CLEVELAND — As the Browns collapsed in the final two minutes of their 31-30 loss to the New York Jets on Sunday, debutant Alex Wright was given uneasy flashbacks to the football heartbreak he endured at the University of Alabama at Birmingham last season. .
With three seconds left, the University of Texas at San Antonio scored a touchdown to beat UAB 34-31 on Nov. 20 at the Alamodome.
“It feels like PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] all over again,” Wright said after the disappointing home opener at FirstEnergy Stadium. “I’m sick to my stomach now.”
But Wright realizes he can’t afford to dwell on the devastating defeat.
With coach Kevin Stefanski exclude Monday starting defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and veteran backup Chase Winovich for Thursday night’s home game between the Browns (1-1) and AFC North rival Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1), Cleveland will have to rely on Wright and rookie defensive end Isaiah Thomas more.
Clowney left the stadium Sunday afternoon in a walking boot after sustaining a right ankle injury in the third quarter. Winovich is sidelined with a hamstring injury.
“It sucks,” Wright said of Clowney’s injury. “[Especially] something so whimsical, something that shouldn’t have happened. But at the end of the day someone has to get up. We can’t sit back and hang our heads because he’s lying down. We just have to watch it because he’s going to be fine. He is coming back. But while he’s gone, someone has to get up, someone has 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. Clowney, a three-time Pro Bowl roster, had Flacco fired and recovered the fumble earlier in the game, destroying a Jets drive on third and 8 of the Cleveland 12-yard line with 3:24 left in the first half.
“Very valuable, a man who has been in the league for nine years and still performs like it’s his first year,” Thomas said of Clowney. “As a young guy [seeing him] get a strip sack at a big moment in the game, it’s inspiring to see guys like that. If he can do it, why can’t I? So you think.
“It sucks to have a vet, but obviously the next guy is there. They brought me, Alex Wright, other D-ends here to come in and perform and play, not to sit down and just watch from the side.”
After Clowney was injured, Thomas came into play against All-Pro defender Myles Garrett. Wright turned in and Winovich also registered defensive end snaps for the Browns vs. the Jets (1-1). Isaac Rochell is a defensive part of the exhibition squad that is likely to be activated on Thursday-evening.
“You feel for guys like [Clowney], guys who have put blood and sweat into this game,” said Thomas. “In training you can see how much he wants it. Even after the game he was sad that he couldn’t finish the game, and the way we lost, he was really hurt by it.”
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Without Clowney, the defense will need other linemen to deliver. As the Jets gathered in crunch time, the Browns failed to consistently threaten a pass rush.
“What gives me a lot of confidence is that I’ve been doing this all my life,” said Thomas. “I’m here for a reason and I’ve shown my abilities here and there in the pre-season and also in training. Regardless of the guys in front of me, the guys that we have there, I know that every time I go out I’m doing my job, if not then what.
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The Browns fired Flacco twice, with Clowney’s strip and Garrett taking him down once. The defense had only four quarterback hits, with Garrett and Winovich scoring two.
Thomas, a seventh-round pick from the University of Oklahoma, made his regular-season NFL debut on Sunday after being inactive for the Browns’ season-opening win over the Carolina Panthers. He recorded no official statistics against the Jets.
Wright, a third-round pick, lined up on defensive tackle, tipping a Flacco pass early in the fourth quarter on third-and-15 of the Cleveland 39. On the next game, Jets kicker Greg Zuerlein scored a 57 field goal. yard to tie the score 17-17 with 14:19 remaining.
Wright said his deflection reinforces the idea that he can help the Browns, although he wishes the effort would have resulted in a more consistent game. Linebacker Jacob Phillips nearly made a dive interception a split second after Wright got his left hand on the ball.
“We could have made a choice,” Wright said. “It was [missed] centimeters.”
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The Browns have lost countless opportunities to close the Jets’ coffin.
In the aftermath, Stefanski challenged the players in the locker room to react against the Steelers.
“The coach said we have another game in four days, another division opponent here in the evening,” said Thomas. “And he said it: we have to choose who we want to be in that moment.
“Decide who you want to be here right now. I know the vibe of these guys and what we want to be and what we expect from ourselves.”
And now the Browns need more from Wright and Thomas than anyone expected so 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 Akron Beacon Journal: Jadeveon Clowney Outlawed, So Browns Turn to Rookie D-Ends