CLEVELAND — When the Browns collapsed in the final two minutes on Sunday en route to a 31-30 loss to the New York Jets, rookie quarterback Alex Wright experienced uncomfortable flashbacks to the football heartbreak he endured last season with the University of Alabama at Birmingham .
With three seconds left in the game, the University of Texas at San Antonio scored a touchdown and defeated UAB 34-31 on Nov. 20 at the Alamodome.
“It feels like PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] from the beginning,” Wright said after the disappointing home opener at FirstEnergy Stadium. “I’m sick to my stomach right now.”
But Wright realizes he can’t afford to dwell on the devastating defeat.
With starting defensive end Jadeveon Clowney leaving the field in a boot after injuring his right ankle in the third quarter, the Browns (1-1) may have to rely on Wright and rookie defensive end Isaiah Thomas more Thursday night against in the away AFC. North rival Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1).
“It sucks,” Wright said of Clowney’s injury. “[Especially] something that is so spontaneous, something that shouldn’t have happened. But at the end of the day, someone has to step up. We can’t sit back and hang our heads because it’s down. We just have to see as it will be fine. Will return. While he is gone, however, someone must step up, someone must take his place and do works.”
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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, Clowney had sacked Flacco and recovered the fumble earlier in the game, breaking up a Jets drive on third-and-8 from Cleveland’s 12-yard line with 3:24 left in the first half.
“Extremely valuable, a guy who’s been in the league for nine years now still goes out there and plays like it’s his first year,” Thomas said of Clowney. “Like a young man [seeing him] get a strip-sack in a big game moment, it’s inspiring to watch guys like that. If he can do it, why can’t I? So you think.
“It sucks to put a vet in, but, obviously, the next one. They brought me, Alex Wright, other D-ends in here to come in and play and play, not to just sit and watch from the sideline.”
After Clowney was injured, Thomas entered the game in place of All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett. Wright pitched and veteran Chase Winovich also picked up defensive ends 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 feel for guys like [Clowney], guys who put blood and sweat into this game,” Thomas said. “In training, you see how badly he wants it. Even after the game, he was already sad that he couldn’t finish the game and as we lost, he was really hurt by it.”
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In Garrett’s postgame press conference, he expressed optimism that Clowney will 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 consistently threaten a pass rush.
“What makes me super confident is that I’ve been doing this my whole life,” Thomas said. “I’m here for a reason, and I’ve shown my skills here and there in preseason and also during training. Regardless of the guys in front of me, the guys that we have in there, I know that every time I go out there, I’m doing my job, if not some.”
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The Browns sacked Flacco twice, with Clowney strip and Garrett bringing down the QB once. The defense had just four quarterback hits, with Garrett and Winovich tallying two apiece.
A seventh-round pick out of the University of Oklahoma, Thomas made his NFL regular-season debut Sunday after being inactive for the Browns’ season-opening win over the Carolina Panthers. He did not record any official stats against the Jets.
A third-round pick, Wright lined up at defensive tackle and threw a pass to Flacco 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. tied it 17-17 with 14:19 left.
Wright said his deflection reinforces the idea that he can help the Browns, though he wishes the effort had resulted in more consistent play. Linebacker Jacob Phillips nearly made a diving interception split seconds after Wright got his left hand on the ball.
“We could have ended up getting a pick,” Wright said. “It was [missed] by inches.”
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The Browns wasted countless opportunities to close the coffin on the Jets.
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski then challenged the players in the locker room to respond against the Steelers.
“Coach said we have another game in four days, a divisional opponent right here tonight,” Thomas said. “And he said that – we have to choose who we want to be there at that time.
“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 may need more from Wright and Thomas than anyone anticipated early in the season.
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Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com.
On Twitter: @ByNateUlrich.
This article originally appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal: With Jadeveon Clowney injured, Browns turn to rookie D-ends