BEREA — The uncomfortable uncertainty has shifted from quarterback to tackle.
Deshaun Watson is back and healthy after his availability was unresolved for more than a month. He just doesn’t know who’s going to protect him on the edges of the line Sunday in a showdown in Baltimore.
Left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. (knee sprain) was placed on injured reserve Tuesday and will miss at least four games. Rookie Dawand Jones, who took over for Jack Conklin (torn anterior cruciate ligament) in the opener, didn’t practice Wednesday due to shoulder and knee injuries. He worked on the side.
That left James Hudson III the only known commodity at tackle at practice, and he said he’d work on the right side. If he’ll play on the left or right vs. the Ravens (7-2) remained a mystery.
“We’re working through all of our options,” coach Kevin Stefanski said.
Stefanski wasn’t able and/or willing to get any more specific. “We have options” became his go-to line, including when asked if All-Pro left guard Joel Bitonio was a possibility to start at left tackle. Bitonio played left tackle at the University of Nevada and filled in for Wills late in 2021.
Jones has played well since being thrust into the lineup, and Stefanski said he didn’t know if he’d be available Sunday. Jones missed most of the second half of the loss to the Seahawks on Oct. 29 with a shoulder injury and didn’t practice last Wednesday. He played in the 27-0 win over the Cardinals on Sunday but left for one play with a knee injury.
If Jones can play vs. the Ravens, he and Hudson will start. Stefanski hasn’t said whether Jones will stay on the right side or move to left tackle.
Hudson, a fourth-round pick in 2021, has started seven games in his career, all at right tackle. He’s played 583 total snaps at right tackle vs. 70 at left tackle.
He’s been the swing tackle this year, splitting his practice time between the sides. He’s played 34 snaps at left tackle — all against the Cardinals after Wills got hurt — vs. 43 at right tackle in three games. He’s also played 25 as an extra lineman.
“It can be difficult sometimes, but I feel like over the years that’s something that has helped me grow,” Hudson said. “The situation, it’s not easy on anybody, but guys who can step in there and not miss a beat, those are guys who tend to have great NFL careers, so I’m hoping to keep it up and go in there and do my job.”
The options beyond Jones and Hudson are Bitonio, Geron Christian and Leroy Watson IV. Christian and Watson were added in the last two weeks. Christian has started 16 of 49 career games in time with the Commanders, Texans and Chiefs, and Watson has yet to play in the NFL.
“Coaches work around the clock to get new players ready,” Stefanski said. “That’s what we’ll do if need be.”
Restricting a move of Bitonio to tackle, however temporary, is the lack of depth at guard. With Michael Dunn (calf) on injured reserve, centers Nick Harris and rookie Luke Wypler would be the most likely candidates to step in at guard.
Veteran line coach Bill Callahan will help Stefanski in the decision-making and the game-planning.
“I lean heavily on his expertise really in all situations, but particularly right now,” Stefanski said.
Making the unsettled situation even more unsettling are the men lining up on the other side of the line of scrimmage. The Ravens defense ranks first in the NFL in scoring (13.8 points), touchdowns allowed (10), sacks (35) and in the red zone (seven touchdowns in 21 trips) and second in yards (262.6).
Defensive tackle Justin Madubuike leads the Ravens with 7.5 sacks, followed by outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy with five and outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney and inside linebacker Patrick Queen with 3.5 each.
“They definitely have a great pass rush,” Hudson said. “I feel like the coaches are going to put together a great plan for us this weekend to slow their rush down and going to go out there and play our game.”
Stefanski called Hudson “trustworthy” and “physical.”
“He’s been here for a while and he’s motivated and he wants to get out there and prove that he can play at the top level and he’s just been working his tail off each and every day and he’s getting with Coach Callahan and those guys and making sure that he’s locked in,” Deshaun Watson said.
Hudson said he’s comfortable and prepared for whatever role the coaches pick for him.
“It’s unfortunate what happened to Jed, but I have to be ready for moments like this, end of story,” he said. “It’s a chance for me to go out there, show the organization, show the fans, everybody, my teammates, that they’re going to depend on me.
“This is my role here on this team. When the tackles go down, it’s on me to step in there and not miss a beat, be able to help this team win.”