CLEVELAND – When the Browns collapsed Sunday in the final two minutes en route to a 31-30 loss to the New York Jets, rookie defensive end Alex Wright suffered uncomfortable flashbacks to the football heartbreak he suffered the last season with the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
With three seconds left to play, the University of Texas at San Antonio scored a touchdown to defeat UAB 34-31 on Nov. 20 at the Alamodome.
“It feels like PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] one more time,” Wright said after the disappointing home opener at FirstEnergy Stadium. “I’m sick to my stomach right now.”
But Wright realizes that he cannot afford to dwell on the disastrous defeat.
With starting defensive end Jadeveon Clowney leaving the stadium in a walking start after suffering a right ankle injury in the third quarter, the Browns (1-1) may have to rely on Wright and rookie defensive end Isaiah Thomas more Thursday night in against the visiting AFC. North Rival Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1).
“It’s unfortunate,” Wright said of Clowney’s injury. “[Especially] which is so fluky, which was not supposed to happen. But at the end of the day, someone has to step up. We cannot sit back and hang our heads because it is down. We just have to watch it because it will be fine. It’s going to be back. Even though he’s gone, somebody’s got to stand up, somebody’s got to take his place and make plays.”
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Clowney suffered a non-contact ankle injury while chasing Joe Flacco before the Jets quarterback threw an incomplete pass with 6:10 left in the third quarter. A three-time Pro Bowl selection, Flacco was hit by Clowney and recovered the fumble earlier in the game, ending a Jets drive on third-and-8 from Cleveland’s 12-yard line with 3:24 left in the first half.
“Very valuable, a guy who’s been in the league for nine years who’s still going out there performing like it’s his first year,” Thomas said of Clowney. “As a young man [seeing him] get a strip-sack in a big moment in the game, it is motivated by watching guys like that. If he can do it, why can’t I? That’s how you think.
“It’s great to have the vet, but, of course, the next guy up. They brought me, Alex Wright, other D-leaders here to come in and play and play, not sit down and watch from the sidelines.”
After Clowney was injured, Thomas entered the game in his place against All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett. Wright rotated in, and veteran Chase Winovich logged defensive end snaps for the Browns against the Jets (1-1). Isaac Rochell is a D-end on the practice squad who could be activated for Thursday night.
“You guys feel like [Clowney], guys who put blood and sweat into this game,” Thomas said. “In practice, you see how badly he wants it. Even after the game, he was already sad that he couldn’t finish the game, and because we lost, he was hurt a lot.”
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In Garrett’s postgame news conference, he expressed hope that Clowney would be able to face the Steelers. However, if he can’t, the defense needs other linemen to deliver. As the Jets rallied in crunch time, the Browns failed to create a consistent pass rush threat.
“What gives me a lot of confidence is that I’ve been doing this my whole life,” Thomas said. “I’m here for a reason, and I’ve shown my abilities here and there in pre-season and also during training. Regardless of the guys in front of me, the guys we have there, I know every time I go out there, I do my job, if some of them don’t.”
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The Browns beat Flacco twice, with Clowney strip and Garrett bringing down the QB once. The defense had just four quarterbacks, with Garrett and Winovich leading the way.
A seventh-round pick out of the University of Oklahoma, Thomas made his NFL debut on Sunday after being inactive for the Browns’ season-opening win over the Carolina Panthers. He did not record any official statistics against the Jets.
A third-round pick, Wright lined up at defensive tackle and tipped Flacco’s pass early in the fourth quarter on third-and-15 from the Cleveland 39. On the next play, Jets kicker Greg Zuerlein made a 57-yard field goal to tie the game. votes 17-17 with 14:19 remaining.
Wright said his deflection reinforces the idea that he can help the Browns, though he wishes the effort resulted in a more impactful play. Linebacker Jacob Phillips nearly made a diving interception a split second after Wright got his left hand on the ball.
“We could eventually get an option,” Wright said. “He was [missed] in inches.”
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The Browns wasted many opportunities to close the coffin on the Jets.
Afterwards, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski challenged the players in the locker room to react against the Steelers.
“Coach said we have another game in four days, a divisional matchup here again at night,” Thomas said. “And he said it – we have to choose who we want to be right there in that moment.
“Decide who you want to be here at this moment. I know the vibe of these people and what we want to be and what we expect of ourselves.”
And now the Browns may need more from Wright and Thomas than anyone expected early in the season.
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Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter: @ByNateUlrich.
This article originally appeared on the Akron Beacon Journal: With Jadeveon Clowney injured, Browns turn to rookie D-ends