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Joe Flacco’s Week 13 performance against the Los Angeles Rams was at least somewhat encouraging for the Cleveland Browns‘ playoff hopes, but the team just keeps receiving bad news on the injury front during a tumultuous campaign.
Whether it’s Denzel Ward’s shoulder, the quarterback situation or the pass-catching corps, injuries are running rampant for the AFC North hopefuls. And as the week progresses leading up to a crucial clash with the similarly injury-laden Jacksonville Jaguars, unfortunate updates are superseding positive ones.
Amari Cooper and David Njoku Both Absent From Thursday’s Practice
Amari Cooper received five targets from Flacco in the 36-19 loss to the Rams, hauling in three of them for 34 yards. That brought his season-long tally to 50 catches for 799 yards and a pair of scores in 12 appearances.
But Cooper, who suited up in all 17 regular-season contests last year, now has to worry about his record of perfect attendance. The veteran wideout exited Sunday’s contest in the second quarter after suffering a concussion while attempting to bring in a throw from Flacco, adding yet another name to the laundry list of Cleveland injuries.
Listed with both a concussion and a ribs-related injury, Cooper sat out of practice for the second consecutive day Thursday. His status for the Jacksonville contest remains unknown, but the Browns would surely love to see him trending in the right direction sooner than later.
David Njoku presumably has a better chance of lining up against the Jaguars on Sunday, but concern is growing after he missed a second consecutive day of practice. Though the listed reason is non-injury-related rest for his knee, it’s troubling that the 27-year-old tight end has now failed to participate in practice whatsoever at the week’s midpoint.
Njoku leads the Browns with 53 receptions, and he’s turned those into 509 yards (second to Cooper) and two scores without missing a game.
Losing the services of either pass-catching option would be tough for a limited Browns offense. Both watching from the sidelines could be disastrous even with Elijah Moore playing better football in recent action and Marquise Goodwin practicing in limited fashion as he attempts to return from the concussion protocol himself.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson Remains in the Concussion Protocol
The Browns haven’t yet committed to Joe Flacco as the starting quarterback going forward even if the choice seemed obvious coming out of the Los Angeles loss, especially with Dorian Thompson-Robinson in the concussion protocol.
“We’ll see how it goes this week,” head coach Kevin Stefanski said. “Dorian’s still in the protocol, but he’s working his way through. We’ll make that decision at the appropriate time, but I want to see how this week goes.”
Thompson-Robinson, who hasn’t played since November 29, returned to practice in limited fashion this week, and the Browns seem determined to at least involve him in some capacity. Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt indicated that the team might prepare some package of plays that would let his mobility complement the statuesque, pocket-based passing style employed by Flacco.
Much as the Jaguars could be employing gamesmanship by refusing to rule out Trevor Lawrence just days removed from a high-ankle sprain, Stefanski and Co. could be making preparation more difficult for Jacksonville through the possibility of a stylistic contrast under center.
The Passing Game Needs to Get Going Regardless of the Valid Excuses
Whether Flacco is taking snaps, Thompson-Robinson is showing off his dual-threat ability or the combination is working in tandem depending on situation, the passing game must get going for Cleveland to end a postseason drought that dates back to 2020.
The Browns dropped to 7-5 and third in the AFC North after falling to the Rams, but they remain on the right side of the AFC’s playoff picture, currently claiming the third and final wild-card berth.
Problem is, they’re one of four 7-5 squads, joining the Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans. A host of dangerous challengers sits one game back: the Denver Broncos, Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals.
Even though key players are convinced the defense can regain its former glory, the Browns have to put up points to win ball games, and the passing game has struggled to do so.
Only seven teams have thrown more passes this season, per Pro Football Reference, but Cleveland ranks 24th in passing yards and 23rd in touchdowns earned through the air. Just the Las Vegas Raiders (17) have thrown more interceptions than the 14 accumulated by the bevy of Browns quarterbacks.
The injury-related excuses—we haven’t even touched on original starting quarterback Deshaun Watson—are valid. They still have to be overcome for the Browns to have a shot at not just making the playoffs but actually winning a postseason game.
Adam Fromal is a veteran sports writer covering the NBA and NFL for Heavy.com. Originally from Georgia but now often found climbing Colorado’s highest peaks, Fromal has written extensively about a variety of sports for Bleacher Report, where he spent nearly a decade as a National NBA Featured Columnist, Sportscasting and a number of other publications. He’s worked on an Emmy-nominated web series and fact-checked a New York Times bestseller, and he helps stats tell stories at the analytics-based Sports Math Network. More about Adam Fromal
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