May 27, 2016

Intermittent clouds

Confident Johnson ready for start

Brian Dulik

The Gazette

BEREA -– Linebacker James-Michael Johnson’s versatility prompted the Browns to pick him in the fourth round of the NFL Draft.

It also is the reason why the rookie from Nevada should make his first professional start Sunday, when Cleveland hosts the Cincinnati Bengals.

Johnson is expected to get the nod at strong-side linebacker in place of the injured Scott Fujita, who sat out the final two practices of the week with shoulder and neck problems.

“There’s nothing I can’t handle,” Johnson said Friday. “I played Sam (strong-side) in college and in training camp, so I’m confident there, just like I’m confident at Mike (inside linebacker).

“I’m just a guy who loves to play football, so I’ll do anything they ask. I’m anxious to get out there on defense and help the team.”

Browns coach Pat Shurmur and defensive coordinator Dick Jauron have been complimentary of Johnson since draft day, but were unable to use him in a regular season game until Week 5 against the Giants.

The 6-foot-1, 240-pounder suffered an oblique injury in Cleveland’s preseason finale against Chicago on Aug. 30, which kept him out of practice until Sept. 21. He was limited to special teams duty against New York, but will be needed to play every down against Cincinnati.

“It was his first game back last week and he hadn’t had a great opportunity to work in scrimmage downs, but this week he’s much more ready,” Shurmur explained. “I think he’s prepared to play outside backer as well as inside linebacker, and I would anticipate that he has a pretty darn good shot to (play and start).”

If Johnson performs well, he could remain in a starting role for the near future.

Not only is Fujita ailing, he is facing a one-game NFL suspension for his role in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program. The outspoken union leader appealed that penalty Friday, but is almost certain to serve it – as the judge and jury is NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

“(Johnson) has gotten more of his work outside to this point, but we’re going to keep dual-training him,” Jauron said.

“We were counting on him to contribute throughout the whole year, so we’re excited to have him back on the field now. We believe he can help our football team now and certainly in the future.”

Injury update

Browns wide receivers Mohamed Massaquoi (hamstring) and Jordan Norwood (left foot), cornerback Dimitri Patterson (left ankle) and safety Tashaun Gipson (knee) were all declared out for the Cincinnati game.

Norwood was subsequently placed on injured reserve/designated to return, which allows him to return to practice in six weeks and be placed on the active roster in eight weeks.

Wide receiver Travis Benjamin (hamstring) is doubtful, while defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin (calf), linebacker Scott Fujita (shoulder, neck) and safeties T.J. Ward (right thumb surgery) and Ray “Bubba” Ventrone (left thumb surgery) are questionable.

Linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (concussion), defensive end Frostee Rucker (shoulder) and tight end Alex Smith (concussion) are probable.

l For the Bengals, defensive end Wallace Gilberry (calf), linebacker Dontay Moch (illness) and cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick (knee) and Jason Allen (quadriceps) are questionable.

Wide receiver A.J. Green (knee), tackle Andrew Whitworth (knee) and cornerbacks Adam “Pacman” Jones (back) and Terence Newman (groin) are probable.

Future watch

Though the Browns released third-string quarterback Thaddeus Lewis on Thursday, Shurmur said he hopes to re-sign him after he clears waivers. The well-liked Lewis has spent the past two seasons with Shurmur (with the St. Louis Rams in 2010 and Cleveland in 2011).

“I think it’s good to have three (quarterbacks) around, however you do it,” the coach said, referring to the active roster or practice squad. “I also think it’s important that you have a guy in here that you’re developing, or if you developed them, you have an opportunity to bring them back.”

Lewis’ spot on the 53-man roster was taken by top cornerback Joe Haden, whose NFL roster exemption was lifted after he served a four-week suspension for violating the league’s illegal substance policy.


With Patterson sidelined and Haden back, second-year pro Buster Skrine will return to his former role as Cleveland’s nickelback.

“That’s what I really played last year, so I remember everything,” he said. “I’m comfortable with the scheme and I’m just ready for the challenge.”

Skrine struggled mightily in two starts while filling in for Haden, but says the nickel defense is a completely different animal.

“You’ve got to be a little more patient, but you can be a little more physical inside because you have help over the top,” he explained. “That’s really the big difference, you’re going against quicker receivers.”

Extra points

The Browns/Bengals game will air on every CBS affiliate in Ohio and West Virginia, along with Lexington, Ky.; and Pittsburgh and Altoona, Pa. It has been designated as the network’s No. 5 matchup in Week 6, ahead of only Bills/Cardinals.

l Sports USA Radio Network also will syndicate the Cleveland/Cincinnati matchup nationwide. Bob Fitzgerald and Ross Tucker are the announcers. …

The NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets are hosting a viewing party for the “Battle of Ohio” in their downtown Arena District from 12:30-4:30 p.m. There is no charge to attend.

Contact Brian Dulik at