A black cloud hovereth
Injuries, as any football coach will tell you, are part of the game. And right now, Browns coach Hue Jackson is doing his best to get his team ready for the regular season in spite of injuries to two key members of the team.
Both play in the trenches, that vital area closest to the football where supremacy arguably determines who wins and loses games.
Joel Bitonio and Danny Shelton are extremely important parts of the units that make a living in those trenches and knee injuries to both men in recent days will have an impact on the beginning of the 2017 season in just a few weeks.
Bitonio is an important cog on the offensive line. And it is anticipated that Shelton, after spending his first two seasons in the National Football League as a nose tackle, will benefit from a switch to Gregg Williams’ hyper-aggressive 4-3 scheme on defense.
The key to any successful offensive line in football is the ability – and good fortune – to stay healthy. This unit more than any other relies heavily on each other. It is truly a group effort up front.
So when Bitonio was scratched for the second exhibition game Monday night at home against the New York Giants, red flags are prepared. Ditto for Shelton. More on him later.
Bitonio has played in only 15 games the last two seasons due to multiple injuries and is coming off Lisfranc surgery on one of his knees. Staying healthy for 16 games is a must for the Browns’ offensive line.
An injury-plagued Bitonio is of absolutely no use to the club. Never knowing when he will be healthy enough to play is a warning sign that trouble continuously lurks around the corner.
When healthy, Bitonio is one of the best left guards in the NFL. He is strong in pass protection and has the athleticism to get out in front of running backs and reach the second level in the ground game.
When he is not in uniform because of another injury, the Cleveland offense suffers. It’s not just Bitonio who makes the ground game hum. It takes five men to make it work.
Those five behemoths up front are fragile in a way. Cohesion and rhythm are their best friends. When an offensive line clicks, it means everyone is pulling his weight simultaneously. One breakdown among those five guys on any given play can destroy it. One weak link and the entire line breaks down.
Right now, Jackson is counting on left tackle Joe Thomas, Bitonio, center JC Tretter, right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Shon Coleman to provide the heavy work for the skilled players.
Even if Bitonio and Tretter, who has also had health issues in his brief NFL career, make it through all 16 regular-season games, a possible weak link exists with Coleman, who appears to have bested Cameron Erving for the starting job.
Coleman is the X factor. No one knows what to expect from the second-year man from Auburn. He is the blank canvas the Browns hope will turn into a handsome picture.
But if Bitonio’s most recent injury is a precursor to the regular season, all bets are off regarding the running game, which Jackson said he would emphasize this season. There is not enough quality depth along the offensive line to compensate for his loss over a prolonged period of time.
Shelton, meanwhile, injured a knee in practice Wednesday and, according to an ESPN report, will miss anywhere from three to six weeks.
If the report is true, that means it is entirely possible the third-year man is iffy, at best, to start the regular season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 10 at home. He is officially listed as week-to-week.
The Browns are downplaying the seriousness of the injury, the extent of which has not been identified. “He has a knee,” said coach Hue Jackson, “and like the other guys, nothing I think is way over the top. . . . We’ll get Danny back as soon as we can.”
If the injury is more serious than Jackson is letting on, Shelton will definitely miss Monday night’s exhibition date with the Giants if not the rest of the exhibition season.
Shelton, who totes 335 pounds on those knees, was AWOL in the exhibition opener against the New Orleans Saints, failing to make the stats sheet. He was clearly a non-factor for the little time he was on the field.
His absence moves veteran Jamie Meder and rookies Larry Ogunjobi, Caleb Brantley and Trevon Coley up the depth chart at one of the deepest positions on the team. Coley, a free-agent pickup, has been the biggest surprise in training camp and might be rewarded with a starting job next to Desmond Bryant.
That, of course, is if the injury bug doesn’t bite him.