CLEVELAND, Ohio — Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was on the sidelines dealing with his own injury when it happened.
But in Cleveland’s 29-17 Thursday night win against the Steelers, the moment fellow linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. went down and had to be carted off wasn’t lost on his teammate as the stadium came to a standstill.
“It’s definitely breathtaking,” Owusu-Koramoah told cleveland.com after the game. “We spent so long training and doing a lot of hard work, a lot of sweat and tears. So to see that, especially a person you have a personal relationship with, it’s tough. He understands the game of football. It’s a tough game. You can only play the cards dealt for you.”
This hand is certainly a tough one dealt to the Browns and Walker.
On Friday, a league source told cleveland.com that Walker will be out for the season with a torn quad tendon.
The play that ended with Walker on a cart and aircast on his left leg happened at the 10:34 mark in the third quarter. Walker went down chasing a screen play, as Steelers quarterback Mitchell Trubisky connected with running back Jaylen Warren. Tackle Chukwuma Okorafor laid a hard block on Walker during the sequence, and as Walker laid flat on the ground, Okorafor jumped on top of him. He wasn’t flagged for the hit on Walker, but was deemed as an ineligible receiver.
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As medical staff tended to Walker on the field, Browns players took a knee. Myles Garrett, Tony Fields II, Jacob Phillips, Jacoby Brissett and others huddled around Walker before he was taken off the field, grimacing in pain.
“I went up to him and told him, ‘We’re going to finish this for you,'” Fields told cleveland.com. “And that’s what he was doing this for, too. At the end of the day, we came here to finish the job.”
“Ever since I’ve gotten here to the Cleveland Browns, A-Walk has been like a big brother to me, so it really hit me a little bit more emotionally. But our team, we all know it’s a long game in the NFL and it’s a next man up mentality. So we were all prepared. (Linebackers coach Jason) Tarver does a good job of preparing everybody, so it was next man up to just do what we have to do and make Anthony proud.”
It was a message echoed by Phillips, Walker’s replacement at the MIKE linebacker spot.
“I told him when he was on the ground that ‘God orders our steps,'” Phillips said. “I’m definitely heartbroken as a brother as a teammate that he suffered whatever the injury was, I don’t even know.”
With Walker out for the long haul, on top of losing a starter, the Browns now also have to contend with losing one of their most vocal leaders, captains and locker room glue guys, at a time when the defense needs that talking more than ever.
Through the first two games of the season, the Browns were open about their miscommunication issues, which allowed both the Panthers and Jets to capitalize for big chunk plays — against the Jets those chunk plays played a large part in the Browns suffering a devastating 31 -30 loss.
It’s not just inspirational talk that Walker provides, though. He’s the primary green sticker guy, the one designated player who receives the defensive calls from the sideline into his helmet headset and relays them to the rest of the defense.
Walker and Jacob Phillips split those duties, but considering the Browns’ communication issues were player-to-player in the first two games, it certainly hurts to lose the starter with that main responsibility. Phillips manned green sticker duties when Walker exited, and will do so going forward Kevin Stefanski said on Friday. But there will need to be even more of an emphasis placed on that in-game talking and repeating calls now with Walker out.
“Just getting the call and echoing the call, especially on the back end, I think that is even more important,” John Johnson III said after the game. “We hate to see him go down, but we will be OK.”
With Walker out, Phillips stepped in and delivered for the Browns down the stretch.
As the Steelers tried to mount a comeback, facing third-and-3, Phillips sacked Trubisky on a blitz, ultimately forcing a Pittsburgh three-and-out. A few minutes later, he had a big pass breakup that was intended for tight end Pat Freiermuth.
“When the team relies on me, when I feel the pressure, that’s when I feel like I thrive the most, when I’m out there and I’m able to adjust during the game and just kind of get a feel for the game Phillips said. “Obviously I’m blessed with the opportunity to walk out of this game healthy and for the play I was able to make.”
But even though Phillips delivered, it wasn’t necessarily easy at the moment.
NFL players know the stakes, and most know how fragile the game can be. But to see a teammate go down with a devastating, season-ending injury is still heartbreaking and requires players to flip a switch.
It’s a mindset they will have to maintain now, without their best communicator going forward.
“A guy like that going down really lights a fire under you,” Garrett said. “So seeing him go down in that moment it just really showed us how fragile the game is for any of us and no rep is really guaranteed. So you’ve got to go out there and give it your all, knowing that he was going to give his all regardless of the circumstances, if he could’ve got up and continued playing, so we’re just trying to play for him and continue to.”
Owusu-Koramoah set to get MRI
Owusu-Koramoah injured his groin on a non-contact play in the third quarter, he said. It was the same series Walker was injured on, and he did not return
“Yeah, I’m OK,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “I’m going to get an MRI tomorrow.”
The second-year linebacker is one of the most versatile players on the Browns’ defense. Through three games, according to Pro Football Focus, Owusu-Koramoah has an 80.0 grade on defense, the fourth-highest on the team.
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