in the preseason finale and missed the first four games of the regular season as he dealt with discomfort.
If Haden can’t play through his injury, rookie Trevin Wade would cover the slot receiver in the nickel package while fellow cornerbacks Sheldon Brown and Buster Skrine line up on the outside. If Haden can play, the Browns would continue to use Skrine to guard the slot with Haden and Brown stationed on the outside. Dimitri Patterson, the team’s top nickel corner, is expected to miss his fifth consecutive game with a high ankle sprain and torn ligament.
In Week 2, Wade received his most extensive playing time of the season, tallying 33-of-69 snaps (48 percent) in the Browns’ 34-27 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. He gave up a 50-yard touchdown pass to slot receiver Andrew Hawkins in the fourth quarter.
“I’m just trying to stay ready in case [Haden] can’t go,” said Wade, a seventh-round pick. “I’ll just go out there and play the best I can and try to help the team.”
Wade would be assigned to cover Austin, who often lines up in the slot in three-receiver sets. He has 43 catches to go along with a team-high 669 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Bryant has 45 catches for 590 yards and three touchdowns.
“They’re all really talented people,” defensive coordinator Dick Jauron said of Romo’s weapons. “You have to make decisions — if you’re going to double somebody who’s it going to be?
Maybe it should be the 6-foot-6, 261-pound Witten, who has appeared in seven Pro Bowls. He leads all NFL tight ends with 66 catches for 585 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s one of those guys that gives safeties, gives linebackers, gives corners trouble just ’cause of his big body,” Young said. “He’s got a big frame. He’ll wall you off and catch the ball in front of you. You’ll be frustrated as ever, and then you’ve gotta tackle him. He’s strong, so he’ll drag you. He’s just one of those guys you’ve gotta be all over.”
Haden, the seventh overall pick in the 2010 draft, wouldn’t automatically solve all the matchup problems the Browns might encounter Sunday, though his presence would help a great deal. In fives games this season, he has compiled 27 tackles, five broken-up passes and two interceptions.
“When anyone’s down, especially a starter, it hurts,” strong safety T.J. Ward said. “Not having Joe will hurt us, but the next guy just has to step up. That’s how it’s been all year. We haven’t had our complete defense on the field at any point. It just seems like everyone’s starting to get back and Joe, I won’t say he went down, but he hasn’t been practicing. Hopefully, we can have him this weekend.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com.browns.abj.