BEREA — “Next man up” is a fine philosophy. Injuries happen and teams can’t afford to wallow in self-pity.
But the reality is some players are more difficult to replace than others. And a rash of injuries can make life impossible.
So when linebacker and captain Christian Kirksey (hamstring) and cornerback E.J. Gaines (concussion) were placed on season-ending injured reserve Wednesday morning, general manager John Dorsey and interim coach Gregg Williams did what they could. Dorsey scoured the waiver wire and the league’s practice squads for replacements and Williams adjusted the depth chart and game plan.
But the new bodies aren’t the same as the old ones.
“They’ll still be here sparingly in and out throughout the week, but it’s a lot different when they were on the field fighting with you, (shedding) blood, sweat and tears with you, through the trenches,” cornerback TJ Carrie said of Kirksey and Gaines. “And we’re going to definitely miss that. Those are two players that we can’t replace.”
The defense is in a state of disarray after four straight losses. It hasn’t been able to match the early season success as injuries piled up and the opponents got tougher.
The defense has allowed an average of 33.5 points during the skid. The most recent clunker was a 37-21 loss Sunday in which the Chiefs scored touchdowns on their first five full possessions, excluding the end of the half. The Browns (2-6-1) were in trouble regardless against the league’s highest-scoring offense, then lost starting corners Denzel Ward (hip) and Gaines in the first quarter and Kirksey in the second.
“When they see a weakness in your armor, they’re definitely going to attack it,” Carrie said.
Ward, the rookie No. 4 pick, is scheduled to practice Thursday and could play Sunday against the Falcons.
“He had a good day today,” Williams said of Ward, who rode a stationary bike and worked on the side with athletic trainers. “We anticipate him being fine tomorrow.”
“We want him to be able to be in a position where he’s fully healthy and he can go out there and all things are well, so that when he gets on to that field he can still play to the top of his abilities,” Carrie said. “So definitely something we’re going to watch for.”
There’s no doubt with Kirksey and Gaines. They’re done for the year.
Kirksey, 26, missed time with an ankle injury earlier in the year and finished the season with seven starts, 43 tackles, the first two interceptions of his five-year career and a fumble recovery. He’s signed through 2021.
“Kirko is kind of the heart and soul of the defense, heart and soul of the team in the locker room, on the field,” middle linebacker Joe Schobert said. “Just how he goes about his business, the energy he brings.
“It’s the next-man-up mentality but there’s things that you’re going to miss.”
Schobert expects to return after missing three games with a strained hamstring, which would ease the blow. Jamie Collins missed practice Wednesday with a sprained ankle but is expected back Thursday.
Even if Schobert and Collins play, the absence of Kirksey forces rookie Genard Avery and special teamer Tanner Vallejo into larger roles.
Gaines suffered his second concussion in three weeks Sunday when he took a knee to the helmet as he dived to make a tackle on Kareem Hunt’s 50-yard touchdown. Consecutive concussions are particularly dangerous, and Gaines was shut down for the final seven games.
He signed a one-year contract as a free agent in the offseason and appeared in six games with two starts. He had 12 tackles, three passes defensed and an interception.
“He is a really tough player,” Williams said. “He went through a couple of really tough things when we were together with the Rams, too, and has overcome them. Just a part of this game. It is not easy.”
Gaines, 26, had replaced Terrance Mitchell (broken wrist) in the starting lineup, so the Browns are down two of their top three corners. Mitchell is on IR and must miss three more games before he’s eligible to return.
The Browns signed cornerback Juston Burris off the Jets practice squad, claimed cornerback Phillip Gaines off waivers from the Bills and claimed safety Jermaine Whitehead off waivers from the Packers.
They add much needed depth, but a much bigger boost would be the return of Damarious Randall. He didn’t play against the Chiefs with a groin injury but practiced Wednesday and said he feels ready.
He’s spent most of the season at his preferred position of free safety but might be asked to match up with Falcons All-Pro receiver Julio Jones, as he did against Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans last month.
“I’m a free safety that has the ability to play corner,” he said.
The Falcons (4-4) have won three straight and rank second in the league in passing (320.1 yards a game) and eighth in points (28.5). Randall called Jones (60 catches, 933 yards, a touchdown) the best receiver in the league and gave the Falcons a huge compliment.
“They’re a very dynamic offense,” he said. “Something like the Chiefs, but I feel like they actually have a little bit better weapons than the Chiefs do.”
If Ward is healthy and Randall plays corner, Carrie would be the nickelback. If not, Carrie would be a starter.
“Definitely more falls up on my plate, on the ability to be able to step up and become more of a vocal leader and more of a visual leader for everyone else on this defense and this team,” he said. “I can say that we didn’t play as well last (week), we failed. And I think from a defensive standpoint, we need to do more and we need to look at ourselves more to be able to come out on top.”