Jordan Kunaszyk 'gotta be ready to go' as injuries deplete Browns linebackers
That's not a slight at Kunaszyk, a fourth-year pro out of California. It's more indicative of what the Browns have endured at a position that was reasonably thin even at the start of the season.
However, by the time the Browns went to Miami for last Sunday's 39-17 loss to the Dolphins, it was at a critical point. They had already put middle Mike linebackers Anthony Walker Jr. (quad tendon) and Jacob Phillips (biceps) on the injured reserve list, and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was ruled out the previous Friday with a knee injury.
That opened the door for Kunaszyk, a one-time practice-squad player who tried to make the most of the opportunity that was presented to him.
"I mean, one guy goes down and the next guy gotta be ready to go," Kunaszyk said in the locker room immediately after the game. "And obviously losing people like A-Walk and Jacob and Jeremiah, I mean, it's tough. Those are all people who are great players, great teammates. Ultimately it comes down to the next man. You gotta be ready to go and the opposite team, they don't really care who's up, who's down. It's the next man up and we've got to find a way to do better. We got to step up as a linebacker group and just continue to go to work every day."
The Browns started the linebacking duo of Sione Takitaki and Deion Jones, who was an Oct. 9 trade acquisition from Atlanta. However, Kunaszyk was the No. 1 substitution at the position against Miami.
Kunaszyk played on 20 of the Browns' 69 defensive snaps, which amounted to a season-high 29% participation. That was on top of the 20 special-teams snaps he played, which has been where he's mostly contributed over the first eight games of the season.
It wasn't just Kunaszyk who was thrust into a much bigger role. Tony Fields II, also almost exclusively a special-teams player over the first eight games, played 10 defensive snaps against Miami.
"All these guys stepped up and played," Takitaki said after the game. "These guys are ready. It's the National Football League. We've practiced it and these guys are ready to go out there and play. It's just kind of one of those things where we are kind of trying to give them different looks knowing that they were going to run the ball. Again, tip my hat to those guys who gave us a lot of issues in the run game. As a unit we just need to be cleaner."
Kunaszyk's 20 defensive snaps was more than the combined number of snaps on that side of the ball he had received over the first eight games. He played a combined 18 defensive snaps prior to Sunday, including 12 in the previous game, a Week 8 win over Cincinnati.
It wasn't just that Kunaszyk was on the field, but he was in on some critical defensive plays. Two, in particular, appeared to be a chance at momentum for the Browns.
The Dolphins were facing third-and-1 from the Cleveland 14 when they shifted receiver Durham Smythe under center for a quick sneak. Kunaszyk flew up and made the stop shy of the line to gain.
The next play, Miami tried to run Jeff Wilson Jr., who finished with 119 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries in the game, but Kunaszyk combined with safety Grant Delpit to stop him for a yard loss. It was the only true defensive stop the Browns managed to get over the Dolphins' first eight possessions.
"I think we just try to take it play by play," Kunaszyk said. "But, obviously, when you get some momentum like that on a key fourth-down stop, you hope that that could be a good opportunity for the team to get some momentum and stuff. So, yeah, any opportunity you get to make a play like that, I think it's helpful and beneficial to the team."
Kunaszyk finished with four solo and one assisted tackle. He also had a pass defensed.
How much more work Kunaszyk gets going forward really depends on the availability of others. Owusu-Koramoah made the trip to Miami and went through a strenuous workout about two hours prior to the game.
Still, considering the depth issues that remain in the linebacking corps, Kunaszyk will likely still figure into the equation when the Browns play at the Buffalo Bills next Sunday. With the team 3-6, it's an absolutely critical game to any true playoff hopes. How much hope? It's hard to say. However, Kunaszyk said the approach can't just be about hope.
"The message to the team is, hey, we got to continue to do what we can do to be the best team we can be," Kunaszyk said. "We got to continue to come to work every single day with the mindset of improving. We got to continue to be consistent in the little details and we got to continue to trust the coaching staff that they put us in the right position and, ultimately, they've done a great job of putting us in position and, quite frankly, it's just on the players to execute what the coaches are putting us in position to do. I mean, it's really on us to go out there and do it well."
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This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Jordan Kunaszyk ready to go as injuries deplete Browns linebackers and on https://sports.yahoo.com/jordan-kunaszyk-gotta-ready-injuries-111430300.html