BEREA — Denzel Ward couldn’t stop smiling … while he was talking to reporters.
The usually reserved Ward is truly excited to play Sunday against the Dolphins in South Florida, declaring himself good to go after missing three games with a concussion.
“Can’t wait,” the two-time Pro Bowl cornerback said Thursday.
The Dolphins present perhaps the toughest assignment of the year for the Browns secondary, with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle combining for the NFL’s second-ranked passing offense (293.6 yards a game). Ward has embraced the challenge for his return.
“It is exciting, it’s fun,” he said. “This is a game that I love to play and I’m just glad to be out here with the guys being able to play the game again.
“So I’m looking forward to the matchup, going against the Dolphins, they’re a good team and I think we’re a good team, too. So I think we match up well with those guys, but we just gotta go out there and try to find a way to get a win.”
Ward, 25, returned to practice Monday, was limited Wednesday and fully participated Thursday. He said he began to feel normal “a little while ago” but the recovery from the brain injury was difficult.
He was hurt Oct. 9 in the fourth quarter of the 30-28 loss to the Chargers when his helmet hit the ground as he tackled running back Austin Ekeler.
— Scott Petrak ct (@ScottPetrak) November 10, 2022
“It is tough,” Ward said. “Throughout that whole time I was having headaches, having headaches every day. And then in the protocol if you’re having any symptoms, you’re not able to really progress. So I was kind of concerned a little bit, just like, when are these headaches gonna go away? When am I gonna start feeling better? But I was able to overcome that and glad to be here now.”
He had two concussions within three weeks late in his rookie season in 2018. He hadn’t had another known concussion until the latest one and tried to help the healing process by spending time in a hyperbaric chamber and light therapy.
He said it would be good to know if there’s a total number of concussions he shouldn’t exceed but is glad to be back “playing the game I love.”
“Right now I’m not too concerned about it,” he said. “It’s not affecting me right now, so I’m good. My focus is on football, but I do want to take care of my health then make sure I’m good and try to do the things I can to prevent it from happening again and just to keep my health up.
“I think I’m good, though.”
The NFL’s concussion protocol has been made stricter since Ward was a rookie, including changes this season after Tagovailoa was allowed to return to the field despite being unsteady on his feet then sustained a concussion in the next game.
“I definitely think it’s a little harder than when I was a rookie,” Ward said of clearing the protocol. “That’s a good thing, though, taking care of guys and making sure they’re ready to play once they get back.”
The time away from the field renewed Ward’s excitement for the game.
“I haven’t been enjoying just sitting around the house watching,” he said. “So I’m just glad to be back with the guys. I’m glad to be playing football again.”
The team’s No. 1 cornerback “felt the love” from teammates as he was welcomed back to practice. Martin Emerson Jr. played pretty well filling in for Ward as the starter, but the rookie doesn’t have the speed or experience of Ward.
“He’s one of the top corners in the game still, so obviously having a talent like that on the field is always going to make everyone’s job easier,” No. 2 corner Greg Newsome II said. “So it’s definitely great to have him back.”
Ward will be thrown straight into the fire alongside Newsome, Emerson and safeties John Johnson III and Grant Delpit. Tagovailoa has thrown 15 touchdowns to three interceptions and leads the league with a 115.9 passer rating and 9.2 yards per attempt. He benefits from the tandem of Hill (76 catches, 1,104 yards, 14.5 average three touchdowns) and Waddle (47, 812, 17.3, six).
“These are games that you make a name for yourself, so I’m looking forward to it,” Ward said. “This is one of those matchups that I feel like we’ve got the guys in the room that could handle and take care of it, but we’ll see. We’ve just gotta go out there, play hard and find a way to get a win.”
Speed is the separator for the pair of Dolphins. Hill is considered by many the fastest player in the league, and Waddle can also fly.
The Browns built their defense on speed and invested heavily at cornerback. Ward was the No. 4 pick in 2018 and signed a five-year, $100.5 million extension in the offseason, and Newsome was the No. 26 pick in 2021.
“They’re fast, fast dudes but we got speed on this side of the ball, as well, so I think we match up perfectly with them,” Newsome said. “We’re very confident going into games like this.
“They’ve got fast guys, I feel like we’ve got fast guys. So it’s definitely going to be fun.”
— Scott Petrak ct (@ScottPetrak) November 10, 2022
Hill was acquired from the Chiefs in an offseason trade. The Browns faced him in back-to-back games — the playoff loss in 2020 and the opening loss in 2021 — and couldn’t stop him. He caught eight passes for 110 yards in the playoff game and 11 for 197 and a touchdown eight months later.
“He is so fast and he is so quick,” defensive coordinator Joe Woods said. “He can go from point A to B right now when he puts his foot in the ground. He is a vertical threat but he is also an underneath threat. They do things in terms of handing him the ball, and he is in the backfield. They know how to use him for sure as a weapon.”
Woods believes the familiarity with Hill and the speed of his corners will help contain him.
“I feel confident because we do have guys who can run,” Woods said. “This is going to be one of those games we are going to have to win some one-on-ones.”
“It is definitely good to have him back,” Woods said. “I think there are certain things that I will be able to do coverage-wise knowing that he can go match up at times.”