If Cleveland Browns fans thought things couldn’t get worse after their 23-7 destruction courtesy of the Houston Texans on Sunday, head coach Mike Pettine decided to deliver a bit of bad news. Thanks to injuries suffered to key linebackers Karlos Dansby and Jabaal Sheard, a defense already ravaged by injures will have to rely on the “next man up” once again.
According to Scott Petrak of The Chronicle Telegram on Twitter, Pettine Stated, “#Browns Pettine: LB Karlos Dansby (knee) could miss upward of a month. Said OLB Jabaal Sheard (foot) could be done for year. Not definite.”
#Browns Pettine: LB Karlos Dansby (knee) could miss upward of a month. Said OLB Jabaal Sheard (foot) could be done for year. Not definite.
— Scott Petrak ct (@ScottPetrak) November 17, 2014
The blow of losing Dansby for a month and Sheard possibly for a year is one this defense is going to have a tough time absorbing. Already down Phil Taylor for the year and a number of other key contributors in and out of the lineup thanks to injury, losing two of the most important pieces of the defense is an absolute travesty.
For a unit already struggling to get to the quarterback and stop the run, these two were two of the most effective at doing both. So who will be called upon to replace them?
Filling in for Dansby will likely be rookie Chris Kirksey.
Capable of playing both inside and outside linebacker, Kirksey’s coverage skills and natural instincts should make for a seamless transition right into the starting lineup at inside linebacker. While Kirksey has certainly been productive, the Browns will now have a major void in regard to that fiery leader position that Dansby has brought to the defense. Kirksey has shown toughness, but Dansby’s years of experience are going to be sorely missed.
The task of filling the void left by Sheard’s injury will be much more difficult for the Browns defense.
Coming into the NFL as a 4-3 defensive end, Sheard has the valuable ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker in Pettine’s hybrid defensive scheme. Removing Sheard from the equation leaves the Browns with Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo and Eric Martin as the only outside linebackers on the depth chart at this time.
With Sheard playing 72.7 percent of the defensive snaps this season, asking guys like Martin (6.6 percent) and Mingo (45.6 percent) to fill his void is going to be a tall order. Many have already labeled Mingo a bust at this point in his career, and if Sheard is truly out for the season the fans will actually get a true answer to the bust question over the final six weeks of the season.
Outside the Box
If the Browns want to get creative, they could move Kirksey back to outside linebacker—a position he is familiar with from his days at Iowa—and promote D.J. Smith to provide depth at inside linebacker. The Browns signed Smith to the practice squad last week after Allen Bradford was signed off their practice squad by the Seattle Seahawks.
Obviously Smith would not start at inside linebacker, that task would fall on Tank Carder in this scenario if they would rather have Kirksey at starting outside linebacker than Mingo. The 5’11” and 238-pound Smith has proven to have a high motor during his various stops in the NFL and been a standout on special teams when called upon.
If the Browns do not wish to go that route, my suggestion would be to utilize a 4-3 defensive look for the remainder of the season. It would provide an extra linemen to help aid in run support—we all know the Browns could use that—and limit the linebackers on the field to three. Ideally you would have Kirksey, Robertson and either Kruger or Mingo in this scenario, with the other lining up as a 4-3 defensive end (something both have experience doing).
Any way you slice it, the reported potential losses of Dansby and Sheard are going to drastically alter the way the Browns play defense for the rest of the season. And for a unit already struggling to stop anything ran or thrown their way, that is not a good thing.
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