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Browns hope Ward, others can help depleted defense

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BEREA, Ohio (AP)

An optimistic T.J. Ward sees the Cleveland Browns' defense as half full, not half empty.

The third-year safety said Monday he is ready to help a depleted unit that could have as many as four starters absent for the season opener Sept. 9 against Philadelphia.

''We are losing some key players, but if we all come in together, we can get it done however long they're out,'' Ward said. ''And when they come back, we can keep it rolling.''

Ward has never lacked confidence. As a second-round pick in 2010, he came to camp and brashly said he should start. Turned out, he was right. He led Cleveland (No. 30 in the AP Pro32) and all NFL rookies with 105 tackles, starting every game.

He missed the last eight games a year ago with a foot injury and the Browns went 1-7 without him.

But hope springs eternal.

''I came in healthy,'' Ward said. ''I still feel that way.''

If cornerback Joe Haden, as expected, draws a four-game league suspension for using a banned substance, Ward is going to be needed even more. In addition to his hard-hitting style, he's tutoring some of the youth.

''We talk to each other once the play is going on and are ready to alert before things happen,'' Ward said. ''Everything will work out fine.''

Second-year defensive backs Eric Hagg, Buster Skrine and James Dockery could play key roles. Hagg started at free safety against Detroit in the preseason opener last week. Skrine and Dockery could play more Thursday against Green Bay.

''Buster is more comfortable in our scheme,'' coach Pat Shurmur said. ''That's why you've seen him flash more. He's a guy that challenges extremely well.''

Shurmur said seventh-round choice Trevin Wade would play nickel back against the Packers. He'll fill in for Dimitri Patterson, out indefinitely with an ankle injury.

For certain, the Browns won't have lineman Phil Taylor nor linebackers Chris Gocong and Scott Fujita vs. the Eagles. And for now, Shurmur is testing rookies L.J. Fort and James-Michael Johnson in those spots. Gocong is out for the year. Fujita will serve a three-game suspension for this role in the New Orleans bounty scandal.

Fort finished off Monday's workouts with an interception. Shurmur took note.

''He's had an excellent camp,'' he said. ''He has very good instincts. He's got the right size, skill and ability to play the position. He has kind of a powerful build.''

Other than that, there wasn't much to say about the team overall on a day Shurmer labeled ''one of those dog days.''

''The guys pushed through it,'' he said. ''They carried their pads well.''

Offensively, the Browns weren't nearly as crisp as the cooler weather. Rookie receiver Jermaine Saffold and tight end Dan Gronkowski had bad drops over the middle.

Josh Cribbs, meanwhile, had a few more balls thrown to him. He said he has ''no doubt in my mind,'' he will contribute on offense and once again be among the NFL's premier kick returners.

''I expect a lot more touchdowns this year,'' said Cribbs, who scored four times as a receiver and once on a punt return a year ago. ''I've lost a lot of weight and got a little faster. I'm going to pick up my game.''

Cribbs intends to run back as many kickoffs as he can, despite a rule change a year ago that limited returns throughout the league. He didn't score on a kickoff for the second year in a row, after doing it eight times his first five seasons.

''It stopped other teams,'' Cribbs said. ''The league average was 12 (returns not getting to the 20-yard line). We had only seven.

''I'm bringing it out every chance I get.''

NOTES: RB Trent Richardson, who had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee Thursday, was not on the field. ''He's here, doing his thing all day, trying to get healthy,'' Shurmur said. ... WR Mohamed Massaquoi (concussion) and LB D'Qwell Jackson (shoulder) were among many not in the full-pad morning practice. Both took part in an afternoon walk-through. ... Rookie QB Brandon Weeden and the No. 1 offense are expected to play two quarters in Green Bay. Shurmur said he'll evaluate at halftime and may play them more. ... Defensive coordinator Dick Jauron will call plays from the coach's booth all season. Shurmur said it was Jauron's choice. Offensive coordinator Brad Childress also will work from upstairs.

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Online: http://bigstory.ap.org/NFL-Pro32 and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Tagged: Browns, T.J. Ward, Buster Skrine, James Dockery, L.J. Fort

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