After they sustained two more significant injuries on defense, the Cleveland Browns are hoping the return of an All-Pro receiver can help the offense get them turned in the right direction.
With Josh Gordon back at last, visiting Cleveland looks to avoid its first back-to-back losses of the season Sunday as it tries to deny the first-place Atlanta Falcons a third straight win.
After taking over sole possession of first place through Week 10 for the first time in 20 years, the Browns (6-4) fell back behind Cincinnati (6-3-1) and Pittsburgh (7-4) in the AFC North following a 23-7 home loss to Houston last Sunday.
The defeat snapped a three-game winning streak and proved costly when starting linebackers Karlos Dansby (knee) and Jabaal Sheard (foot) went down with injuries. Coach Mike Pettine said earlier this week that Dansby, who leads the Browns in tackles, will miss ''upwards of a month,'' and Sheard will be ''down for a while.''
The Browns are already missing defensive end Phil Taylor and linemen Armonty Bryant and John Hughes due to knee injuries, while linemen Ahtyba Rubin (ankle) and Billy Winn (knee) have been slowed all season.
Cleveland allowed 11.0 points per game during its winning streak before giving up a season-high 213 rushing yards against a Houston team that played without star Arian Foster.
''(Dansby had) been playing at a high level and it is more than just the playing and his ability on the field," Pettine said. "It's how he's been in the meeting room, locker room, out on the practice field."
The Browns, though, could be getting a major boost offensively as they try to win consecutive road games for the first time since 2008. Gordon, who broke out as one of the NFL's biggest playmakers last season, has been activated after serving a 10-game, league-imposed suspension for drug violations.
''He hasn't had contact, hasn't played in a game in 75, 80 days,'' Pettine said. ''That is a lot of time. He has been working out, but that's not football. Josh is an elite receiver, he's proven that, but we have to be very smart with how we handle it.''
Gordon set several records while leading the league with a franchise-record 1,646 receiving yards in 2013. He became the only player in NFL history with consecutive 200-yard games in the regular season and also piled up the highest total over a four-game span with 774.
His return should benefit quarterback Brian Hoyer, who completed just 20 of 50 passes against the Texans.
''You get a guy out there like Josh, the defense has to respect him,'' Hoyer said. ''Anytime you have a threat like that, it definitely helps out the offense.''
Hoyer might soon be getting a second threat besides Gordon, but it won't be this week. Tight end Jordan Cameron returned to practice Friday for the first time since suffering a concussion four weeks ago, but he was ruled out for a fourth straight game.
Hoyer will try to find the holes in an Atlanta defense that allows a league-worst 281.2 passing yards per game. The Falcons do have seven interceptions in their past four games after getting just two in their first six, however.
Three of those were courtesy of cornerback Robert Alford, who is expected to miss at least two weeks with a wrist injury.
The Falcons (4-6) are coming off road wins over Tampa Bay and Carolina after dropping their previous five. They're tied with New Orleans atop the poor NFC South, but have beaten the Saints and are 4-0 in the division.
''We're now back in the driver's seat of our destiny,'' running back Steven Jackson said. ''That's where we want to be. Ultimately you have to continue to win. You can't look for anybody else to help you out.''
Matt Ryan, who has the fifth-most passing yards per game in the NFL at 279.3, will try to take advantage of Cleveland's depleted defense. He's had one interception over his last four games after throwing seven in his previous five.
Roddy White has 28 catches for 313 yards and three scores in his past four games. The veteran wideout had five receptions for 101 yards and a touchdown in a 20-10 win in Cleveland in the most recent meeting Oct. 10, 2010.
Atlanta will be without backup running back and key special teamer Antone Smith after he suffered a broken right leg while covering a kickoff in Sunday's 19-17 victory at Carolina.
Cleveland, meanwhile, has turned to rookies Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West to lead its rushing attack, releasing former starter Ben Tate earlier this week. Crowell had 61 yards on 14 carries in his first start last Sunday.
The Browns have won five of six all-time meetings in Atlanta.