NFL football is a war of attrition and oftentimes the teams left standing at the end are also the most healthy. That’s troubling news for the ailing Broncos and Browns, destined to clash on a short week following devastating injury news in their most recent games.
Already struggling to live up to expectations, the Fangio defense will head to Cleveland down to their third and fifth string linebackers in the starting lineup after a season-ending injury to Alexander Johnson landed him beside Josey Jewell on Injured Reserve. Once there, they’ll face off against a Browns offense that could be down to a backup quarterback, running back, and offensive tackles.
Now if you keep up with Mile High Report’s practice reports, you already know where the Broncos are at health wise, so I don’t want to browbeat you with old news. However, I do want to take a moment to appreciate a couple of huge X factors ahead of Thursday.
First is the fact Teddy Bridgewater is so banged up that he’s limping to and from the podium for pressers. As bad as Drew Lock could look against Myles Garett and a Joe Woods pass rush, if Bridgewater’s foot is impacting his mobility and mechanics, it makes little sense to play him on a short week.
The second big injury situation to keep an eye on is the Broncos linebacker corps. Being down both starters as well as rookie Baron Browning means the defense will count on Justin Strnad and Micah Kiser. Strnad is making his fifth start after missing all of his rookie season to a wrist injury, and while he has had promising moments, he’s noticeably slower processing the action than Jewell is. Kiser’s making his first start in the Fangio system after the Broncos signed him off the Rams practice squad at the end of September. Should either one of the starters leave the game with an injury, Denver would be down to Barrington Wade and undrafted rookie free agent Curtis Robinson, both of whom were signed off the Broncos practice squad today.
As bleak as things look on the injury front, however, Cleveland’s looks worse.
Who’s hurt, and who’s injured on the Browns?
On Monday the Browns listed 20 players with an injury designation on their estimated injury report, including Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, three cornerbacks and offensive linemen, as well as their entire starting defensive line. On Tuesday the Browns’ head coach Kevin Stefanski ruled star running back Nick Chubb out of the game. He also held both of Cleveland’s tackles out of practice, but did not rule them out just yet.
#Browns Kevin Stefanski said he'll hold Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills Jr. out of practice but won't rule them out for Thursday's game.— Camryn Justice (@camijustice) October 19, 2021
As best I can tell, the Browns have 13 players on Injured Reserve, five of whom are quite notable heading into this matchup: Pro Bowl receiver Jarvis Landry, rookie sensation Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, swing tackle Chris Hubbard, former Broncos fullback Andy Janovich, and running back Kareem Hunt,
Landry had 31 more targets than any other Cleveland receiver a season ago, but Donovan Peoples-Jones has done a terrific job stepping up his game in year two. Across the games I’ve studied, JOK is Cleveland’s best linebacker. The way he combines explosive athleticism with top notch instincts has made him a difference-maker on the second level. Hubbard’s injury leaves extremely callow depth behind Jedrick Wills and Jack Conklin. Janovich being out hurts the Browns’ special teams and their offense. His replacement Harrison Bryant is a capable fill in for 21 and 22 personnel, but he’s not a Pro Bowl fullback. Hunt’s injury combined with Chubb’s means the Browns will give D’Ernest Johnson his first significant role after he’s played all of 146 offensive snaps in his career to date.
Browns have signed RB John Kelly to the active roster from the practice squad and placed RB Kareem Hunt (calf) and LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (ankle) on injured reserve.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) October 19, 2021
Beyond IR is the slew of game time decisions that loom ahead of kickoff. Hubbard’s injury along with questions about Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills’ status means Von Miller could have an opportunity to feast on rookie fourth rounder James Hudson, journeyman guard Blake Hance, or Alex Taylor, who was cut from the Bears’ practice squad a few weeks ago. There’s a lot of uncertainty hanging around the pivot as well because JC Tretter missed practice on Tuesday with a knee injury. He’s played every snap this season, but if he can’t suit up the Browns will probably need to slide a guard to center, as his backup Nick Harris is on Injured Reserve.
The injuries aren’t limited to the offensive line, of course. Odell Beckham Jr. hasn’t practiced so far this week, and if he misses the game Peoples-Jones, Rashad Higgins, and rookie Anthony Schwartz will carry the bulk of the work in the receiving corps. Making matters worse for the receiving corps. is the health of receiving tight end David Njoku, who was a limited participant in practice because of a knee injury. Key members of the defense such as Jadaveon Clowney, Malik Jackson, as well as linebackers Malcolm Smith and Mack Wilson were also limited participants.
Lastly, there’s Baker Mayfield. The first overall pick of the 2018 draft is playing through a completely torn labrum to his non-throwing shoulder, but hopes to play. After the Browns’ loss to the Cardinals last Sunday Mayfield spoke at the podium with his arm in a sling after re-dislocating his shoulder in the game. He admitted the arm “feels like s%@+,” and if the Browns elect to rest him on a short week behind a banged up line, the Broncos will face former starting quarterback Case Keenum.