BEREA — The Denver Broncos’ Empower Field at Mile High is at altitude, where oxygen is harder to come by. That can be a challenge for visiting teams not used to the struggle.
“There’s nothing you can do at this point. You just have to adapt. You have to adapt to survive,” said receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who has that message tattooed on his ribs. “I trained in Big Bear for like 2½, three weeks. It was tough, but there’s not going to be much time to adjust. You just have to play with it.”
The Browns left for Denver on Friday, a day early, but coach Freddie Kitchens said the reason was to acclimate to the time change. He downplayed the effect of the altitude, as did defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who coached in the AFC West with the Chargers.
“I did not really think it was a problem,” Wilks said. “We are not going to allow that to be an excuse.”
The Browns were “Continental” divided on whether dealing with the altitude would be a tough test.
“We have talked about it enough that they understand the challenges and you are going to get winded, you are going to have to use the oxygen and you have to be smart,” said special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, who held the same role with the Broncos in 2009-10.
Receiver Rashard Higgins played at Colorado State and said the effects of playing at altitude are real.
“Oh, absolutely, 100 percent,” he told reporters. “When y’all come up there, y’all going to be out of breath, too. Don’t worry.”
The altitude added to Priefer’s workload this week.
“Make sure that the young kicker and the young punter do not go crazy,” he said of rookies Austin Seibert and Jamie Gillan. “When I coached there for two years, every opposing punter and kicker used to come in there and just try to go bombs away and try to do something extraordinary because they are going to use the altitude. I told our guys, ‘Hey, just let the altitude work for you. Do not try to do something that you are not.’”
Priefer noted the strong legs of Seibert and Gillan will be accentuated by the thin air, with 5 or 6 yards added to a place-kick and an extra half-second of hang time on a punt.
“It is amazing how an average punt becomes a 5.0(-second) punt because of the altitude,” he said.
COMING ON STRONG
Defensive end Olivier Vernon is starting to make people stop second-guessing the offseason trade that sent right guard Kevin Zeitler to the Giants.
After a slow start, at least according to the stat sheet, Vernon has played his best in the last two games against the Seahawks and Patriots. He was a dominant force against the Patriots with six solo tackles, a sack and another tackle for loss.
“I just think it is the progression of the year,” Wilks said. “Things are really clicking for him right now. He has had two outstanding games from the standpoint of pressuring the QB, but again most importantly of really stopping the run.”
For the year, Vernon has 21 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble against the Seahawks.
“He has been in position to make some plays and he has made the plays,” Kitchens said. “Olivier is just like everybody else — he is continuing to work and trying to get better. We like everybody to have a role and them to do their role to the best of their ability, and that is what he is doing.”
Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson revealed Vernon had been dealing with an undisclosed injury but is feeling better. He played all 69 snaps against the Patriots.
“You get into the flow of the game and how things are going so we wanted to leave him in there and he wanted to stay in there, too,” Wilks said.
Safety Eric Murray, who had evolved into the top nickelback, had successful knee surgery Friday, the team announced. He was injured Wednesday in practice and his status will be evaluated on a week-to-week basis.
Murray was acquired from the Chiefs in an offseason trade for defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah. Murray has 22 tackles and a pass defensed.
The Browns will also be without starting free safety Damarious Randall (hamstring), who was ruled out for the second straight game. Morgan Burnett, Jermaine Whitehead and Juston Burris will play in the three-safety package, and TJ Carrie will likely retake the nickelback role.
** The Browns signed undrafted rookie tight end Stephen Carson from the practice squad and he’s expected to make his NFL debut in Denver. The Browns wanted a third tight end available with Pharaoh Brown (concussion) ruled out and David Njoku (broken wrist) on injured reserve.
Carlson (6-foot-4, 240 pounds) went to Princeton, was signed in May and had spent the entire season on the practice squad. He’ll back up Demetrius Harris and Ricky Seals-Jones.
** Defensive tackle Daniel Ekuale (calf) was placed on IR, creating a roster spot for Carlson. Ekuale played in all seven games with four tackles.
** Receivers Beckham (groin) and Jarvis Landry (shoulder) were limited all week in practice but will play Sunday.
** Tackle Kendall Lamm (knee) practiced fully but was listed as questionable.
Starting cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams returned to the lineup last week after missing four games each with hamstring injuries. Ward had five tackles, two passes defensed — including a dropped interception in the end zone — and a blocked field goal, while Williams had five tackles.
“They came back and jumped right back into the fold,” Wilks said. “They had an outstanding game, both of them.”
Wilks gave up an early 33-yard completion to Phillip Dorsett down the sideline but responded nicely.
“He was in great position, and you just have to turn and play the ball,” Wilks said. “They covered well. They tackled well. That particular game, we pretty much played man the whole game. I thought they did a great job in coverage.”
After the trade of Emmanuel Sanders to the 49ers, Denver’s premier threat at receiver is Courtland Sutton (6-4, 216). He’s eighth in the league with 636 receiving yards on 39 catches, a 16.3 average, and has three touchdowns. He’s tied for third with nine catches of 25 yards.
In 24 career games, Sutton has 81 catches for 1,340 yards (a franchise record to start a career) and seven touchdowns.
“He is a big, physical receiver,” Wilks said. “He sort of reminds me of (DK) Metcalf out in Seattle. Very strong. Very deceptive speed. He can get behind you.”
Running back Kareem Hunt is eligible to return next week against the Buffalo Bills after serving an eight-game suspension. He’s practiced the last two weeks and will join a backfield led by Nick Chubb.
“Kareem is a good football player, and we are going to have a plan for him,” Kitchens said. “It is always good to have those guys.”
** For the Broncos, right tackle Ja’Wuan James (knee), cornerback Bryce Callahan (foot), tight end Jeff Heuerman (knee) and backup safety Will Parks (hand) were ruled out. Quarterback Joe Flacco (neck) and backup inside linebacker Corey Nelson (biceps) were placed on IR.
Defensive end DeMarcus Walker (shoulder) was listed as questionable.