BEREA, Ohio (AP) — Preparing to play Peyton Manning was challenging enough for the Cleveland Browns even before losing three more starters.
Coach Pat Shurmur said Friday that wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, tight end Jordan Cameron and defensive back Tashaun Gipson will not travel to Denver to play the Broncos (11-3).
With playoff hopes dashed and a losing season assured, the Browns (5-9) will try to halt Denver’s nine-game winning streak. Going in with a depleted defense isn’t the best way.
“It’s definitely not what you hope for, but it seems like it’s been that way all year,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. “We lost Chris (Gocong) and Scott (Fujita) early and stuff piles up. Some of these young guys have played here and there and now they will get a full test. We believe in them.”
But how much faith is reasonable against the top-rated quarterback in the AFC this year. The big year has brought Manning’s career totals to 152 wins, 430 touchdowns and nearly 59,000 yards passing.
“You don’t sleep well the night before,” veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown said. “You have to understand you are going to give up plays against him. You’ve got to make sure you make the tackles so you can live to see another down.”
A week ago, rookie Kirk Cousins shook off an early interception by Cleveland’s T.J. Ward to lead Washington past the Browns in his first career start.
Now, Ward and replacement Gipson along with starting linebacker James-Michael Johnson are out. Veteran cornerback Dmitri Patterson was released after the loss to Washington, too.
“We’ve got to put together a plan,” Shurmur had said earlier in the week before the injuries continued to mount. “We have to go play fast, aggressive.”
Eric Hagg will start at free safety, with Usama Young shifting to Ward’s strong safety spot. Hagg had a season-high seven tackles in a win at Oakland on Dec. 2, but was inactive the past two weeks.
“I think he’s learned that he can play in this league,” Shurmur said of Hagg, a seventh-round pick in 2011 from Nebraska.
“He does a good job in coverage. Anytime you play for a while and then you don’t play, it gives you a little better view of it while you’re watching it. I’m sure he’s learned something as he’s prepared.”
Defensive coordinator Dick Jauron said preparing for the 36-year-old Manning can be frustrating.
“He’s effective against almost everything you do,” Jauron said. “You will blitz. He reads it awfully quickly like he does most things in football. You’ve just got to keep mixing it up and then fight for 60 minutes and hope you can get some breaks.
“There are very few teams that have any kind of record against him over the years. He doesn’t win every one of them so we’ll prepare and go out there and try to play our best game.”
Jackson said putting pressure on Manning would be best, though he pointed out that the Broncos’ offensive line knows their primary project is protecting the future Hall of Famer.
“He’s not sacked that much because he gets rid of the ball so quickly,” Jackson said. “All these years, his linemen know that if Peyton gets time, he’s going to do damage.”
The Broncos are running better since Knowshon Moreno became the starter four weeks ago. He has averaged 97.8 yards on the ground since. His production keeps a defensive line from trying to tee off against Manning.
“He’s a good runner from the shotgun and he has a feel for finding a hole and he can break a tackle,” Shurmur said. “He’s a really good fit for them.”
Shurmur hopes that rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden can put together some long scoring drives to take the pressure off Cleveland’s defense.
“What’s important is scoring points,” Shurmur said. “It makes sense for their offense to not be on the field. I’ll take it the other way. We can’t have a whole bunch of three and outs.”
Shurmur said he hasn’t looked past the Broncos or the final game in Pittsburgh, though finding a way to win either game wouldn’t hurt his chances of coming back for a third year. Earlier in the week, he reminded players that they are playing for individual pride as well.
“What we owe ourselves and each other is that you prepare as well as you can, you get hydrated, you get on the plane go out and play good football, and try to win.”
Notes: LB Tank Carder, claimed on waivers from Buffalo in September, will make his first career start in place of Johnson. … WR Josh Cooper will take Massaquoi’s place. … TE Alex Smith missed practice with an undisclosed illness. … Shurmur hopes DL Frostee Rucker (hip) will play. … RB Trent Richardson has 11 rushing TDs. One more will give him the most by a Browns player since Hall of Famer Leroy Kelly had 16 in 1968.