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An unexpected lift

Matt Florjancic, Contributor to ClevelandBrowns.com


ClevelandBrowns.com's review of the 2009 season continues with a look at 10 "surprise" players who came from various backgrounds and situations and ended up contributing to the Browns' strong finish.


During the final stretch of the regular season, the Browns had several unexpected players step up and play critical roles in the team's success. Only three of these surprise players were on the Browns' opening day 53-man roster, while others were practice squad players promoted during the season or players acquired by waiver or trade.


In the end, these ten surprise players helped the Browns run the table over the last four games, finish with a 5-11 record and beat the Steelers for the first time in their last 13 meetings.


Rookie linebacker Marcus Benard. Benard made the Browns' practice squad after a solid preseason. Once Benard was promoted to the active roster -- a move that drew a round of applause from his teammates in a team meeting -- he was an immediate factor on special teams and worked his way into the defensive rotation. Benard's most productive game of the season came against the Steelers, in which he sacked Ben Roethlisberger twice. Benard finished the season with 3.5 quarterback sacks, the best among all Browns rookies.


Linebacker Blake Costanzo. Costanzo was a high-motor, high-intensity special teams player on and off the field during the 2009 season. He recovered a fumbled punt return which helped set up the game-winning field goal against the Bills, Costanzo's former team. He was also a lead blocker for Cribbs' kick return touchdowns and filled in at linebacker at times during the season. An under the radar June waiver-wire pickup, Costanzo, a graduate of Lafayette College, was the only Patriot League alum on an NFL 53-man roster for the entire season.


Tight end Michael Gaines. Gaines caught 5 passes for 59 yards and 1 touchdown this season, but two of his catches were especially memorable: A 21-yarder from Derek Anderson in the Browns' loss to the Packers as Anderson threw the ball to the right side of the formation and Gaines, a 267-pound tight end, laid out for the catch. He also caught a touchdown from Brady Quinn during the wild shootout in Detroit. He was one of four Browns tight ends to average better than 10 yards-per-reception for the season. Gaines started the year with the Bears before signing with the Browns in October.


Rookie running back Chris Jennings. Jennings joined the Browns midway through training camp after spending time with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. Though he was solid in three preseason games, Jennings had to earn his spot by first playing on the practice squad. Jennings finished the season with 220 yards on 63 carries, a 3.5 yards-per-carry average and had his best game against the Steelers on December 10. Jennings led all running backs with 73 yards on 20 carries and scored the game's only touchdown, a 10-yard diving attempt in the right corner of the end zone.


Rookie linebacker Kaluka Maiava. The least heralded of four linebackers coming from the University of Southern California in the 2009 NFL Draft, Maiava fought his way onto the field through solid special teams play and earned three starts at linebacker for a Browns defense that needed impact players after the injury losses of several key veteran. While he helped spring Joshua Cribbs on several kickoffs during the 2009 season, Maiava saved his best performance of the year for the final game against the Jaguars. Maiava had 4 total tackles and totaled 1.5 quarterback sacks of David Garrard in the Browns' 23-17 win.


Tight end Evan Moore. At 6-foot-6, Moore literally proved to be the biggest target for Browns quarterbacks over the last five games of the season. On the opening drive against the Chargers, Moore ran a seam route up the left side of the field and made a one-handed catch of Brady Quinn's 17-yard pass. Moore's catch helped set up an 11-yard touchdown pass from Quinn to rookie wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi. Moore finished the Chargers game with 6 catches for 80 yards and logged a reception of 14 or more yards in four of his five games with the team this season.


Linebacker Matt Roth. A physical presence that set the edge of the Browns' 3-4 defense, Roth was claimed off waivers from the Dolphins and never looked back. Feeling he had something to prove to the rest of the NFL, Roth had 7 total tackles and 1 sack of Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer in his Browns debut. Not one to start strong and taper off at the end of the season, Roth continued pressuring opposing quarterbacks and registered 1.5 sacks of the Raiders' Charlie Frye in a Week 16 Browns win. Though he only played in six games with the Browns, Roth finished tied with defensive lineman Corey Williams for third on the team with 4.0 quarterback sacks.


Second-year defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin. Rubin played a reserve role for the Browns and spelled Pro Bowl nose tackle Shaun Rogers until Rogers was lost for the season with an injury against the Bengals in late November. Rubin started the final five games of the season and proved to be an effective run-stuffer. Rubin registered 11 solo tackles over his five starts and also forced a fumble against the Ravens earlier in the year. The former sixth-round pick is off to a very strong start in his two-year NFL career.


Defensive lineman Brian Schaefering. Schaefering joined the Browns during the last week of training camp and earned a spot on the practice squad with a 2-sack effort in the final preseason game against the Bears. With the rash of injuries that plagued the Browns' defensive line, Schaefering was promoted to the active roster and had 1.5 of the Browns' 8 quarterback sacks against Ben Roethlisberger in a 13-6 win over the Steelers. Schaefering earned his first career start against the Jaguars and registered 4 solo tackles in that game.


Linebacker Jason Trusnik. The Ohio native who returned home through a trade with the Jets proved his worth by contributing on special teams and moving all around the linebacking corps. Though he posted a 3-tackle game in the 6-3 win over the Bills, Trusnik's first real impression was in Pittsburgh a week later. On Joshua Cribbs' 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, Trusnik teamed with Ray Ventrone to seal a block Cribbs needed to get free from the Steelers. Later in the game, Trusnik earned his first career sack, which resulted in a 5-yard loss for Roethlisberger and the Steelers. Trusnik tied defensive back Mike Adams with a team-high 10 total tackles against the Bengals on November 29.


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