BEREA, Ohio (AP) — The Cleveland Browns will begin the season against Joe Burrow with their best defensive back, but maybe not their full starting secondary.
Two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward cleared concussion protocol and will start Sunday's opener against Cincinnati, giving Cleveland its top coverage defender as it tries to slow Burrow and his trio of receivers.
Ward had been sidelined with his fourth reported concussion in the NFL. He got hurt in an Aug. 26 exhibition in Kansas City and was limited to some individual drills earlier this week before fully practicing Friday.
“Feeling great,” Ward said, adding he's not overly worried about a history with head injuries. “I’m not too concerned. I take the necessary steps of healing up and doing the exercising and things that the doctors tell me. So I feel good. I’m out there. I’m ready to play, enjoy playing the game of football and I’m not too concerned. I’m good.”
While the Browns will have Ward, they could be without starting safety Juan Thornhill, who is questionable with a calf injury.
Cleveland signed Thornhill to a three-year, $21 million contract in March after he won a Super Bowl with Kansas City. Veteran Rodney McLeod would start if Thornhill can't play.
Ward's return is important as the Browns get ready to face Burrow, who agreed to a five-year, $275 contract extension with the Bengals on Thursday. Although he's only 1-4 in his career against Cleveland, Burrow has played well and has receivers Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd at his disposal.
Ward, who has three interceptions and returned two for touchdowns against the Bengals in his career, said he was aware of some bulletin-board level comments made this week by the always chatty Chase.
Cincinnati's speedy wide receiver, who never misses a chance to take a shot at Cleveland, said he was treating the opener like any normal game.
“It don’t feel no different. It’s just the (whooping) and hollering about the Cleveland Browns," Chase said with a pause. "I was about to call them the elves.”
Ward didn't seem bothered by Chase's slight.
“Whether somebody else outside of this building disrespect, respect us, I don’t really think it matters much,” he said. “It’s about us, and we just go out there to compete, play the game, try to find a way to win. So that’s what we focus on.”
While Ward dismissed Chase's remarks, Browns All-Pro end Myles Garrett felt the Bengals star crossed a line.
“That was disrespectful,” Garrett said with a smile. ”He didn’t have to go there. He knew better. We might have to have a discussion before or after the game, maybe during if I see him. But yeah, the elves is a little bit too far.”
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