What is it with Cleveland sports teams and injuries? First the Indians have their season shredded by injuries, then the Browns have to play their last two games with only half their starting defense.
Because the other half was injured.
Think about that. A team that just two years ago was 0-16, has played its last two games missing, roughly, half its starting defense. That may sound like a recipe for disaster, but it wasn’t.
The Browns won one of the games, and could have won them both.
In the 20-13 loss to the Rams the Browns were missing five defensive starters, including the entire secondary. In the 40-25 win over Baltimore the Browns were again missing most of the secondary, plus starting linebacker Christian Kirksey, due to season-ending surgery to repair a torn pectoral tendon.
Despite all that, the shadow Browns are more than just surviving. They are coming off their two best games of the season, including that demonstrative demolition of the Ravens. Still battered but boisterous, still short-handed but far-sighted, the Browns are heading into a Monday Night Football matchup with the 49ers in San Francisco.
Don’t go figure. It’s not that complicated. How are the Browns playing this well with so many of the Browns not playing?
It’s called roster depth, and it’s the answer to the question: What did John Dorsey do during the summer on the days he wasn’t making trades and holding the NFL news cycle hostage with all his headline-grabbing marquee moves?
Dorsey wasn’t just bolstering the tip of the roster iceberg that sticks out of the water. He was also adding key pieces to the submerged part of the iceberg that nobody sees.
Until the injuries start to mount, and it’s “next man up” time. When that happens, a general manager with postseason aspirations better have acquired a quality “next man” to move “up.”
Clearly Dorsey and the Browns do.
Like safety Jermaine Whitehead. There were no parades or marching bands evident when Dorsey quietly claimed Whitehead off waivers from Green Bay in November of last year. But following his spectacular leaping interception at the goal line in the fourth quarter of the win over Baltimore, Whitehead was literally the next man up.
It was reminiscent of Juston Burris’ interception in the Rams game, which occurred 48 hours into Burris’ career with the Browns. He was claimed off waivers from Oakland on Friday and was doing his Ed Reed impersonation for the Browns defense on Sunday.
Whitehead and Burris are both backups.
So is little-known tight end Ricky Seals-Jones, who played like Ricky Holy-Cow in the Ravens game, which occurred two weeks after Dorsey signed him off the street. From on the street to in the end zone. Seals-Jones caught three passes for 82 yards and a touchdown against the Ravens.
Rookie linebacker Mack Wilson was the next man up when Kirksey became the next man down, and Wilson is now fourth on the team in tackles.
Then there’s tight end Demetrius Harris, signed by Dorsey as a free agent in March. Technically, Harris and Pharaoh Brown are both “next men up” behind starting tight end David Njoku, who was the first man down earlier this season. Against Baltimore, Harris didn’t have any catches, but he had the key seal block on the right side of the line that allowed Nick Chubb to turn the corner on his electrifying 88-yard touchdown run.
The finger-and-footprints of Browns backup players are all over the last two games, one of which the Browns won, the other of which they should have won.
Starting cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams, both hamstrung by hamstrings, have missed the last two games, and will likely make it three in a row Monday night. Not to worry, though. Backups T.J. Carrie and Terrence Mitchell have both stepped up and manned up. Carrie is fifth on the team in tackles, and has one of the Browns’ four interceptions, and Mitchell has been solid on the other side.
With four or five backup players starting on defense the last two games, the Browns defense hasn’t missed a beat. The Browns have only given up one rushing touchdown thus far. The defense ranks fifth in the league in interceptions, fifth in sacks and fourth in yards lost on sacks.
The defense ranks eighth in both fewest passing yards allowed and first downs by pass.
Even the Browns kickers are, in a sense, backups. Punter Jamie “The Scottish Hammer” Gillan and placekicker Austin “Not The Scottish Hammer” Seibert are both rookies replacing veterans, and both are excelling.
You win with stars, and Dorsey has added those to the Browns roster, to be sure. But your stars can’t do it all, and your starters sometimes get hurt.
Who wins then?
The team with the best next men up.