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Browns vs Texans: 3 Cleveland players who will need to step up in the NFL playoffs

This roster is already decimated by injuries, and the backups will need to step up and play lights out

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Here are the Cleveland Browns, ready to slide into the 2023 NFL playoffs against the Houston Texans. They have done this with resiliency and a desire to never quit with the “next man up” mentality.

But some positions will need an upgrade. Change that. Some positions, meaning specific players, will need to play better than they have been in order for this franchise to win and move deeper into the post-season.

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RT James Hudson

The Browns offensive line has more entries to the injured reserve list than any other position. Several players have been hurt in this group, and yet returned weeks later which only left a hole for a limited time.

RT Jack Conklin was lost for the year in just 22 snaps of this season. He has been injured quite a few times in the past several years, and his immediate replacement has always been James Hudson. But Offensive Line coach Bill Callahan inserted rookie Dawand Jones instead.

Then LT Jedrick Wills went down with an MCL injury in Week 9. Jones was switched to his spot, and Hudson was now the starting right tackle. When Jones went down himself and landed on IR, backup Geron Christian was inserted.

But mostly, Christian has done a decent job. Hudson has been a roller coaster. Currently, his Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade is 45.1, the worst of all Browns offensive linemen. The value on this roster has been his ability to come in and either start or fill in. But he has struggled mightily as a run blocker. And if the defensive end on his side has a great first step, Hudson is not able to get adequate hands on his defender and drive him deep and out of harm’s way. Instead, the defensive player can move inside and Hudson relents the space.

His greatest value is at fullback or as an extra blocker in jumbo formations. But as a starting tackle, he has problems getting beat to the inside and keeping constant leverage on his man.

Hudson is equally just as average in pass protection. He fails to stay engaged but will also have his share of solid performances. But when he is exposed, it has been painful to watch either the sack, QB hit, or pressures mount.

Hudson is no longer the new guy staying up late at night learning the offense or how to absorb the position. He had 599 game reps the past two seasons subbing for Conklin’s various injuries. He just may be in a development stage still but is forced instead to take on some of the better EDGE rushers as he earns to learn.

He has committed nine penalties this year and allowed four sacks. There aren’t any stats of how many times a quarterback is flushed from an offensive lineman’s defender, but for Hudson, that is every game. Right now, the Browns have no other option at right tackle but Hudson.

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S Juan Thornhill

The signing of Thornhill in the off-season was supposed to be the Browns wow moment. But Thorny can’t stay healthy, and when he does, he has an issue with coverage. Veteran Rodney McLeod was taking snaps away from Thornhill until a season-ending torn biceps ended his playing days this year.

Thornhill didn’t come to the Browns on the cheap as he inked a three-year deal worth $21 million.

Thornhill injured his calf in early November which has since lingered. His PFF grade is a decent 67.3, but in his stead, two younger safeties have been playing very well in D’Anthony Bell and the rookie Ronnie Hickman.

Since being drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the second round of the 2019 NFL draft, he was a steady presence for a Chiefs defense that has won two Super Bowl rings. He was known for creating explosive plays all over the field, especially in the deep zones.

And he has looked good at times with Cleveland. But his lingering calf injury, which he aggravated before the Jacksonville game, has shortened his step and delayed him making tackles. He is a dynamic versatile talent when completely healthy, but since then there is a clear drop between on-field ability and production.

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He has had spurts of good football with the Browns’ defense. This same description could be said of his play in Kansas City. He can dominate a game, and then disappear for three. At times, he has a difficult time locating the ball in flight as the completion will be right there in front of him.

Currently, Thornhill has 54 total tackles which equates to just 3.8 tackles per game average. He has had four games where he notched four tackles or less. He has zero interceptions and zero tackles for loss, plus two hurries and two knockdowns with two missed tackles. These stats are concerning.

This Browns defense has kept the team in so many games this year. And Thornhill needs to be that backend leader and lead by example.

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RB Kareem Hunt

Hunt was a bonafide NFL superstar for 1.68 seasons. He really was.

In his rookie year with the Chiefs, he gained 1,327 rushing yards with eight touchdowns. But his value was with his hands as he caught 53 receptions for 455 yards and an additional three scores. He made the PFWA NFL All-Rookie Team and was crowned NFL Rookie of the Year. He was also the league rushing yards leader and made the Pro Bowl.

The next season after 11 games, he again led the league in rushing with 824 yards and seven touchdowns with 378 receiving yards and another seven TDs.

Then the video came out. Kansas City released him, and suddenly, his pro football career was on hiatus. No other club would touch him. So, he sat. And waited. Finally, the GM who drafted him was now the head guy with the Browns. He signed Hunt, but an eight-game suspension would have to come first. Which it did.

And although he had a second NFL life with Cleveland, he no longer dominated the field. His best season has been in 2020 when he gained 841 yards. He did that in 11 games while with the Chiefs. He did have to share the backfield with Nick Chubb who in all likelihood would have been the league rushing leader if he did not have to share carries with Hunt.

But why not now? This year? This playoff season?

So far Hunt has 411 yards in 14 games. His nine rushing touchdowns are impressive, but he has just 79 receiving yards for the year and zero receiving touchdowns.

Why isn’t he lighting up the league? RB Jerome Ford is the starter but doesn’t scare anybody. Pierre Strong will get some carries, but he will get plenty of snaps on special teams and rarely get many on offense.

The Browns need Hunt to be more in the passing game. He has always been a weapon in the passing game averaging double digits per reception. Now? 5.6 yards.

Kareem Hunt continues to be far more efficient than Ford.

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Ford does average almost a yard more than Hunt. But Hunt holds the edge in two categories: efficiency, and touchdowns.

Hunt does have a knack for the end zone whereas Ford has struggled inside the 10-yard line to field paydirt.

But where Hunt is more intriguing is from an advanced analytics perspective. He has a 41% rushing success rate.

This does not justify who the better running back is but merely states that Hunt succeeds more when he is put in favorable positions.

What is strange is that when Nick Chubb went down with his season-ending injury, when Cleveland brought Hunt back it wasn’t as the bell-cow, but into the same role as when Chubb and he were sharing the snaps with short-yardage and high-leverage situations.

Why isn’t Hunt the main guy, and getting the bulk of the workload each week?

Hunt could very well become the offense’s integral part of the Browns’ postseason success. That is, if they would use him.

Who do you think needs to step up most for the Browns this Saturday?