The Cleveland Browns missed their top four receivers among other key players this past Sunday, and entering their regular-season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers, they’ll be without multiple other starters due to COVID-19 protocols.
Due to multiple positive tests and resulting high-risk close contacts, the Browns have already determined they’ll be shorthanded at several positions.
Cleveland Browns down 4 defensive starters vs. Steelers
The Browns’ official Twitter account posted a statement on Thursday about their COVID-19 protocols being carried out, as the team met remotely for the second consecutive day:
ESPN’s Jake Trotter then reported that linebackers B.J. Goodson and Malcolm Smith, along with safety Andrew Sendejo and rookie tight end Harrison Bryant, will all be out for Week 17.
NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported there could be more Browns players ruled out depending on how further testing and contact tracing goes. In an update later in the evening, the team announced star cornerback Denzel Ward, too, was on the COVID-19 list:
Linebacker was perceived as a problem area prior to the 2020 campaign, as Cleveland planned on going into the season with lots of inexperience. However, the veteran presences of Goodson and a late acquisition in Smith have been a welcome surprise, as both are key contributors to coordinator Joe Woods’ system.
The onus is on Sione Takitaki to step up. According to Pro Football Focus, Takitaki is an elite run defender, grading at 88.6 and ranking No. 2 in the NFL among qualifiers. However, he’s a liability in pass coverage, which could present problems for the Browns’ defense, especially with Ward now out.
Injuries have piled up in the Browns secondary all season as Ward missed extended time, and the team will have to adapt without him and Sendejo on this occasion.
Bryant is part of a deep tight ends room, featuring prized free agent Austin Hooper and former first-round pick David Njoku. They’ll need to step up both as pass-catchers and run blockers against Pittsburgh’s physical front seven.
Can Cleveland Browns do enough to clinch AFC playoff spot?
Obviously, Cleveland fans are starving for a postseason berth, as the Browns have failed to make the playoffs since the 2002 season. With a 10-5 record to date, it’s pretty simple: Cleveland controls its own destiny, a classic win-and-you’re-in scenario.
While there’s still the possibility of more bad news on the COVID-19 front, the good news is safety Ronnie Harrison was activated from injured reserve this week, and he’s played the best football of anyone in the position group for the Browns in 2020.
Furthermore, head coach Kevin Stefanski announced on Thursday, per Trotter, that all the receivers who missed Week 16’s stunning loss to the lowly New York Jets, are coming off the COVID-19 list. That activated group also includes first-year linebacker Jacob Phillips, who’ll be able to contribute defensive and special teams snaps on Sunday.
Also working in Cleveland’s favor is the fact that the Steelers can’t earn a first-round bye and have been plagued by coronavirus-induced alterations to their schedule. It got to the point where Pittsburgh didn’t really receive a bye week all season. Because of that, head coach Mike Tomlin is starting Mason Rudolph over Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback for Sunday’s AFC North clash.
The Steelers will also rest two key defensive stars in edge-rusher T.J. Watt and lineman Cameron Heyward, as reported by Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Their offense will be hurting, too, without center Maurkice Pouncey.
It’s now a question of whether the Browns have done enough to limit the damage brought on by their COVID-19 positive tests so as not to be too shorthanded versus Pittsburgh. As long as Cleveland’s core offense is intact, its defense should be able to do enough to get the job done and help the team secure a long-awaited return trip to the NFL playoffs.