BEREA — Neutralizing Dallas wide receivers Dez Bryant and Miles Austin is a difficult enough task. Stopping them without your top defensive back in uniform might be impossible.
The Browns could face that ugly scenario at Cowboys Stadium, as ace cornerback Joe Haden did not practice Thursday because of an oblique injury that he sustained a day earlier. His status for the teams’ Sunday 1 p.m. game is uncertain.
“It will definitely put us in a bind if Joe can’t go,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “Having him out there, the guy practices hard, he plays tremendously hard and he loves to do it. You can’t replace him.
“The guys we have behind him, I’ve got total confidence in them. I really do. But you want Joe out there.”
Cleveland is already missing one veteran cornerback in Dimitri Patterson, who has not played since Oct. 7 when he suffered a left high ankle sprain and ligament damage against the New York Giants.
If Haden is unable to compete, second-year pro Buster Skrine will assume his spot at left cornerback. Rookie Trevin Wade would then slide into Skrine’s current role as the nickelback.
Skrine struggled badly during Haden’s four-game NFL suspension from Weeks 2-5, making two starts, but has played much better of late in a reduced role.
“The only good thing about the injuries and other things we’ve gone through this season is they’ve helped get the younger guys experience,” safety T.J. Ward said.
“But any time you lose a guy, especially a starter like Joe, it hurts. Not having him is big, but the next guy will have to step up, just like we’ve had to do all year.”
Bryant and Austin each stand 6-foot-2 and weigh 220 pounds, making them significantly larger than anyone in the Browns’ secondary. Haden’s leaping ability could negate some of that disadvantage, but even if he plays, it’s doubtful his oblique will be close to 100 percent.
As per team policy, Haden was not made available to the media because he was unable to practice.
“I’m not thinking about that because I hope that Joe is in there,” free safety Usama Young said. “But if he’s not, in football, you can’t dwell on it. You’ve got to look past it and work through it, which we will do.”
The explosive Bryant (45 receptions, 590 yards, three touchdowns) at 24 is four years younger than his teammate, but two-time Pro Bowl honoree Austin (43 receptions, 669 yards, four touchdowns) is a much more polished player and well respected around the NFL.
Add tight end Jason Witten (66 receptions, 585 yards, one touchdown) and it’s clear Cleveland could be in for a long afternoon if erratic Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo gets hot.
For comparison’s sake, the Browns’ top receiver is running back Trent Richardson with 31, while rookie Josh Gordon has a team-high 417 yards and four scores.
“We need everybody on Sunday,” cornerback Sheldon Brown said. “If the quarterback is running backwards, then it really doesn’t matter who is in the back end. Bottom line is we need every man.”
Brown understands that he will be one-on-one against either Bryant or Austin, while Skrine or Haden guards the other. Ward and Young both said they won’t be able to offer as much help as usual, given Witten’s presence.
Those circumstances also could mean trouble for Wade, a seventh-round pick from Arizona, who will likely draw Austin in the slot on most third-down plays.
“I’m just trying to fill in and do my part,” said Wade, who has played in seven of Cleveland’s first nine games. “The only way to get better is to have experience. That’s true in any job, whether it’s football, a business person or even a reporter. You’ve got to have that experience and get out there and do it.”
Growing pains, however, are guaranteed to accompany a young player’s increased snap count.
It’s up to their older, wiser peers to limit them as much as they can — if they can limit them against an offense as explosive as Dallas has.
“The fact the Cowboys have as much talent as they do kind of puts defenses in a tough situation,” Young said. “It’s not only Miles or Dez or Witten, they’ve got a fast backfield with (Felix) Jones, (DeMarco) Murray and even (fullback Lawrence) Vickers.
“But I try and remain positive. The best way to fix that is to put (Romo) on the grass. If you keep doing that, he might throw you the ball.”
Contact Brian Dulik at firstname.lastname@example.org.