In the first two games out of their early-October bye week, the Cleveland Browns played quarterback P.J. Walker despite him being on the practice squad at the time.
Walker didn’t join the Browns until the first week of the season. He’d been cut by the Chicago Bears late in the preseason, and Cleveland added Walker to its practice squad after trading Joshua Dobbs to the Arizona Cardinals.
The Browns won Walker’s first start on Oct. 15 over the previously unbeaten San Francisco 49ers. They won again the next week with Walker playing three quarters of emergency duty. Walker was signed to the active roster ahead of his next start, Oct. 29 in Seattle. He’s now the team’s top backup and will have to at least prepare himself this week as starter Deshaun Watson is dealing with an ankle injury suffered during Sunday’s wild win in Baltimore. We won’t get any real update on Watson’s status until at least Wednesday.
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Staying ready is something Browns coach Kevin Stefanski always asks his players to do. Getting new guys ready has become a theme, too.
The Browns signed offensive tackle Geron Christian to their practice squad on Oct. 31. On Nov. 7, they signed Christian to the active roster. Christian got a five-day crash course on the offense and his new surroundings, and on Sunday he started and played all 78 snaps at left tackle in Baltimore.
In the final week of last season, Christian was claimed via waivers by the Miami Dolphins. He signed a new deal with the Dolphins in March but was cut at the end of the preseason. He signed to the Houston Texans’ practice squad four weeks later, for whom he’d started eight games in 2021. But that stint lasted just two weeks, making him available when the Browns needed an emergency tackle option in late October.
The real emergency hit on Nov. 5 when the Browns lost left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. for at least a month to a knee injury. That got Christian a bump to the active roster. Because he had 49 games of NFL experience, the Browns trusted he could get himself ready on short notice.
“It’s been a little crazy,” Christian said. “Been a long year, but I’m just happy for the opportunity here.
“This playbook is honestly completely different than any team I was with before. So I put in a lot of time, a lot of hours, coaches staying after practice and helping me out (last week). A lot of studying. I’ve been ready. This is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for.”
Christian said he wasn’t officially informed he’d be starting until the night before the game. He doesn’t know his status this week, either, as right tackle Dawand Jones may not be able to return from knee and shoulder injuries that kept him out in Baltimore. Maybe Christian will start at left tackle again, even if Jones does return. Maybe he won’t.
“I feel like every day last week I made a big jump, just getting as ready as I could be,” he said. “The first week here I was on the practice squad, so all I got was scout team reps, running the other team’s plays. So I had to make big leaps.”
In the jubilant Browns’ postgame locker room in Baltimore, I asked Christian how many names of his celebrating teammates he even knew.
“Shoot, I couldn’t tell you,” he said. “I’m trying to learn everything.”
Whatever works, matching the theme of the Browns’ 6-3 start.
The Browns watched their kicking situation go from shaky to worse in the preseason, and they fixed it by acquiring Hopkins from the Los Angeles Chargers. Hopkins didn’t arrive until the first week of the regular season and also needed time to get acclimated to his new surroundings, but he’s been steady and successful even before kicking the game winner from 40 yards as time expired in Baltimore.
It was your average game in which the Browns trailed for 59:20 and led for 0:00 but won anyway.
2023 NFL kicking leaders
1. Dustin Hopkins 24
1. Dustin Hopkins 86
50+ yard FGs made:
1t. Dustin Hopkins 7
1t. Matt Gay 7
— Dan Murphy (@DMurph_BrownsPR) November 13, 2023
Hopkins won back-to-back AFC Special Teams Player of the Week awards in October and kicked four second-half field goals in Week 6 as the Browns upset the 49ers. But he’d missed one early versus San Francisco, just like he missed the PAT kick in the fourth quarter in Baltimore that would have tied the game.
“After that miss, talking to the equipment staff, the (trainers), my brothers on the team — everybody had my back,” Hopkins said. “Guys came over and said, ‘Regardless, we got you. We’re going to need you.’ And I (wanted) another opportunity. And I wanted that from the jump, whether they said anything or not. But to have that support either way, it just means a lot. So it’s a testament to the locker room.
“Winning (that game) just shows what we’re capable of, especially when we didn’t — obviously myself included, with the missed extra point — play great. I’m not saying this to comment on any other part of the team, but we didn’t play the cleanest game. We gave them a lot of plays, and like I said, they’re a very good team. Obviously, they whooped us the first time, but it just shows what we can do when we play how we’re capable of playing. So, hopefully that’s just a glimmer of something that we can put together more often.”
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The Browns signed Hunt on Sept. 20 after losing Nick Chubb for the season. Hunt was still living in Northeast Ohio and had been waiting on a chance to be a real contributor somewhere after spending the previous four seasons with the Browns.
Hunt has now scored a rushing touchdown in five straight games. He had two against the Indianapolis Colts on Oct. 22, including the game winner on fourth-and-goal. Hunt has been first up in two games, but Jerome Ford has generally been the feature runner while Hunt has been the primary short-yardage back. The Browns are averaging 151.2 rushing yards in the five games since their bye week, the second most in the league during that time.
Hunt only had 10 total carries over his first two games, but he’s logged at least 10 in each week during his scoring streak. His six rushing touchdowns put him in the top 10 leaguewide and tie the most he’s had in his time with the Browns, with nearly half a season left. He also had six rushing touchdowns in 2020, the playoff season in which Hunt had a steady role as the 1B alongside Chubb.
He’s in a different role now, but he’s consistently said he’ll get a yard when the Browns need it. And he’s done that.
He’s averaging just 3.3 yards per carry, a career low, but Hunt is averaging 2.4 yards after contact, per Pro Football Focus. So his primary job has been to battle for those tough yards and either finish drives or convert third-and-short situations.
“I’m not afraid of contact,” Hunt said last week.
And the Browns aren’t afraid of going to Hunt when they really need a yard.
(Photo of Kareem Hunt: Todd Olszewski / Getty Images)