Safety Rashad Johnson (left) and cornerback/safety Richard Marshall (right) have filled in well for injured starter Kerry Rhodes.
During the team's exit meetings after the 2010 season, coaches made it clear to safety Rashad Johnson that the 2011 season would be crucial.
It would be Johnson's third year in the league, and they told him it would be his opportunity "to show what value he'd have in the league." Johnson just didn't know how much opportunity he'd get.
But he stepped in as a preseason starter at strong safety when Adrian Wilson was sidelined because of a biceps injury. And then he became the starter at free safety the past eight games while Kerry Rhodes sat with a broken foot, doing well enough to have earned a game ball for his play against the 49ers last weekend.
"It's not being a different player, I'm just more comfortable now," Johnson said. "On the field I talk a little more junk, and you just feel better about the player you have grown into. The opportunities came and I have taken advantage."
Rhodes' injury provided an opening for a pair of players. Richard Marshall, who also took over for A.J. Jefferson as a starting cornerback during the defensive resurgence, began playing free safety in the Cards' third-down packages. Johnson is usually in there for first- and second-downs.
Both have played well, and it makes for an interesting dynamic now that Rhodes is healthy enough to finally return to games. Coach Ken Whisenhunt said Rhodes will be worked in slowly, not a surprise since he's missed so many games and there figure to be glitches both mentally and physically. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton said he plans to use Rhodes for 50 percent of the snaps against the Browns.
"I know I'll be up to the task," Rhodes said. "It looks fun watching those (defensive) guys flying around. Seeing those opportunities myself to make plays that most guys can't make that I know I can make, it's going to be fun."
It doesn't hurt that the Johnson/Marshall combination has performed well. It took some adjustment on Marshall's part, because he had strictly been a cornerback in his career and playing safety means needing a more big-picture view of the secondary.
"As long as I am on the field and playing, I'm good," Marshall said. "The one thing I did was tell them was, 'Hey, I'm going to mess up a little but I will get it together.' Now I'm not thinking about it.
"They trust in me. They came to me and said they wouldn't do it unless they thought I could. They just wanted to make sure I was willing. I told them, if that was something the team needed to do, I'd do it. I wasn't going to cry about it."
Johnson is similarly flexible. He wants to be an every-down safety, but when the coaches told him they wanted to use Marshall there, he didn't flinch. He won't now, either, as Rhodes returns to play.
"Whatever moves they decide to make, whatever they think is best for the defense, it's fine with me," Johnson said. "I am going to take my role and it won't change how I prepare."
WALLACE GETS START FOR BROWNS
The Browns declared starting quarterback Colt McCoy out for Sunday's game – he won't even be making the trip to Arizona – meaning Seneca Wallace will start for Cleveland.
Not that it makes a big difference to the Cardinals. "If you just put (jersey number) 6 on 12, or 12 on 6, you're looking at the same quarterback," Horton said, referring to Wallace's and McCoy's numbers.
The Cardinals may also be missing their starting quarterback Sunday because of a concussion, but Whisenhunt did not say definitively whether Kevin Kolb or backup John Skelton would start, saying it would be a game-day decision.
Wallace hasn't started a game this season – he has thrown just two passes – but has started a handful of games in his nine-year NFL career, including one at University of Phoenix Stadium in 2008 as a member of the Seahawks. Wallace completed 24 of 43 passes that day for 250 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in a 34-21 Cardinals victory.
"He's played and won games in the league and I think there is a huge value in that," Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. "He's familiar with the system. I feel like he's a professional. He's ready for this opportunity."
BEANIE'S HOMETOWN FLAVOR
Growing up in Akron, Ohio, running back Beanie Wells was a big fan of both the Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals. That hasn't changed.
"I always wanted to play in Ohio," Wells said. "I made no bones about that. I love Ohio, and Ohio sports teams. It's the Browns, Bengals, Cavaliers, Indians and Reds. If you're from Ohio, that's how it is. I love the Arizona Cardinals, no question. But I still root for Cleveland and Cincinnati."
That makes these next two weeks special, since the Cards will play the Browns Sunday and follow it up with a Christmas Eve game in Cincinnati. Many tickets are needed, Wells said with a smile. "It's ridiculous."
As a kid, Wells' favorite players were Bengals running back Corey Dillon, Browns wide receiver Andre Rison and running back Reuben Droughns. And Wells, born in 1988, remembers how his whole family was angry when the original Browns up and moved to Baltimore after the 1995 season, not to return until 1999.
"They had (quarterback) Tim Couch," Wells recalled. "I liked Tim Couch. He just had a horrible offensive line. Drove him out of the league."
Wells needs 57 yards rushing Sunday to reach 1,000 on the season.