The calendar may have turned to 2021, but the global COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact society on various levels. Pro football is no different, as the Browns have placed coach Kevin Stefanski, two players and two other staff members on their COVID-19 list ahead of Sunday's wild-card playoff game against the Steelers.
Cleveland's most recent outbreak will not significantly shake up Pittsburgh's preparations, according to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. Tomlin, who has reportedly been cleared after contact tracing (he spoke with Stefanski prior to Cleveland's Week 17 win over Pittsburgh), said that he didn't need Cleveland's current ordeal to remember to remain diligent to the league's COVID-19 protocols.
"It is something that I have done and we have done since July 20," Tomlin told reporters on Tuesday. "We don't need a daily reminder because we have daily continual reminders of how fragile these circumstances are.
"Every morning at 6 a.m. I am looking at my phone waiting for verification of the previous day's test results. Are we in the clear, or are we not, and what necessary adjustments need to be made. What investigations, if any, need to be made. That has been our life, and not only ours in Pittsburgh, but ours collectively as members of the National Football League since July. There are daily reminders. There are continual reminders of how fragile these circumstances are. What's transpiring in Cleveland is not reinforcement or verification. It's just more of the same for us as it has been for us and for everyone else throughout the course of this journey."
As far as his own team possibly being exposed to Browns players this past Sunday who may have the virus, Tomlin said he has "complete confidence in the protocol outlined by the NFL." The Steelers currently have two starters -- tight end Eric Ebron and cornerback Joe Haden -- who are on the COVID-19 list. Ebron and Haden are not expected to play in Sunday's game.
While special teams coordinator Mike Priefer has assumed the role of head coach for the Browns Sunday, Tomlin said that he expects Cleveland's head coaching responsibilities to be spread out throughout the coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, an NFL offensive coach since 2006, will replace Stefanski as the team's play-caller on Sunday.
"We forecast and make those type of decisions week in and week out in the league," Tomlin said when asked if he will alter preparations for the Browns based on their coaching adjustments. "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."
Tomlin will likely look to assistant coach Teryl Austin, who was with Van Pelt as a member of the Bengals' coaching staff in 2018, for insight. Van Pelt, who called the Browns' plays during training camp, will likely collaborate on the game plan with Baker Mayfield, whom Van Pelt praised during summer practices.
Regardless of who is calling plays for the Browns, Tomlin said that his team must do a better job containing Mayfield's running. Mayfield's 28-yard run last Sunday set up his two-yard touchdown pass to Austin Hooper that extended the Browns' lead to 17-9. HIs three-yard run on third-and-two on the game's final possession iced Cleveland's 24-22 win, as well as the franchise's first playoff berth since 2002.
As far as player availability is concerned, the Steelers may be getting back linebacker Robert Spillane, who played well in relief of Devin Bush before suffering his own late-season injury. Pittsburgh has been hit hard at inside linebacker this season, with Vince Williams also missing time due to COVID-19. Tomlin added that starting safety Terrell Edmunds could be available for Sunday after missing last week's game with a shoulder injury.
Conversely, the Browns will be without guard Joel Bitonio and receiver KhaDarel Hodge, who reportedly were the two players who tested positive on Tuesday. The Browns are hoping to have back cornerback Denzel Ward, who missed last Sunday's game after being placed on the team's COVID-19 list. Ward's return would be a big boost for a Cleveland secondary that allowed Mason Rudolph to throw for 315 yards and two touchdowns in last Sunday's game.
Despite the challenges that COVID-19 continues to present, Tomlin said he views this playoff experience similarly to his previous eight trips with Pittsburgh. Instead on focusing on what he can't control, Tomlin is singularly focused on preparing the Steelers to beat a Browns team that has split their last four games in the rivalry.
"There's scarcity in these opportunities," said Tomlin, who in 2008 became the youngest head coach in league history to win the Super Bowl. "Not everyone has been afforded an opportunity to work and to continue to play. We're one of the teams that do. I'm respectful and appreciative of that. That's one of the things I love most about the single elimination tournament. Man, it's precious opportunities that we're all getting an opportunity to live out and pursue our dreams."