BEREA - Defensive end Robaire Smith will line up next to his third starting nose tackle in 11 games Sunday - and that`s if the Browns are lucky.
The defensive line, the team`s biggest concern entering the season, remains an issue three months later as injuries continue to force the lineup to be juggled. Shaun Smith, who`s started five games at left end, will likely shift to nose tackle because Ethan Kelley didn`t practice this week with a knee injury and is doubtful for the game Sunday vs. the Houston Texans.
Of course, Smith is only questionable (50-50) after someone fell into his knee in practice last week and he missed the game in Baltimore.
"I should be all right," said Smith, who was limited in Friday`s practice.
If Kelley and Smith can`t play, the Browns would be down to four healthy defensive linemen. Ends Robaire Smith or Orpheus Roye would have to shift to nose tackle, with backup Simon Fraser starting at end. Or rookie nose tackle Louis Leonard - his career consists of one play last week - could get his first NFL start. "It`s tough, but guys gotta step up and make plays," Shaun Smith said. "When the opportunity comes, like Louis Leonard, you`ve got to make the best of it."
"We can trust everybody," Robaire Smith said. "I don`t see it as a problem."
Robaire Smith has been the line`s only constant, starting all 10 games at right end. Roye started the first three games on the left side, but was bothered by a sore knee and saw his playing time greatly reduced. But with Shaun Smith out last week, Roye started and played all game. He tied a season high with six tackles and added a half-sack.
"You have to be concerned with anybody coming off of an injury," coach Romeo Crennel said. "But it held up good and he was able to be productive and make plays. That helped us."
Roye, in his 12th year, said the knee`s fine and he`s up for another challenge this week.
"When needed, I knew I`d be able to step up," he said.
Robaire Smith said Roye`s re-emergence provided a big lift to the unit.
"Orpheus is one of the leaders around here," he said. "He`s a smart, veteran player that knows how to get it done. It was a good feeling to see him out there, getting back healthy."
The age of the line - Roye is 34 and injured nose tackle Ted Washington is 39 - was the chief concern starting the year and proved to be valid. But the insertion of Kelley and Shaun Smith into the starting lineup energized the line and improved the run defense.
The Browns are ranked 28th versus the run, but the yards allowed per game are down 39.5 yards from 176.3 after Week 3. They`ve given up an average of 116.2 the last five weeks.
"You gotta look at where we came from," Robaire Smith said. "Me and Shaun were coming in and learning a new system, doing a lot of different things. Now we`re starting to get a feel for it and know our responsibilities and what we need to do and why we need to do it."
Shaun Smith was signed as a restricted free agent to back up Washington (he`s on injured reserve) and eventually take over as the starter. But Roye`s knee issues made Smith more valuable at end and severely cut down on his time at nose tackle. He said the switch back inside isn`t a big deal.
"That`s football, man," he said. "You`ve just got to stop the run as usual and play hard."
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.