BEREA — “The Rabbit” won’t be running for a while.
Receiver/returner Travis Benjamin suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee Sunday in the third quarter of the loss to the Chiefs. He needs surgery and is done for the season.
“Travis obviously is a big part of what we do and has been in terms of the return game, he’s explosive and has the speed and the ability to make the big play,” coach Rob Chudzinski said Monday after announcing the injury. “You saw the growth as a player. But we’ll have some guys step up.”
Benjamin was hurt when he was tackled returning a punt. The hit wasn’t out of the ordinary, but Chudzinski said the knee twisted on the tackle by Ron Parker.
The blow is significant. Benjamin (5-foot-10, 175 pounds) was ranked sixth in the NFL with an 11.7 average on 22 punt returns and averaged 48.7 on three kickoff returns, including an 86-yarder against Green Bay on his first attempt. He set a franchise record with 179 punt return yards in a win over the Bills, including a 79-yard touchdown.
He also provided an occasional spark on offense off the bench with his sprinter’s speed. He had five catches for 105 yards and an end-around for 45 yards.
“Now teams feel as though they’re going to be able to kick to us and they can tackle,” special teams captain Quentin Groves said. “He changes field position, and field position in any football game is huge. So we’re going to have to find a way to manufacture those returns. I think Davone (Bess) is going to do a great job getting us some returns and make smart decisions because he’s an experienced punt returner.”
Bess, who has fielded 207 punts in his six-year career, replaced Benjamin as the punt returner Sunday and had a costly fumble. Chudzinski said he’ll keep the job.
“Travis is a big playmaker. It’s unfortunate with his injury, but I’ve got to step up,” Bess said. “That’s as simple as it gets. There’s nothing to talk about, to be down about. It’s just to go out and get it.”
Bess said he enjoys returning punts — “It’s what I do,” he said — but it will be difficult to replace Benjamin’s speed.
“It’s hard,” he said. “All we can do is control what’s in our control and that’s to keep swinging every time.”
When Bess saw the short punt from Dustin Colquitt on Sunday he thought he was headed for a big return. Instead, he dropped the ball without being hit.
“I had it. When I got my eyes up to see where the defenders were, they were there and I must not have had it 100 percent,” he said. “It’s just discipline. I’ve got to look the ball all the way in and it starts in practice.”
Chudzinski named Joe Haden as the next option to return punts, but he’d prefer not to have to use his No. 1 cornerback. He said newly acquired rookie safety Jordan Poyer, running back Fozzy Whittaker and receiver Greg Little are other possibilities.
Whittaker doesn’t want the job.
“I haven’t done punt return before,” he said. “I don’t think I’m very comfortable with punt returns.”
Benjamin wasn’t available to reporters but sent a message to his well-wishers on Twitter.
“Thanks everyone I will bounce back stronger than ever!!” he wrote.
Quarterback Brian Hoyer suffered a torn ACL in Week 5 against Buffalo.
TODAY’S THE DAY?
The trade deadline is 4 p.m. today, and Chudzinski believes his team will look the same when it passes. Receivers Josh Gordon and Greg Little and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz are possibilities to be moved, and the Browns are considered potential dealers after the shocking trade of running back Trent Richardson last month.
“We have no plans of trading any of our guys, including Josh,” Chudzinski said. “We’re not shopping him. And then as far as any other rumors, speculation, all of those things, I’m really not going to get into them.”
The Browns are likely waiting until after the deadline to set their 53-man roster. They already have an opening because receiver Charles Johnson no longer must be counted after being signed off Green Bay’s practice squad then placed on injured reserve. Benjamin will also head to IR, freeing a spot.
Guard Jason Pinkston is eligible to be activated from the IR-designated to return after missing the first eight games with a high ankle sprain.
BESS NEEDS TO BE BETTER
In addition to the fumbled punt, Bess dropped three passes Sunday — if a pass slightly behind him is counted. Drops are subjective, but profootballfocus.com has him leading the league with nine.
He said he’s never been through a stretch where he’s struggled like this.
“Naw, first time. But there’s a first time for everything,” Bess said. “Another challenge. I’ve been through a lot tougher things in my life. A lot. Just another bump in the road.”
He signed a four-year, $14.18 million contract with $5.75 million guaranteed after the Browns acquired him from Miami during the draft in April. He’s signed through 2016.
He has 28 catches for 261 yards and no touchdowns, and the first eight games in Cleveland have not gone as he expected.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “A lot of that is in my control and it will get fixed. Just got to keep working. That’s what life is all about. You’ve got to keep swinging.
“Just got to make the necessary plays, man, that’s what it comes down to. Focus, being a pro, being accountable and bailing my teammates out.”
Chudzinski was asked how the play at receiver could be improved, excluding Josh Gordon. Bess and Little have been non-factors.
“Well, we’re going to have to improve in that area,” Chudzinski said. “Those guys will step up and I’m confident they’ll do that.”
Whittaker has plans for the ball from his first NFL touchdown, a 17-yard catch from Jason Campbell on Sunday.
“I’ll give it to my mother and do something with it,” he said. “She was probably more ecstatic than I was. I would’ve loved to get the win and that would’ve made it that much sweeter, but it’s always a blessing just to be able to score in this league and have that opportunity.”
His mom, Gloria, lives in Houston but attended the game in Kansas City.
“My dad actually passed away when I was 3, so it’s just her,” Whittaker said. “She goes to all of the games if she’s able to make it, ever since I was in Little League.”
Whittaker was claimed off waivers Sept. 30 and has five carries for 11 yards, four catches for 35 yards and four kickoff returns for a 29.8-yard average. He hopes his role continues to grow.
“I hope it expands just because I feel like there would be more opportunities to play and really I just want to be able to help the team win any way possible,” he said.
The Browns allowed one sack Sunday to a Chiefs defense that leads the league with 36.
“I thought they played the best game they have as far as protection goes,” Chudzinski said of the offensive line. “It was a big challenge. We knew that a lot of times they were going to be singled up and that they had to man up in this game. They did that.”
Left tackle Joe Thomas held outside linebacker Tamba Hali without a sack but was penalized for holding twice and once for a false start. Chudzinski didn’t agree with the holds.
“We’re going to submit both those (to the league) for clarification,” he said.
Defensive end Billy Winn said he feels great and hopes to play Sunday against Baltimore. He was listed as questionable for the Chiefs game and hoped to play but was inactive for the fifth straight game after injuring a quadriceps in Week 3 against the Vikings.
“Hopefully I can get out there and play this week,” he said. “But that’s all up to them.”
** Groves, an outside linebacker, said his ankle feels good and he hopes to be back Sunday. He suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 2, aggravated it in his return Week 7 and was inactive Sunday.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or email@example.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @scottpetrak.