Brandon Browner was back in the Seattle Seahawks' locker room Wednesday, shaking hands and sitting just a few feet from fellow cornerback Richard Sherman.
For a time last month, no one was sure whether Browner and Sherman would be around at this point of the year with each facing four-game suspensions for using a banned substance. Browner eventually dropped his appeal and sat out the last four games of the regular season, while Sherman won his appeal and had his suspension overturned.
The result is that the Seahawks will go to Washington on Sunday for the opening round of the playoffs at nearly full strength.
"Getting Brandon Browner back is a big deal to us. He's been a big part of what we've done here and a significant factor in the style that we play," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. "He comes back and (we'll) see how he does. It's been a month; we'll see how rusty he is. But we're very fortunate right now."
There are a few key players whose seasons ended early due to injuries. Offensive lineman James Carpenter, defensive tackle Jason Jones and cornerback Walter Thurmond are all players Seattle would like to have available when its faces the Redskins.
For the most part, what Seattle's starting lineup looked like for most of the season will be on the field against the Redskins. The only player listed on Seattle's injury report Wednesday was Marshawn Lynch, who continued with his trend of having a light practice early in the week to rest his back.
"Our confidence is sky high and we feel like we can match and scheme with anybody," Seattle linebacker Leroy Hill said.
The return of Browner is significant because of how the rest of Seattle's defense plays off the skills of its cornerbacks. Browner's size at 6-foot-4, combined with adequate speed has made it possible for the Seahawks to play press coverage with its cornerbacks and allow safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas to roam around and make plays in run support and the pass game.
Combined with Sherman on the other side, Seattle's pass defense ranked sixth in the league, allowing 203.1 yards per game. The Seahawks were ranked as high as No. 3 in the league against the pass during the regular season.
According to STATS, Inc., Browner and Sherman were among the best in the league at not getting burned. Browner was targeted 65 times and allowed 30 receptions with six passes defensed. Sherman was targeted 94 times and allowed 43 receptions, and led the NFL with 24 passes defensed according to STATS.
"It just adds along to all the ballers we have back there," Thomas said. "(I) don't want to take any credit away from the young guys that have been playing back there, but that's a Pro Bowl player and it's hard to replace that type of player. He's a physical guy, can cause fumbles and interceptions. We're just glad to have him back."
If there was a benefit to Seattle losing Browner for the final four games it was that some inexperienced players got an opportunity to play. Seattle initially went to Thurmond to take Browner's role until he was sidelined by a hamstring injury that landed him on injured reserve earlier this week. Thurmond going down required the Seahawks to give rookie Jeremy Lane and second-year defensive back Byron Maxwell their shots at filling the role and both played well. Lane was tested deep on the first play of the game against both Buffalo and San Francisco and each time was stride for stride in coverage. Maxwell regularly entered and played on the outside in passing situations with Lane moving inside to play against slot receivers.
Overall, the results give the Seahawks flexibility on how they run their schemes and playing time for their youngsters.
"That's just the outside perspective. We already knew how strong he was, we already knew how good he was," Sherman said about Lane. "It wasn't news for us, it was just him getting to show the world how talented he was and we knew the whole time. That's why he's on this team."
Along with the return of Browner, Hill practiced Wednesday after missing last Sunday's regular-season finale because of a hamstring injury. Malcolm Smith started last week against St. Louis and Carroll said he did not know who would start if Hill made it through the week. Hill has the second-most postseason experience of anyone on Seattle's roster with seven games.
"Like I said, we'll be ready," Hill said. "We've got our full confidence up and we have reliable backups. We know Malcolm can play. We know (Lane) and Byron can play."
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