BEREA: Browns strong safety T.J. Ward is disappointed to fall two games short of the finish line, but he’s also thankful he won’t need surgery.

Ward was placed on injured reserve Dec. 18 with a bone bruise on his knee. He suffered the injury during the third quarter of the Browns’ 38-21 loss to the Washington Redskins when he collided with rookie running back Alfred Morris.

“Whenever you don’t have to have surgery, it’s a blessing,” Ward, a second-round pick in the 2010 draft, said Thursday. “I missed these last two games, and that’s unfortunate. But I’ll be good in the next week or two, and I won’t miss out on any training. I’ll be back for OTAs [organized team activities] and training camp and everything.

“Not having surgery is big. But missing these last two games really hurts a lot, regardless if there’s anything at stake or not. I was looking forward to playing a full 16 games. Things happen. This is a physical game, especially the way I play. It just happened.”

Ward started 14 games this season and had 68 tackles, including a sack, three forced fumbles, an interception and four passes defensed. His 2011 season also ended early after he sprained his right foot in Week 8 and missed the final eight games.

“I had a good amount of big plays, turnovers,” Ward said. “I would’ve liked to have had more interceptions. But interceptions, they’re going to come when they come. This year, they didn’t come to me like they could have. But I got the opportunity to force fumbles and things like that. But I’m always looking to make more big plays, more splash plays.”

Usama Young started in Ward’s place Sunday during the Browns’ 34-12 loss to the Denver Broncos. Young, though, was placed on injured reserve Wednesday and will likely need thumb surgery.

So Eric Hagg, a seventh-round pick in last year’s draft, will start at strong safety Sunday, when the Browns (5-10) visit the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8). Undrafted defensive back Tashaun Gipson will play free safety, the spot Hagg filled against the Broncos because Gipson was inactive with a sprained foot.

“I feel pretty comfortable at strong safety,” Hagg said. “The flip-flopping, it’s basically interchangeable. When you learn the defense, you’ve got to learn both of [the safety positions] anyway. It’s just at strong safety you’re down in the box more. But I think it’s a pretty good experience. Instead of being at free like last week, I’ll be at strong, and hopefully I can go out there and do my best.”

Replacements prepare

Third-string quarterback Thaddeus Lewis and backup running back Montario Hardesty are one step closer to starting Sunday.

Quarterbacks Brandon Weeden (sprained right shoulder) and Colt McCoy (right shoulder), running back Trent Richardson (left ankle) and cornerback Sheldon Brown (concussion) didn’t practice Thursday but still haven’t been ruled out for Sunday, coach Pat Shurmur said.

“I’m not going to rule anybody out yet,” Shurmur said. “We’ll just have to see. Everybody comes back from these things, some quicker than others, so we’ll just see. But as we get closer, of course, if they can’t play, I’m not going to try to hold it to game time.”

In other words, Shurmur will likely rule them out today if they’re going to sit out.

Of course, if Weeden and McCoy are out, Lewis would play in an NFL regular-season game for the first time. If that becomes the case, Josh Johnson would serve as Lewis’ backup.

“He’s got a live arm,” Shurmur said of Lewis. “He’s very athletic. He’ll execute our offense the right way. And I’m glad he’s going to, if he becomes the starter here, will have an opportunity. He’ll do a good job.”

The Browns signed Johnson off the street this week, and Shurmur said the decision was a result of a discussion between him, CEO Joe Banner and General Manager Tom Heckert. They also thought about re-signing Seneca Wallace, whom the Browns cut in August, but chose Johnson instead, Shurmur said.

“He’s a tall quarterback,” Shurmur said of Johnson. “He’s got a big arm and there’s something to him. In the event he has to play, we’ll pare it down, give him things he knows and let it rip.”

Shurmur said Hardesty would start at running back and Brandon Jackson and Chris Ogbonnaya would be active if Richardson is out. Offensive coordinator Brad Childress said Richardson could be “the spot player” if he’s able to play Sunday, meaning he would receive a handful of carries like Hardesty usually does.

Childress spoke as if Weeden definitely won’t play Sunday when asked to summarize the latter’s rookie season.

“It feels kind of like unfinished business right here,” Childress said. “I know I’ll have to sit down and write reports for personnel people here toward the end of it. Just like the season, some good some bad. I wish I could tell you that it ended on a real high note. I sure wouldn’t characterize last week as a real high note for any of us.”

If Brown is sidelined, cornerback Buster Skrine would start opposite Joe Haden. Rookie Trevin Wade, a seventh-round pick, would serve as the nickel corner.

Award season

Kicker Phil Dawson was named the Player of the Year and middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson was named the Dino Lucarelli Good Guy Award winner by the local chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America. They will be honored at the 34th annual Akron Browns Backers banquet May 20 at Tangier restaurant.

“Ya’ll are desperate,” Dawson joked when he was told the news. “Golly.”

Dawson became the first Browns player selected to the Pro Bowl as a kicker (Lou Groza was selected as tackle), when he was named to the AFC’s team Wednesday night. He leads the AFC this season with a field-goal percentage of 96.6, making 28-of-29 attempts with the lone miss blocked. He also has made 6-of-6 field goals from 50 yards or longer this season, which is tied for the most in the AFC.

“That’s humbling,” Dawson said of receiving the award. “I was very excited when I got here this season. I changed up some stuff this past offseason, and I felt like things were lined up where I had at least given myself a chance to have a good season and was eager to see how all that — the training and all the stuff I had done, the kicking lessons I had received, all that stuff — would show up on the field. After about a week of training camp, I can remember going to my coach and saying, ‘This might be a pretty good year.’ Things started just kind of going and [I have] great teammates around me. Momentum can be a great and a horrible thing and when you’ve got it on your side. It just kind of keeps going. Here we are, and it’s just been one of those great experiences.”

The Good Guy Award is given annually to a player for his cooperation with the media and for the way he carries himself in the community and with his teammates. Jackson has established himself as the heart and soul of the Browns’ defense and is a team captain along with Dawson and Pro Bowl offensive left tackle Joe Thomas.

“That’s an appropriate award for [Jackson] because he is a good guy,” Shurmur said. “He’s one of those guys that as a coach, you trust him walking around the locker room because No. 1, he’s going to say it his way, but he’s going to sell our message. He’s taken charge of that locker room much like Phil Dawson and Joe Thomas. We can tell the players what the message it, but those are the guys that help sell it when we’re doing our other things. I have a huge appreciation for what he is as a player and as a man.”

Jackson also was named a first alternate for the Pro Bowl. He’ll get to play in the Pro Bowl if the New England Patriots make the Super Bowl because linebacker Jerod Mayo was one of the two inside linebackers selected ahead of him.

“Right now, I’m rooting for the Patriots,” Jackson said.

Extra points

Shurmur said he does not have a meeting scheduled for Monday with owner Jimmy Haslam or Banner regarding his future. He stressed he’s focused on the Steelers. … Shurmur said he never asked McCoy to explain his comments about throwing the ball into the dirt late in the Browns’ loss to the Broncos because his teammates were tired. … In addition to Weeden, McCoy, Richardson and Brown, tight end Jordan Cameron (head) did not practice. … Offensive tackle Mike Adams (ankle), cornerbacks Curtis Brown (ankle) and Keenan Lewis (knee), safety Troy Polamalu (not injury related) and wide receiver Mike Wallace (hip) did not practice for the Steelers.

Nate Ulrich can be reached at nulrich@thebeaconjournal.com.