BEREA: Browns free safety Eric Hagg has come full circle this year.
Hagg started the first two games of the season, was removed from the lineup and will now have a chance to start the final two games. He hopes to capitalize on his opportunity Sunday, when the Browns (5-9) visit the Denver Broncos (11-3).
“It’s been a battle mentally,” Hagg, a seventh-round pick in the 2011 draft, said Friday after practice. “But at the same time, this is the business that we’re in. This is my job. I’m always going to be in meetings, paying attention, on the practice field getting my mental reps, getting on the practice field whenever I can. It’s another opportunity for me to prove myself to the coaches and to everything else, too.”
Undrafted rookie Tashaun Gipson was penciled in to start at free safety, but he suffered a foot injury Thursday during practice, coach Pat Shurmur said. Shurmur ruled out Gipson, wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi (knee) and tight end Jordan Cameron (head) on Friday. Shurmur said none of them will travel with the team to Denver.
Gipson and Usama Young had been rotating at free safety for most of the season. But after T.J. Ward was placed on injured reserve Tuesday with a bone bruise on his knee, the Browns planned to start Gipson at free safety and Young in Ward’s spot at strong safety.
Now it’s Hagg’s turn again.
“I think he’s learned that he can play in this league,” Shurmur said. “He did a good job while he was in there. He does a good job in coverage. Anytime you play for a while and then you don’t play, it gives you a little better view of it while you’re watching it. I’m sure he’s learned something as he’s prepared.”
Hagg didn’t give up after his demotion.
“They just wanted to put the best people on the field, the best people that could work together,” he said. “Off of that, they found two other people, three other people to rotate, and all I could do was just keep working hard.”
Although Hagg hasn’t started since Week 2, he did develop a role by covering opposing tight ends in some of defensive coordinator Dick Jauron’s sub-packages. In Week 13, Hagg posted a career-high seven tackles during the Browns’ 20-17 win over the Oakland Raiders.
“You’ve just got to keep on your mental preparation and just keep studying film, and I’m ready to go,” Hagg said. “I’ve been ready to go since I was playing last, just getting mental reps, being on special teams, getting some reps at nickel. It’ll be good.”
Hagg will rejoin the Browns’ safety dance just in time to be challenged by quarterback Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ high-powered offense.
“I know he knows how to read [the defense],” Hagg said. “He’s a great player. And you’ve just got to go out there and play the best that you can and do the things I can do in the scheme of our defense and that’s it.”
Rookie Tank Carder expects to play strongside linebacker Sunday in the base defense. Rookie linebacker James-Michael Johnson, who was placed on IR on Tuesday with an injured left knee, previously held the role.
“That’s the nature of the beast,” Carder said. “People are going to get hurt and the next guy has got to step up. It’s an opportunity and you’ve got to run with it.”
Carder has primarily played special teams and received very few defensive snaps. The Browns claimed Carder, a fifth-round pick of the Buffalo Bills, off waivers Sept. 1.
“He’s very physical, and I think he’s got pretty good instincts for the position,” Shurmur said. “He’s another one of those young linebackers that is going to get a good opportunity.”
The Browns will likely use their nickel package most of the time against the Broncos, though Carder is still excited to be summoned when Jauron employs three linebackers.
“It’s like an antsy, nervous [feeling],” Carder said. “You cannot wait to get in. Any chance you get, you want to try to open eyes to anybody you can and try to impress whoever you can. I’m just eager to get out there and do whatever I can to help the team.”
With Massaquoi out, Shurmur said undrafted rookie wide receiver Josh Cooper will play Sunday. Cooper has been inactive for the past four games.
“It’s nice to get back out there,” said Cooper, who has compiled seven catches for 98 yards in four games this season. “I’ve been up and down all season, and I really have to stay in the moment and study the playbook because you never know when you’re going to get the call and it came my way. So I’m excited to get back out there and hopefully make a difference.”
Rookie tight end Brad Smelley is set to receive playing time, too, with Cameron sidelined. Also, tight end Alex Smith (illness/knee) did not practice Friday and is listed as questionable on the injury report.
“I’m just ready to play,” said Smelley, a seventh-round pick. “I’m ready to get in there and have fun and play fast.”
Full time again
Buster Skrine served as the Browns’ nickel cornerback while Dimitri Patterson sat out seven games with a high ankle sprain and torn ligament, but Patterson returned to that role in the past two games. The Browns, though, waived Patterson on Monday, meaning Skrine will cover Broncos slot receiver Brandon Stokley.
“He’s quick,” Skrine said. “He has pretty good speed. He’s a smart player. He knows how to work his way open.
“I’m really excited. I’m just glad I’m back on defense pretty much full time. I’m just ready to [execute] coach Jauron’s game plan and go against Peyton Manning.”
Manning isn’t the only member of the Broncos who can do damage. Running back Knowshon Moreno rushed for 119 and 118 yards in the past two games.
“Anytime you’re playing with Peyton, it opens that run game a bit,” middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “Playing against a Peyton Manning team, they’re going to throw the ball a ton. It opens it up for him, and I think he’s a good back. He’s a solid back, and he fits that system well.”
Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson tallied 2.5 and 2.3 yards per carry in the past two games. But Richardson believes he’s ready to do anything that’s asked of him in the final two games, even though he has been playing through a rib injury since Oct. 14.
“I don’t think I’m wearing down at all,” he said. “I’m pretty strong other than my rib injury. Other than that, I’m pretty good. My knee [that was operated on in August] has been fine. Everything else has been pretty healthy. My weight has been pretty good. I’m eating good. Whatever they want me to do, run the ball, block, catch, whatever, I’m here, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to win.”
In addition to Smith, defensive end Frostee Rucker (shoulder/hip) and defensive tackle Ishmaa’ily Kitchen (calf) are questionable. Rucker, though, expects to face the Broncos. The Browns listed 10 players as probable, including rookie backup offensive tackle Ryan Miller, who missed practice Friday for a personal reason.
The Broncos listed guard Chris Kuper (ankle) as doubtful. Fullback Chris Gronkowski (hamstring) is questionable and nine others are probable.
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.