January 15th, 2021 at 10:48am CST by Zachary Links
The Browns have activated left guard Joel Bitonio off of the COVID-19 list, per a club announcement. To make room, the Browns waived safety Tedric Thompson. The Browns will also have head coach Kevin Stefanski back on the sidelines against Kansas City, now that he’s been cleared.
Bitonio tested positive for the coronavirus just prior to the Browns’ first-round playoff game against the Steelers. It was a huge loss, but the Browns still managed to throttle the Steelers in the first quarter and hold on for the victory. Now, they’ll have the three-time Pro Bowler back in action as they face the Chiefs in the divisional round.
Bitonio has been a rock for the Browns throughout his seven-year career, despite constant instability in Cleveland. Up until the diagnosis, Bitonio hadn’t missed a snap since 2016. Still, the Browns aren’t 100% healthy on the offensive line. Tackle Jack Conklin was forced out of the Steelers game with a hamstring and his status might not be determined until we get closer to kickoff.
In addition to activating Bitonio, the Browns moved wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge off their reserve/COVID list. They will also have all their coaches back after coronavirus issues forced them to miss last week’s game. Secondary coach Jeff Howard, tight ends coach Drew Petzing and assistant offensive line coach Scott Peters will all coach Sunday, Mary Kay Cabot of cleveland.com notes (Twitterlinks).
The Browns’ uphill battle in their first playoff game in 18 years became steeper Saturday. The team announced it will be without top cornerback Denzel Ward in Pittsburgh.
Ward will remain on the Browns’ reserve/COVID-19 list. So will fellow starting cornerback Kevin Johnson, who also tested positive last week. Both missing last week limited a Browns secondary in a game when Mason Rudolph threw for 315 yards and two touchdowns.
Based on his timeline, coronavirus protocols would have allowed Ward to suit up against the Steelers. But this would have required Ward being asymptomatic and passing the necessary tests. The third-year corner has not hit the necessary checkpoints, which will leave the Browns shorthanded Sunday night. The NFL found some COVID-19 spread within the Browns but did not move to postpone the AFC North playoff matchup.
The returns of Harrison, Smith and Bryant leave Ward, Johnson, Joel Bitonio and KhaDarel Hodge on Cleveland’s COVID list. Several coaches, however, will miss the game. Kevin Stefanski, offensive line coach Bill Callahan, assistant O-line coach Scott Peters, tight ends coach Drew Petzing and DBs coach Jeff Howard are out Sunday night. After coaching the Browns’ wide receivers last week, first-year Cleveland assistant Callie Brownson will coach tight ends this week, Aditi Kinkhabwala of NFL.com tweets.
Cleveland also elevated UDFA rookie A.J. Green from the practice squad, who may start opposite Mitchell. Green has played one defensive snap this season.
January 2, 1:47pm: The Browns will be without both offensive line coaches Sunday. The team announcedBill Callahan and assistant O-line coach Scott Peters will not coach against the Steelers. Assistant Ryan Cordell will oversee Cleveland’s offensive front during the team’s win-and-in Week 17 assignment. Cordell spent five years with the 49ers, working as both a front office and coaching assistant, and is in his second season as a Browns football research analyst.
While the Browns will be down three coaches, they announced their latest round of contact tracing did not result in more players being identified as high-risk close contacts, Ulrich tweets.
January 2, 9:06am: There’s been another positive COVID-19 test on the Browns’ coaching staff, but as of right now, it doesn’t sound like it will impact Sunday’s game against the Steelers. NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo reports that the Browns had a positive test and have closed their facility (via Twitter). Josina Anderson tweets that the Browns will not practice this morning.
The Browns released a statement confirming the news (via Twitter):
“The Cleveland Browns were informed this morning that a member of their coaching staff has tested positive for COVID-19. The team will continue virtual meetings as the facility is currently closed while contact tracing is conducted. We will consult with league medical professionals on the appropriate next steps.”
Browns wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea had already been declared unavailable for tomorrow’s game after testing positive earlier this week. Despite the second positive test result, a source told Nate Ulrich of the Beacon Journal that there’s been no change to that status of tomorrow’s game (Twitter link).
This is obviously poor timing for Cleveland, as the Browns are on the verge of clinching their first playoff spot since the 2002 season. A win against Pittsburgh will secure that postseason appearance, but there are plenty of scenarios where Cleveland could make the playoffs with a loss tomorrow.
With O’Shea testing positive earlier this week, the Browns were forced to close their facilities. The team finally got their first full team practice in yesterday, and everyone understands the significance of preparing for tomorrow’s game.