CLEVELAND (AP) — The Browns have suddenly sprung another hole in their patchwork secondary.
Already down several key players due to positive COVID-19 tests, the Browns said Saturday night they will also be without cornerback Kevin Johnson on Sunday against Pittsburgh as they try to end their long playoff drought.
Johnson’s late addition to the reserve/COVID-19 list means the Browns (10-5), who barely got to practice this week due to contact tracing protocols, will be missing five rotational defensive players when they host the Steelers (12-3).
Earlier this week, the team ruled out top cornerback Denzel Ward, linebackers B.J. Goodson and Malcolm Smith and safety Andrew Sendejo.
An NFL spokesman said in an email that despite the flare-up in COVID cases, the status for Sunday’s game is unchanged.
With Ward and Johnson out, the Browns will be without two of their top three cornerbacks. Robert Jackson, M.J. Stewart Jr. and Tavierre Thomas will all likely get significant playing time.
Also, to help offset the loss of Johnson, the Browns elevated rookie cornerback A.J. Green from the practice squad.
Cleveland will be missing some coaches as well.
The team won’t have offensive line coach Bill Callahan or assistant line coach Scott Peters. They were added to the COVID-19 reserve list Saturday and won’t be able to help the Browns try to lock up their first postseason berth since 2002.
The losses of Callahan and Peters came after the team said wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea tested positive in advance of the dramatic regular-season finale. He’ll be replaced by chief of staff Callie Brownson, who earlier this season became the first female to handle in-game sideline coaching duties in an NFL game.
Assistant Ryan Cordell will take over for Callahan, the former Raiders and Nebraska coach in his first season with Cleveland. Callahan has been widely praised for his work with the Browns’ front, which has helped the club become one of the league’s best rushing teams.
The Browns will return to the playoffs for just their second time in their expansion era with a win over their hated rivals, who will sit quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, defensive stars T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward and other starters.
The Steelers, too, have issues with the virus as the team placed cornerback Joe Haden, tight end Eric Ebron and linebacker Cassius March on the reserve list Saturday. Haden, who was drafted in the first round by Cleveland in 2010, will have to sit at least 10 days and will miss Pittsburgh’s first-round playoff game.
Those losses should help Cleveland’s cause, but the Browns, who had just two abbreviated on-field indoor practices this week, are far from full strength.
The Browns’ thin secondary got a needed reinforcement as safety Karl Joseph was activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Unlike last week, the Browns will have their four leading receivers back. Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and KhaDarel Hodge were activated on Thursday. They were all ruled out against the New York Jets as high-risk after spending time around Goodson in the team’s recovery whirlpools.
Rookie tight end Harrison Bryant is also on the COVID list.
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski’s plan to have a walk-through on Saturday was scrapped when the team closed its building — for the third time in four days — to conduct tracing. They held all their meetings virtually a day before their biggest game in nearly two decades.
Stefanski was forced to improvise last week in New Jersey, holding a game day walk-through in a fifth-floor parking garage at the team’s hotel.
“It was like a wind tunnel out there,” guard Joel Bitonio said with a laugh Friday. “It was the first time we were in the huddle with most of the receivers that game at that time. It was one of those things where we just want to get used to the calls and make sure everybody is on the same page.
“It was definitely different. That will be one that we talk about a few years from now.”
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