INDIANAPOLIS (AP)The Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns used the same strategy this week.
Both continued collecting information about throwing shoulder injuries to their starting quarterbacks. Both went to backups in practice. And both debated the long-term health consequences of bringing back the respective faces of their franchises.
Then they went different directions.
While Indy opted to let rookie Anthony Richardson undergo season-ending surgery and handed the reins to Gardner Minshew, the Browns are still contemplating whether to start Deshaun Watson or PJ Walker on Sunday after Watson’s return to practice this week.
“We’ll continue to be careful and safe and make sure that when he (Watson) is ready to do his job and he has all of his ability in terms of being able to throw the football when he’s ready for that, we’ll have him back out there at practice,” Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski said Wednesday.
Watson returned Thursday, his first workout since Sept. 28. But just having him back, throwing was a promising sign, one receiver Amari Cooper believes could give the Browns’ offense a big boost.
Cleveland (3-2) thought Watson might return last week following a bye but when he couldn’t go, Walker was activated from the practice squad and promptly led Cleveland to a surprise victory over previously unbeaten San Francisco. If Watson can’t play at Indy (3-3), Stefanski already has said Walker will.
But will the Browns go all in on their $230 million investment by playing Watson and risk further injury to an already strained rotator cuff?
“They haven’t mentioned that part to me, so I’m not going to be thinking about that,” Watson said. “I don’t want to get out there and be hesitant throwing the ball or anything like that. So I’m not going to put myself first in this situation. I’m going to put the team first.”
The Colts know both Browns quarterbacks well.
Watson went 2-5 against Indy when he was with the Texans, while Walker spent three seasons of Indy’s practice squad.
What the Colts must figure out is what direction this season will go.
With Richardson out, Minshew in and 2021 NFL rushing champ Jonathan Taylor working his way back into playing shape following offseason ankle surgery, the Colts certainly didn’t look the same last week in Jacksonville. Minshew had been a steadying influence through five games, but was picked off a career-high three times and lost one fumble in a loss to the team that drafted him.
The challenge this week will be rebounding against the league’s top-rated defense. But the Colts’ defense may face an even tougher obstacle – getting it right against who runs the Browns’ offense.
“This team is a good team,” three-time All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard said. “It’s a good running team and we’ve got to find a way to get some takeaways.”
The only thing Cleveland’s defense hasn’t tackled is a catchy nickname.
It has been the NFL’s stingiest group through five games, allowing the fewest yards (1,002), yards passing (607), points (77) and first downs (52) and has the best third-down conversion rate (23.1%). Only the 1971 Baltimore Colts and 1970 Minnesota Vikings started the season allowing fewer yards.
And when the defense breaks down the huddle after practice, it chants: “Best in the world!”
“When we lock in, when we play disciplined, complementary football and have a great deal of focus and everything is aligning the way it’s supposed to, we are the best,” said safety Rodney McLeod. “I think for anything in life, you have to speak things into existence and you have to manifest it. It’s just a constant reminder about who we are and what we’re striving to be.”
Colts defensive tackle Grover Stewart has been an iron man through his first 6 1/2 pro seasons. He has missed only two games and played in 66 straight. But he won’t play Sunday after drawing a six-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substances policy.
“He made a mistake, it wasn’t malicious,” Colts coach Shane Steichen said. “The eight months I’ve been around him – an unbelievable teammate, great character. He made a mistake.”
DOWN THE MIDDLE
Dustin Hopkins has given Cleveland’s special teams the kick it needed.
Acquired from the Chargers in a late August trade, Hopkins has been better than hoped. He has made 12 of 14 field goals, including four of five in last week’s victory, including from 50 and 29 yards in the final 3:21, to beat the 49ers. He has made a kick of at least 50 yards in a team-record four straight games.
“Credit to (Browns GM Andrew Berry) for getting Dustin here,” coach Kevin Stefanski said. “Really felt like we need a guy and we’re excited to have him.”
Indy will have a new look this week – ditching its traditional white helmets and horseshoe logo for black helmets and a block letter “C” surrounding an outline of the state of Indiana. Other changes include black trim around the sleeves and neck of the jerseys as well as classic block font numbers and a textured blue stripe on the helmet.
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Berea, Ohio, also contributed to this report.
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