On December 30, 1989, Alex Van Pelt won a playoff game for Pittsburgh. As the University of Pittsburgh's starting quarterback, Van Pelt helped lead the Panthers to a 31-28 win over Texas A&M in the Sun Bowl. Three-plus decades later, Van Pelt, currently the Browns' offensive coordinator, will try to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh during Sunday night's wild-card game.
Van Pelt, who threw a touchdown pass in relief of Jim Kelly during the Bills' 1995 playoff loss in Pittsburgh, will call the Browns' offensive plays in place of Kevin Stefanski, who will not be at Sunday night's game after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier this week. Van Pelt's hope is that the Browns offense won't look much different with him calling plays than it did with Stefanski holding the play sheet.
"Try to do it as well as I can. I really don't have an approach," Van Pelt said on Thursday, via ESPN's Jake Trotter. "Obviously, I have a good feel of Kevin and how he's called it throughout the course of the season. I want to stay true to his beliefs on offense. I feel the same way."
Van Pelt is hoping his play-calling will help make Stefanski's remote viewing experience easier to digest.
"Obviously, it will be a little different. … Nobody calls it the same," he said. "Hopefully, it will be very similar. We've had a lot of success offensively. My hope is, by the end of the game, there's not too many times where he's yelling at his TV going, 'What the heck are you doing?'"
While Stefanski's offense was at times perceived to be too pass-happy, the Browns were nearly 50-50 during the regular season as far as their run-pass ratio is concerned. Cleveland threw 501 times and ran 495 times. Cleveland's offensive balance helped them finish seventh in the NFL in third down efficiency and third in red zone efficiency. Running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt ran for a combined 1,908 yards and 18 touchdowns while averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Quarterback Baker Mayfield, following a disappointing 2019 season, significantly improved his completion percentage this season while throwing 13 fewer interceptions than he did last year. A big reason for Mayfield's success has been the Browns' ability to capitalize on his mobility. While he is capable of making plays with is feet, Mayfield is also proven to be a dangerous passer when outside of the pocket. The Steelers will surely try to keep Mayfield inside the hash marks throughout Sunday's game.
Like the Steelers offense, the Browns offense relies on spreading the wealth. Six different Browns caught at least three touchdown passes during the regular season. Unlike Pittsburgh, Cleveland is vastly better at running the ball; it is third in the NFL in rushing, while the Steelers are 32nd in that department. The Browns offense will have to overcome the loss of Joel Bitonio, who also tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week.
When asked about the challenge of facing a new play-caller, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said that will not radically change he and his team's preparation for Sunday.
"We forecast and make those type of decisions week in and week out in the league," said Tomlin, who is preparing to coach in his 16th playoff game for Pittsburgh. "Whether you're playing a division opponent or you're playing them for the second time of the year. Or, you're playing a team that you see quite often, like we saw Buffalo a year ago. So you glean information from that previous tape in preparation a few weeks ago for that performance.
"There's always shared experience to glean information from that leads to forecasting in the formulation of a plan. From this standpoint, it's no different just because we were just in a stadium with them seven days ago. It's something to ponder. You can't be paralyzed by it. Some information and adjustments can be fruitful and good. Sometimes, you can over analyze it. So we're going to work our tails off to maintain an appropriate balance. I've got experience in that area, so that's something that I am comfortable doing."