BEREA: On second down, middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson buzzed past the line of scrimmage and recorded a virtual sack by getting in rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden’s face and forcing him to fire the ball to the ground.
Then on fourth down, Jackson broke up Weeden’s pass over the middle to end the starting offense’s first attempt in the two-minute drill.
Jackson, the undisputed leader of the Browns’ defense, practiced Sunday afternoon for the first time since Aug. 7. His presence was felt immediately.
“I’ve spoken numerous times about what he means to this team, not just as a player, but as a leader,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “When he’s back out there, it adds to what we can do.”
Jackson said he missed nearly two weeks with a sore shoulder.
“It was just sore,” Jackson said. “We had a lot of guys going down and banged up, so we took the precautionary route just to let it calm down a bit. Now I’m back.”
In 2009 and 2010, Jackson missed 26 consecutive games with two torn pectoral muscles. He bounced back last season, led the team with 158 tackles and was named a first alternate for the AFC Pro Bowl team.
His health is vital to the defense’s success.
“I take care of my body better than I ever have,” Jackson said. “If something comes up, I’ve dealt with it in the past, so it’s always frustrating. That part never leaves. But you understand as far as sitting out, it’s better to sit out now if something comes up. It’s better to sit out because it’s early. The season hasn’t started. So when we get rolling, I’m full steam ahead.”
The Browns will need Jackson at his best. Although starting right defensive end Frostee Rucker participated in the second consecutive practice Sunday after missing more than two weeks with an injured right knee, the defense is still short-handed.
Defensive tackle Phil Taylor will be sidelined until at least late October as he rehabilitates from surgery to repair his left pectoral muscle, which he tore in May. Starting weakside linebacker Chris Gocong is out for the season after tearing his right Achilles tendon. Dimitri Patterson, the team’s top nickel cornerback, injured his right ankle in the preseason opener Aug. 10 against the Detroit Lions and hasn’t practiced since.
Starting strongside linebacker Scott Fujita hurt his left leg against the Lions and has yet to return. And even if Fujita’s injury isn’t serious, he could miss three games as a result of the suspension he received from the NFL for his alleged role in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal, a punishment he’s fighting in federal court.
Nevertheless, Jackson believes the defense will endure. He’s prepared to guide it through adversity.
“I think we’ve held together for the most part,” Jackson said. “I think with all the missing pieces coming in and coming out, with the Scott situation — no one knows the outcome of that — Chris going down, myself being out, it’s forcing some young guys in some tough roles, and it forced some older guys ... to take a leadership role.”
Starting cornerback Joe Haden, meanwhile, is reportedly in danger of receiving a four-game suspension for failing a drug test.
“It’ll be a concern when we get to it, but now when he’s out there, we’re moving along better,” Jackson said. “With everything we’ve had with our defense, I think we’ve had a pretty solid preseason. The first game [against the Lions] we didn’t stop the run too well, but the second game [against the Green Bay Packers] we improved a lot. We’re going to miss some guys, but we have a lot of good young guys stepping [up].
“It’s impossible going into the season thinking, ‘We don’t have a chance.’ Every year I’ve been here, I thought we were a playoff-caliber team and we could do it. That’s the mindset you’ve got to take. It will force these guys to step into big shoes, and the pressure’s going to be on them, so they have no choice.”
Rookie defensive tackles John Hughes and Billy Winn (Taylor), weakside linebacker Kaluka Maiava (Gocong), rookie nickel back Trevin Wade (Patterson), rookie strongside linebacker James-Michael Johnson (Fujita) and cornerback Buster Skrine (Haden) are in line to fill the roles of the players ahead of them on the depth chart.
Jackson realizes he must set an excellent example for the young players who are being thrown into the fire.
“It’s important for the guys [to see] I study my tail off,” Jackson said. “I try to prepare as best as I can. If a guy’s going to be out there, he needs to do the same. If not, then that’s not acceptable, not at all.”
Jackson is confident the defense can rely on him to stay healthy. In his mind, he took steps in the right direction on Sunday.
“I did my conditioning outside of practice,” Jackson said. “It’s different when you actually put on the helmet and actually go through the tackle and get your read. So that was good. I held up.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.