The Cleveland Browns entered the 2019 season with high hopes for a defensive front four that was expected to spend the year terrorizing opposing quarterbacks.
Now, with three game remaining in a disappointing season, the coaches find themselves scrambling each week to field a semi-competent unit thanks to suspensions and injuries.
That will be the case again on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals as defensive end Olivier Vernon has been ruled out of the game with the knee injury.
This will be the fifth game that Vernon has missed this season with the injury he suffered late in the November 3 game against the Denver Broncos. Vernon missed the next three games, came back December 1 against the Pittsburgh Steelers but only lasted 12 plays as it appeared that he was not fully recovered. (A good lesson for those fans who wondered why the Browns were in no rush to get tight end David Njoku back on the field after his wrist injury).
The absence of Vernon, along with the suspension of defensive end Myles Garrett, has had a negative impact on the team’s pass rush. According to Scott Petrak at Browns Zone, the Browns have had just seven sacks in the past three games, compared to 30 in the previous 10, and the team has dropped 20 spots in Pro Football Focus’ pass rush rankings, going from a 78.6 grade (fifth best in the league) down to 59.3 (25th in the NFL).
The Browns are trying to make do with second-year defensive end Chad Thomas - who has four sacks on the year and is good for one play a game - and the likes of Bryan Cox Jr. and Porter Gustin to carry the water.
It may not be ideal, but defensive coordinator is trying to make the best of the situation, as he told clevelandbrowns.com:
“I think Bryan plays with No. 1 a tremendous motor, extreme effort. He is a guy that is going to give you an opportunity and chance to make plays out there just because he plays so hard. He plays within the system. He does a lot of good things, and he is being disciplined and trying to do his job. Along with him and (DE) Porter Gustin, I think we are getting some good play out of those two right now.
“With the depleted numbers that we have up front, I think those guys are doing a tremendous job. Larry (Ogunjobi) is stepping up. Sheldon (Richardson) is playing well without OV being in there so we need that continuous push up front to give us a chance.”
In addition to Vernon, the Browns have ruled out defensive back Eric Murray, while center JC Tretter and right tackle Chris Hubbard are listed as questionable for Sunday’s game.