BEREA — Sione Takitaki played middle linebacker in high school and at BYU and is finally getting his chance there in the NFL after years on the strong side. Takitaki started in the middle Sunday against the Bills and will remain in that role, which he likes.
“I feel like I’m familiar with the spot,” he said Wednesday. “Definitely just gotta improve, which is what I’m doing and what the coaches want me to do.”
Anthony Walker Jr. began the season as the middle linebacker but was lost for the season in Week 3 with a torn quadriceps tendon. Jacob Phillips replaced him and was lost for the season in Week 7 with a torn pectoral. Deion Jones started two games after being acquired in a trade but lost the job to Takitaki.
“He is in the middle of it. He is around the football,” coach Kevin Stefanski said of what he likes about Takitaki in that role. “He did a nice job in his drops, which that is a difficult task. That is not easy to do when you haven’t been trained there for a long time. Just the way he was assignment-sound, in the middle of the action and being physical, he did a nice job.”
Weakside linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is happy to see Takitaki in the middle.
“Sione is a smart guy, he’s able to communicate properly, he’s able to communicate loudly,” he said. “He’s a fierce, aggressive, physical player, so you always want somebody as aggressive as him.”
Takitaki, a third-round pick in 2019 who’s in the final year of his rookie contract, had already taken on a larger role after the injuries, staying on the field in the nickel package. He’s third on the team with 54 tackles, adding a sack and a forced fumble.
Maybe with him in the middle, the run defense will improve. It’s given up at least 160 yards in five of the last seven games, including 171 in the 31-23 loss to the Bills.
“I feel like we’ve been saying it for weeks, but we just have to be real gap sound. Myself included and everybody who’s on the field,” Takitaki said. “We just gotta keep knocking at it until we get it right.”
The Browns (3-7) host the Buccaneers (5-5) on Sunday and are bracing for another heavy dose of the run. Tom Brady leads the league in pass attempts and Tampa Bay is last with 70.7 rushing yards a game but rushed for a season-high 161 in a win over the Seahawks on Nov. 13 in Germany before the bye week.
“They’re starting to run the ball more,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “Once they get to us, they’ll probably try to do more of that.”
He has a solution to finally stopping the run.
“It’s about getting vertical, getting in the backfield more,” he said. “More (tackles for loss), more people flying to the ball, more group tackling, so that’s something we’ll be aiming to do.”
HOLE IN THE MIDDLE
Things have gotten downright “wonky” at center.
Starter Ethan Pocic was placed on injured reserve Tuesday with a knee injury. His replacement, Hjalte Froholdt, missed practice Wednesday with an illness. With Michael Dunn (back) already on IR, the Browns were down to Greg Mancz, who was signed Tuesday, guard Drew Forbes and backup tackle Chris Hubbard as options.
“Working through it,” Stefanski said before practice. “Sometimes you get to late November and things can get wonky along certain position groups. I think we will be all right.”
** Cornerback Greg Newsome II (concussion), tight end David Njoku (ankle/knee), safeties Ronnie Harrison Jr. (illness) and D’Anthony Bell (concussion) and left guard Joel Bitonio (illness/rest) didn’t practice.
** Right guard Wyatt Teller (calf), left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. (knee) and defensive tackle Perrion Winfrey (concussion) were limited.
** Defensive ends Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney and receiver Amari Cooper rested.
NOWHERE TO RUN
Nick Chubb was held to 19 yards on 14 rushes by the Bills, including six carries that went for negative yardage.
“They played really well against the run, did some things we couldn’t overcome and just props to them,” Chubb said. “They played better than us, that’s about it.”
The Buccaneers rank 14th against the run (116.6 yards a game), led by Pro Bowl nose tackle Vita Vea, who didn’t practice Wednesday with a foot injury.
“They’re huge, very big, play physical, play hard,” Chubb said. “Very good run stoppers. It’s a great run defense.”
On Tuesday, Chubb was once again announced as the team’s nominee for the Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award.
“It means a lot,” he said. “It’s a special award.”
SHOW OF SUPPORT
Owusu-Koramoah isn’t worried about the public criticism toward defensive coordinator Joe Woods. The Browns rank tied for 30th in points allowed (26.9).
“What I am concerned about is how the players see him and how the coaches see him, which is from a phenomenal lens in reference to his efforts and what he’s doing,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “He’s able to be that leader for us, to be able to talk to us in the right way, to be able to understand the players.”
Owusu-Koramoah drew more than the stink eye from Bills quarterback Josh Allen after he swiped at the ball in Allen’s injured right arm as he stepped out of bounds.
“I heard what he said. It is what it is,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “It doesn’t fire me up at all. It’s like, we got pads on, so.”
TALKING THE TALK
Stefanski met with Garrett and safety Grant Delpit after they made critical remarks following the loss to the Bills. Garrett said the Browns don’t place enough importance in practice on forcing takeaways, and Delpit said of the defense “if you don’t know what you’re doing, then it never works.”
“After losses there is frustration, and you just have to make sure what you say and what you share is stuff that you feel good about,” Stefanski said. “I think it is always important that if there is something on your mind to have a conversation with each other about it.
“Both of those guys in particular are very, very committed to this team and very committed to finding a way to win this week.”
The Broncos signed linebacker Dakota Allen off the Browns’ practice squad. He appeared in four games this season on special teams.
** The Browns and local Marines will hold their annual drive to benefit Toys for Tots before the game Sunday. Fans are encouraged to bring new, unwrapped gifts worth at least $10 for kids in need in Cuyahoga County. The collection will start at 11 a.m. at stadium gates.
** The Browns will highlight military members Sunday as part of the NFL’s Salute to Service initiative in November.