By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
CLEVELAND: Strong safety T.J. Ward didn’t participate in the Browns’ Family Night practice Saturday, but he’s optimistic that he’ll be back in action when the team returns to FirstEnergy Stadium this week.
Ward said he “definitely” expects to play Thursday night, when the Browns host the St. Louis Rams in the first preseason game of the year for both teams. He has been sidelined the past three practices of training camp with a sore hamstring.
“I’m good, getting better,” Ward said Saturday after the morning walk-through session at the training facility in Berea. “It’s just a precautionary issue right now, but I should be back soon.”
Ward, rookie safety Jamoris Slaughter (hamstring) and cornerback Trevin Wade (undisclosed injury) did stretching exercises on the field while running back Montario Hardesty (hamstring) and wide receiver David Nelson (knee) jogged. None of them practiced Saturday night at the stadium.
Ward was limited in practice Wednesday before sitting out Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The Browns are off today, and they’re scheduled to resume practice Monday.
“I didn’t really injure it,” Ward said of his hamstring. “It was kind of sore throughout the week, and I don’t want to injure it anymore.”
In Ward’s absence, undrafted rookie Josh Aubrey has taken most of the reps at strong safety with the first-team defense.
The 5-foot-10, 200-pound Ward hopes to be ready for the first exhibition game partly because he’s eager to test-drive new defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s 3-4, multifront, attacking scheme against an opponent. Ward believes Horton’s system will give him more freedom to roam the field and make plays than the other defenses in which he operated during his first three NFL seasons.
“I think I’m just going to be more mobile,” said Ward, a second-round pick in 2010 who’s on the verge of entering the final season of his rookie contract. “You won’t catch me in one spot or one side of the field all the time. I can be outside. I can be inside. I can be deep. I can be in the box. It’s a versatile defense, and it allows me to play many positions.
“I just get to move around more. We have a variety of coverages, a variety of blitzes. I can be anywhere on any play.”
Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is a mentor of Horton. Before serving as the defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals the past two seasons, Horton coached the Steelers’ defensive backs from 2004-10.
“These defenses definitely resemble each other, and coach Horton was in Pittsburgh and Arizona last year,” Ward said. “So you can look at those defenses and see kind of how he’s going to use me.”
So will Ward be used the way the Steelers use strong safety Troy Polamalu, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection?
“I hope so,” Ward said. “Anyway Troy is used, that’s a good look.”
With nose tackle Phil Taylor, left end Ahtyba Rubin and right end Desmond Bryant penciled in as starters, the Browns believe they have a formidable defensive line.
Quality depth, however, is a key ingredient to success in the trenches, and John Hughes believes he can provide it in his second NFL season.
“I think the second year is really big just because you got the experience and the knowledge from the first year, and it’s all about how you put it together in the second year,” Hughes, a third-round pick in last year’s draft, said Saturday. “I think that’s where a lot of guys either fall or thrive, and hopefully this will be a great year for me.”
The 6-2, 320-pound Hughes received plenty of work at nose tackle with the first-team defense while Taylor missed the early stages of training camp with a strained calf. He also has spelled Rubin in recent practices, taking reps at left end with the first unit.
Hughes said he played nose tackle and end in a 3-4 scheme during his sophomore season at the University of Cincinnati. He feels comfortable in both spots.
“Whatever I can do to get on the field, I’ll do,” Hughes said. “I feel like I have good qualities at each position.”
Hughes and end Billy Winn, a sixth-round pick in last year’s draft, are expected to serve as the primary backups on the defensive line. Winn has received first-team reps at right end while spelling Bryant.
“People always think, ‘Aww man, it must be rough having all those defensive linemen,’ ” Hughes said. “But it’s a really good thing ’cause it keeps you fresh. When you get out there, you know you feel good, and you know you’re going to have a sub coming in, so you can give everything you’ve got each play.”
The Browns re-signed guard Dominic Alford and waived linebacker Adrian Moten, the team announced Saturday.
Alford, a Shaker Heights High School graduate, was with Browns this offseason after signing with them Feb. 6. He was waived July 24.
The 6-3, 320-pound Alford signed with the Browns as an undrafted free agent from the University of Minnesota in 2011 and spent the entire season on the team’s practice squad. Alford spent the final four weeks of last season on the Carolina Panthers’ practice squad.
Enforcing new rule
In March, NFL owners voted 31-1 in favor of a new rule that states if a runner or tackler initiates forcible contact by delivering a blow with the top of his helmet against an opponent when both players are clearly outside the tackle box, he would receive a 15-yard penalty and could be fined.
The league’s competition committee used video of Browns running back Trent Richardson lowering his head and smashing it into Philadelphia Eagles safety Kurt Coleman last season to illustrate an example of a violation under the new rule.
Some doubt officiating crews will be able to accurately judge when the rule is broken, though referee Ed Hochuli doubts it’ll be a problem.
“I don’t think it’ll be that difficult because the rule is really very specific about what’s got to happen,” Hochuli, who worked recent Browns practices with an officiating crew, said Saturday. “First of all, it’s got to be clearly outside the tackles. So when a running back lowers his head in a short-yardage situation or at the goal line, that’s not covered by the rule. [The runner must be] clearly outside the tackles, basically in the open field. So first of all, we’ll see it because it’s out in the open field.
“Secondly, one of the requirements is that the running back actually line up the defender, so instead of trying to avoid the defender like they normally do, he would have to line up the defender, and then he’s got to lower his head and he’s got to hit with the very top of the helmet, not the forehead, not the face. And so that kind of jumps out at you when that happens. And he’s obviously got to hit the defender with the top of his head, or it could be the other way around. The linebacker or the DB could do the same thing if he lowers his head, squares up the running back and hits with the top of the head. So I don’t think it’s going to be real difficult.”
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.