BEREA: Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green will be the primary focus of the Browns’ defense Sunday, but it also cannot afford to forget about tight end Jermaine Gresham.
The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Gresham led the Bengals in receptions in both of their victories against the Browns last season. He had six catches for 58 yards and a touchdown in the Bengals’ 27-17 win and five catches for 68 yards and a touchdown in their 23-20 victory.
“You’ve got to be prepared for his speed and the different things they do with him,” Browns strong safety T.J. Ward said Friday after practice. “He’s just a big body that can move, so any time you get big and fast, it’s hard [to defend].”
Ward, middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson and weakside linebacker Craig Robertson are expected to take turns covering Gresham. They all know Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton will be looking his way.
“We understand in their offense they want to obviously get A.J. Green going,” Jackson said. “If you watched the Monday night game [in which the Bengals fell to the Baltimore Ravens 44-13], the offense seemed to stumble at times, but we know [Gresham] is the second option they have. He’s a bigger guy that can move well. He’s a pretty decent route runner.
“Last year, they tend to isolate him at times because they expect him to make a play. They exuded a lot of confidence in him, and you can see that watching film. We have to do a good job of understanding that. Any time we’re isolated away from everyone else and either A.J. or Gresham is lined up wide, we’ve just gotta be ready to rise to the occasion.”
Of course, it’s easier said than done. Gresham had 56 catches for 596 yards and six touchdowns in 14 games last season. Thirty-one of his catches resulted in first downs and 10 were gains of 20 yards or more.
“Whoever is on him, he’s a handful,” Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron said. “He’s a very, very talented football player. He’s got speed down the field. He’s got really good hands. He’s a big target, so he can screen you with his body and catch the ball. That’s tough and [they have] an accurate quarterback. It’s a good combination for them, a bad combination for defenses.”
The Browns, though, might benefit from the momentum Ward seemed to create for himself in Week 1. He had eight tackles, one sack and a forced fumble Sunday in their 17-16 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. As a whole, the defense had five takeaways, including four interceptions. A repeat performance would be welcomed in the team’s first AFC North game of the year.
“I hope to have games like that every week,” Ward said. “That’s part of your game maturing and being the player I want to be. Hopefully it continues.”
The Browns (0-1) know the importance of the Battle of Ohio, and they realize keeping Gresham in check will be vital to their chances of prevailing on the road against the Bengals (0-1).
“Every divisional game is a rivalry,” Ward said. “They beat us twice last year. We’re trying to do big things in this division, and it starts Sunday. It’s the first divisional game. We have a chance to be 1-0 in our division, and that’s one step closer to our goal, which is to make the playoffs.”
Ready to rumble
Rookie running back Trent Richardson moved well Friday during the 20-minute portion of practice open to the media. Coach Pat Shurmur noticed it, too.
“I think it’s fair to say he’ll be better ready to play this week than last,” Shurmur said. “I watch it every time he comes out here, he looks a little bit crisper and smoother.”
Richardson, who had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Aug. 9 and missed all four preseason games, appeared to be more comfortable sprinting and making cuts than he was last week. He’s hoping to rebound from a lackluster NFL debut in which he rushed for 39 yards on 19 carries (2.1 average) against the Eagles.
“I think running backs do need to get their legs underneath them,” Shurmur said. “Him having missed practice at the outset probably hurt him a little bit. Now [that] he’s had a chance to practice two weeks fully, I think he’ll start to get back on track.”
Second-year cornerback Buster Skrine will likely receive the most playing time of his young career Sunday. Starting cornerback Joe Haden is serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, so Dimitri Patterson will start, and Skrine will enter the game when the Bengals use at least three receivers.
“I feel good about it,” Skrine said. “Big opportunity for me to play a lot more and make more plays, so big week.
“I’m a confident player. I’ve always been a confident player, so I’m ready for anything they bring at us.”
Ward believes the secondary will rise to the occasion and compensate for the absence of Haden.
“We’re all professionals,” Ward said. “You’re here for a reason. If you couldn’t play, you wouldn’t be here. Everybody on this team and in this secondary can play, so we’re just gonna step up and make plays.”
Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi is a close friend of Green, who had 65 catches for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns last season for the Bengals. The two formed a bond when they played together at the University of Georgia.
“Mo is like my big brother,” Green said this week during a conference call. “I’ve known Mo since I was a freshman. He helped guide me through this whole process, and any time I needed something I know I could call him.”
Massaquoi is proud of Green and knew he would become a great NFL player.
“He’s gifted, and he works hard,” Massaquoi said. “He comes from a great family. If you add up that recipe … it’s just special to watch.”
Massaquoi and Green spoke by phone Thursday. Massaquoi hopes he’s able to exercise bragging rights in future conversations.
“There’ll be a lot of trash talking after the game,” Massaquoi said. “Hopefully we come out on top, so I can talk as much as I want to.”
Rookie strongside linebacker James-Michael Johnson (ribs/oblique) and safety Ray Ventrone (hand) have been ruled out. Neither practiced this week.
Tight end Benjamin Watson (thigh) and backup offensive linemen Oniel Cousins (ankle) and John Greco (calf) are listed as questionable for Sunday.
Cornerback Sheldon Brown (neck), tight end Jordan Cameron (groin), wide receivers Josh Cribbs (knee) and Josh Gordon (knee), center Alex Mack (knee), running backs Chris Ogbonnaya (ankle) and Richardson (knee) are probable.
Left offensive tackle Joe Thomas (knee) and strongside linebacker Scott Fujita (knee) are probable. Shurmur said both will play Sunday.
For the Bengals, rookie cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (knee) and starting weakside linebacker Thomas Howard (knee) are out. Howard tore his ACL during practice Thursday and was placed on injured reserve, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.
Tight end Donald Lee (thigh) is doubtful. Cornerback Jason Allen (thigh), defensive end Carlos Dunlap (knee) and halfback Bernard Scott (hand) are questionable. Safety George Iioka (ankle) and cornerback Adam Jones (illness) are probable.
Browns defensive end Jabaal Sheard is bracing for another encounter with Bengals right tackle Andre Smith, the sixth overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. “Going against Andre last year was a battle every play,” Sheard said. “I expect no less this week, especially with those guys coming off a loss. They’re looking to bounce back, too.” … The NFL fined Eagles defensive end Jason Babin $15,750 for unnecessarily driving Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden to the ground Sunday during the second quarter.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.