- Amid a COVID-19 outbreak that will likely mean playing this game without their head coach, Kevin Stefanski, the Browns didn’t get their first practice of the week in until Friday
Pittsburgh stumbled down the stretch, losing four of their final five games and heading into the playoffs as a team many are looking to fade. But in their first matchup, they’ll host a Browns team that is dealing with far more adversity. Cleveland has had COVID-19 related absences for each of the past two games, and the outbreak through their building continued into this week, hitting their coaching staff particularly hard. The Browns could be without head coach Kevin Stefanski, as well as position group coaches for the offensive line, wide receivers, tight ends, and defensive backs. All have been on the COVID-19 list during the week.
Player absences are always more significant, but it shouldn’t be overlooked just how many key coaches have been away from the team this week. The Browns are saying all the right things, and they have to hope they’ve laid the groundwork where a lack of personnel in so many areas doesn’t disrupt things too much, but football teams have normal weekly preparation processes that they rely on. In the Browns' case, the outbreak meant they weren’t able to practice until Friday, which is already a significant disadvantage. With their preparation shortened, the extreme hit to the coaching staff compounds the issue.
Of course, there are a number of players impacted, too. Key offensive lineman Joel Bitonio and top cornerback Denzel Ward will both be out. PFF graded Ward as the Browns' fourth best defensive player, while their third highest-graded defensive player, edge rusher Olivier Vernon, is also out with an Achilles injury suffered in Week 17. The Browns activated a couple other key defenders Saturday from the reserve/COVID-19 list, namely safety Ronnie Harrison and linebacker Malcolm Smith, but being down both Ward and Vernon is a major hit.
Bitonio was a stalwart on the offensive line, missing just one snap all regular season at left guard while grading as the Browns’ third-best offensive player. All of this comes at a terrible time for the Browns, and this is a team that hasn’t looked its sharpest over the past two weeks while dealing with similar issues, losing to the Jets in New York two weeks ago before beating a Steelers team playing without several key players, including Ben Roethlisberger, 24-22 last week.
Roethlisberger will be in the lineup for this Wild Card matchup, as will offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey and defensive linemen T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward, all of whom were deactivated for Week 17. Pittsburgh also had some COVID-19 issues of their own, with tight end Eric Ebron and linebacker Cassius Marsh both hitting the reserve list last week. Both have already been activated this week and are expected to play. Cornerback Joe Haden tested positive and will miss Sunday’s game for Pittsburgh.
So that’s the lay of the land between two rosters in flux, and the short version is the Browns are at a significant disadvantage in terms of proximity to full strength. Cleveland had major advantages last week on both lines with Pittsburgh resting Pouncey, Watt, and Heyward, but this week all of those Steelers will be back and the Browns will be without Bitonio and Vernon. The line battles on both sides have tilted significantly in favor of the Steelers since last week, not to mention the boost Roethlisberger returning provides the Steelers’ offense.
So while this line first widened to PIT -6 and has since become a popular contrarian pick on Cleveland’s side, I like Pittsburgh to cover. The Steelers beat the Browns 38-7 at home way back in Week 6, and while that was a different Pittsburgh team, they were also able to keep last week’s game close despite being the short-handed side. If Cleveland can get their ground attack going, they certainly have the potential to control the game and slow things down enough to stay close. But given all they have had to deal with this week and over the past three weeks in sum, this line frankly feels like it's not wide enough, and is too heavily influenced by the negative perception many have of this Steelers team right now.
I don't necessarily buy that the Steelers can stop their skid, turn things around, and make a deep run in the postseason. But I'm much more worried about Cleveland in this first-round matchup. It’s a shame Cleveland’s first trip to the postseason in 18 years is under these circumstances, but Pittsburgh will have several key advantages when these teams take the field Sunday night that will be difficult for the Browns to overcome.
NFL Expert Picks
Steelers -6 @ -108
NFL Free Picks
Playoff football is finally here after a season which looked like it might not happen at one point. This expanded playoff structure has given us some exciting games. Saturday's Wild Card Round games see Colts @ Bills, in which Josh Allen will look to underline his MVP credentials. Rams @ Seahawks gives us a divisional clash and Bucs @ Washington sees the rookie Chase Young trying to rush the GOAT, Tom Brady. Sunday gives us another three fun games. The Ravens travel to Tennessee to face the Titans in a game between two of the best rushing attacks in the league. The Bears enter New Orleans as outsiders, then the Browns face the Steelers in another divisional game, and a rematch of their week 17 tie.
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