BEREA, Ohio – The Browns couldn't win without Joe Haden. They may have to try again.
Haden missed practice on Thursday with an oblique injury, and Cleveland may be missing its top cornerback — and arguably its best defensive player — on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys.
Haden, who was suspended four games by the NFL earlier this season for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, got hurt during a drill in Wednesday's practice. He stayed on the field and was listed as "limited" on the Browns' injury report, but he did not participate at all on Thursday and his status for this week's game remains uncertain.
It's another setback for Cleveland's defense, which has been ravaged by injuries all season. Starting tackle Ahtyba Rubin is expected to return this week after missing three games with a calf injury, but if Haden can't play, the Browns will again be forced to adjust.
"When anyone's down, especially a starter, it hurts," safety T.J. Ward said. "Not having Joe will hurt us, but the next guy just has to step up. That's how it's been all year. We haven't had our complete defense on the field at any point. It just seems like everyone's starting to get back and Joe, I won't say he went down, but he hasn't been practicing. Hopefully we can have him this weekend."
Haden would likely be responsible for covering Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant, who has 45 catches for 590 yards and three touchdowns.
While Haden served his suspension for testing positive for the stimulant Adderall, the Browns went 0-4. They're 2-2 since he returned and Haden's presence has not only bolstered Cleveland's secondary, but he has forced opposing teams to game plan differently.
Cleveland's secondary is already missing cornerback Dimitri Patterson, who has been sidelined the past four games with a severe ankle injury and has not yet been cleared to practice.
It's just been that kind of season for the Browns, who have lost starting linebackers Chris Gocong and Scott Fujita to season-ending injuries and played the first eight games without massive defensive tackle Phil Taylor, who was sidelined after tearing a chest muscle while lifting weights during the offseason.
"It would be nice to see everybody out there at the same time," safety Usama Young said. "It's one of those things with football, you've always got to work through, though. You're going to have guys go down and if you're going to be a good football team, you've got to have guys step in and play at a high level. Hopefully, guys are back, but you can't even dwell on it. If you're going to be good, you've got to look past it and get the next guy in line."
Buster Skrine would take Haden's starting spot and rookie Trevin Wade will likely get playing time at nickel back if Haden can't go.
Cornerback Sheldon Brown said the Browns can't worry about missing one player.
"We need everybody on Sunday," he said. "If the quarterback is running backward, then it really doesn't matter who's in the backend. Bottom line is we need every man."
The Browns simply weren't the same when Haden wasn't in the lineup. Quarterbacks didn't have to worry about throwing to his side of the field, and several of Cleveland's young defensive backs were exposed.
Haden was missed — badly — and his absence showed his value to the Browns.
"I didn't gain an appreciation for him because I know how talented he is," Young said. "I've been watching him since his first year and now playing alongside him, you see how talented he is. In this game, when guys go down, you've got to have guys that are going to step up and play at a high level. We look forward to that on defense. We've got some young boys that are hungry, ready to play. Hopefully (Haden) will play, but we don't know yet."
NOTES: Browns rookie WR Josh Gordon is appealing a $20,000 fine for a block the NFL deemed as a blindside hit on Ravens safety Ed Reed on Nov. 4. Gordon was flagged for a 15-yard penalty. "They told me it wasn't a helmet-to-helmet hit," Gordon said. "It was just that he wasn't looking. He never looked my way at all. We were confused about it for a while and we still are because that's my blocking responsibility, and if I wouldn't have done it, our runner would have gotten tackled for a loss. If you don't make a play, Coach is going to look at you like, 'What's going on?'" ... Special teamer Ray Ventrone was limited in practice with what the Browns listed as a "hand/calf" injury. Ventrone missed one game earlier this season with a broken thumb that required surgery.
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