Browns piecing together roster to face Steelers in playoffs
CLEVELAND (AP) — Kevin Stefanski is still stuck in his basement at home. At least the Browns are out and about.
Well, most of them.
After being unable to practice for two days due to COVID-19 testing and protocols, Cleveland got permission from medical experts and the NFL to get on the field Friday for the first time this week in advance of Sunday’s wild-card game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The team resumed normal activities — by 2021 standards — at its training facility, which has been closed since Tuesday when coach Stefanski tested positive for COVID-19 along with Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio and three others.
“That’s much better than being on these Zoom calls,” said Stefanski, who won’t coach Sunday’s game because league rules state anyone testing positive with the virus must isolate for 10 days. “They’re excited to get out there.”
The Browns had been limited to virtual meetings while preparing for their first postseason appearance since the 2002 season.
Stefanski, who will be replaced by special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, opened his news conference with a rundown of Cleveland’s injury list, which includes star defensive end Myles Garrett and right tackle Jack Conklin, both picked as AP All-Pros.
Garrett is questionable with a shoulder issue, but Stefanski said he’s confident the edge rusher along with stout defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (neck) will play.
Conklin is out with an “illness,” but Stefanski could not say whether Conklin is experiencing COVID-like symptoms.
“We’ll just follow the protocols,” Stefanski said. “In this day and age, you have an illness and you’ve got to be safe with that. But we’ll just make sure we follow the protocols.”
League guidelines stipulate that if someone has symptoms consistent with COVID-19, that person must isolate. As long as Conklin continues to test negative over the next two days, he’ll be eligible to play against Pittsburgh’s rugged defensive line.
Cleveland’s roster remains in flux.
Eight players are on the COVID-19 reserve list, including Bitonio, top cornerback Denzel Ward, safety Ronnie Harrison and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge. It’s possible Ward could be back, but Stefanski didn’t have an update on his status.
The Browns are following the advice of medical consultants and flying to Pittsburgh rather than busing. There’s more room to social distance on a plane to reduce any spread from taking place.
It’s been another week of delays and distractions for the Browns.
On Thursday, quarterback Baker Mayfield said he hadn’t thrown a football since last weekend, when the Browns clinched the AFC’s No. 6 seed by beating the Steelers to set up their second game in eight days with their chief rival.
Stefanski said he’s been impressed with his quarterback’s focus despite the upheaval before making his playoff debut.
“He’s locked in through virtual meetings,” Stefanski said. “He’s done a great job. He always does on our calls. He fully understands the game plan. He understands the opponent. He’s somebody that I’ve been very impressed with watching him work and watching him prepare.”
The league maintains the game will be played as scheduled despite the Browns being without Stefanski and other players due to the virus.
Per league rules, Stefanksi can communicate with players and his coaching staff in the locker room up until they head out for kickoff, but then can’t have contact with them until after the game. The league doesn’t permit any communication with personnel on the field from 90 minutes prior to the game until after the game.
Stefanski said he’s confident the team is in good hands with Priefer and a coaching staff that has had to adjust several times in recent weeks due to the coronavirus.
“We had 16 games to kind of establish the way we do things, so this entire coaching staff has been a huge part of that and the way we operate and the way we call the game,” he said. “So I don’t see there being a huge deviation to what we’ve done the last 16 games because it’s a true collaborative group effort.”