BEREA — The Browns’ beleaguered secondary has gotten a much needed boost, just in time for the first of their two regular season games against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Top cornerback Joe Haden and nickelback Buster Skrine both said they will play Sunday when the Steelers invade Cleveland Browns Stadium, significantly increasing the home team’s chances of winning.
“It’s big, no question, to have Joe back and Buster healthy for this week,” Cleveland defensive end Jabaal Sheard said Friday following practice.
“Knowing they’ll be back there, keeping the receivers honest, up front we can play more to stop the run first. That could make a big difference in the way things play out.”
An oblique injury prevented Haden from playing in the Browns’ last game, a 23-20 overtime loss in Dallas, while Skrine suffered a concussion in the fourth quarter against the Cowboys.
Since Skrine was already filling in for Haden at left cornerback, the domino effect forced rookies Trevin Wade and Johnson Bademosi into late one-on-one battles with Dallas standout wide receivers Dez Bryant and Miles Austin.
The entire situation wasn’t pretty as Cleveland’s defensive backs committed seven penalties — three on Skrine for illegal contact — and Bryant and Austin combined for 18 receptions and 203 yards on throws from Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.
“I went out early with a coach last week (at Cowboys Stadium) and was running around, trying to see if I could play,” Haden said. “The first time I really went for a ball, I said, ‘Oh (expletive),’ and I knew I wasn’t quite ready.
“Coach (Pat Shurmur) was like, ‘Look, Joe, you know we need you to cover Dez. If you can’t do that, then just shut it down for the day.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s probably best.’”
Haden showed no signs of his injury Friday during the portion of practice that was open to the media, making a leaping interception inside Cleveland’s fieldhouse. His impact on the defense can’t be overstated as the Browns are allowing 17.8 points in five games with him in the lineup and 29.0 points in the five games he has missed.
“I’m at around 90 percent, but it’s good enough,” Haden said. “I’m ready to go. I can do everything.”
So can Skrine, who passed all of his NFL-mandated medical tests before he was cleared to practice. The second-year pro was hurt on a fluke sequence when Browns safety T.J. Ward hit Cowboys wide receiver Kevin Ogletree, whose helmet then struck Skrine’s helmet.
Ogletree and Skrine each suffered concussions, while Ward was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct and fined $25,000 by the league.
“When you get hit, you kind of just black out and you wake up,” Skrine said. “On this one, I was knocked out for a couple of seconds, so I knew it was different right away.”
The 5-foot-9, 185-pounder said he didn’t blame Ward for his first documented concussion, but admitted having some fun this week at his expense.
“I know T.J. is a hard hitter, so I told him, ‘No more friendly fire,’” Skrine said, chuckling. “When he hit (Ogletree), I didn’t see him coming. This was just one of those things that happens in football. T.J. hit him with his shoulder on his shoulder, then the receiver’s head hit my head.
“As far as where the fine came from, I have no idea because the only thing that touched (Ogletree’s) head was my helmet when he hit me.”
Skrine spent some of his down time after the injury studying Pittsburgh’s receiving corps, which has been ravaged by injuries nearly as much as Cleveland’s defensive backs.
Leading receiver Mike Wallace is healthy for the Steelers, but No. 2 wideout Antonio Brown is questionable with an ankle injury and No. 3 flanker Jerricho Cotchery has been declared out with broken ribs.
Though Emmanuel Sanders is a quality No. 4, Pittsburgh signed former fan favorite Plaxico Burress off the street this week to play behind Wallace and an iffy Brown. Whether third-string quarterback Charlie Batch can effectively get the ball to any of them remains to be seen.
“Plax is a big red-zone target and a veteran receiver. He’s also very smart,” Skrine said. “I imagine they’ll put him with Wallace, and use 88 (Sanders) or Brown in the slot when they go three wide. We’ll have to stay right up on them, though, because Charlie is going to get them the ball as fast as possible.”
Haden delivered a similar scouting report on the Steelers, who are 6-4 and playing for their postseason lives. The Browns, on the other hand, are 2-8 and have been reduced to playing spoilers for their AFC North Division rivals.
Nothing can salvage Cleveland’s season at this point, but beating Pittsburgh at home could put everyone in Northeast Ohio in a happy holiday mood.
“We’re a good team and we say the same stuff every week, but this week we know it’s all about Pittsburgh,” Haden said. “We know what this game means to the city. This year hasn’t gone the way we wanted, but a win would make everything better.”
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