PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Cleveland Browns waited nearly two decades to return to the playoffs. To extend their breakthrough season, they'll have to do it without their unflappable first-year coach in a place where the franchise's shortcomings are put into stark relief:
Maybe it's fitting. The Browns (11-5) and Kevin Stefanski have spent the last four months turning Cleveland from a perennial punchline to a legitimate contender. A chance to provide an exclamation point awaits at Heinz Field on Sunday night, where the AFC North champions and longtime nemesis Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) await.
If only it were that cut and dried. Not in 2020. Or 2021 for that matter. When the Browns run out of the tunnel, Stefanski will be back home in Ohio after testing positive for COVID-19. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will be in charge, with offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt taking over play-calling duties.
“Hopefully there’s not too many times he’s yelling at the TV, ‘What the heck is going on?!'” Van Pelt said with a laugh.
Stefanski would be in good company. The Browns have been largely exasperating since returning to the NFL in 1999 in general, and chronically overmatched in Pittsburgh in particular. The Steelers are 20-1 against Cleveland at Heinz Field, including a 36-33 victory in the wild-card round in the 2002 playoffs and a 38-7 beatdown in October in which Stefanski pulled quarterback Baker Mayfield following a miserable two-interception performance.
No wonder the Steelers, while respectful of the strides Cleveland has made, remain confident despite a rocky 1-4 finish following an 11-0 start.
“I think they’re still the same Browns teams I play every year,” Pittsburgh wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said. “I think they’re nameless gray faces. They have a couple good players on their team, but at the end of the day, I don’t know. The Browns is the Browns. It’s one of those things, AFC North football. They’re a good team. I’m just happy we’re playing them again.”
With good reason. Pittsburgh took Cleveland to the final two minutes last Sunday despite letting Roethlisberger, outside linebacker T.J. Watt and defensive tackle Cam Heyward stay home with nothing more than playoff seeding on the line.
If they can bring that effort again on Sunday night even in a largely empty stadium after officials denied the team's request to allow a small subset of fans in, they will pick up their first playoff victory in four years. Yet given all of Pittsburgh's success when the Browns are on the other side of the line of scrimmage, the 38-year-old Roethlisberger is trying to remind his younger teammates to take nothing for granted.
“It is interesting because is there really a home-field advantage? I don’t know. It’s just a different year altogether,” Roethlisberger said. “We have to go into with the mindset that we need to play our best football and we are going to get their best.”
The Steelers finished with the worst rushing offense in the NFL, finishing dead last in both yards rushing (1,351) and yards per carry (3.6). Despite the struggle to generate any momentum on the ground, Pittsburgh did find a little room against the Browns, running for 129 yards in the first meeting and 85 in the second — thanks in part to a cameo from third-string quarterback Josh Dobbs, who ran for 20 yards on a couple of read-option looks the team hadn't shown all year.
Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner thinks it's not a coincidence given the familiarity between division rivals.
“I think there’s a sense that (we) know where they’re going to be,” Fichtner said, "and hence I’ll be able to come off a little firmer and that might lend to some of that (success).”
Van Pelt likened the Browns being without Stefanski to a bunch of teenagers leaving home for the first time.
“Its tough when you lose your leader” said Van Pelt, who hasn’t called plays since he was Buffalo’s coordinator in 2009. “It’s like being a parent and sending your kid to college. Hopefully, you’ve done enough to get him ready for what’s ahead.”
Van Pelt was born in Pittsburgh and played at Pitt. He joked that this homecoming might not be very warm.
“I won’t have any friends in the stands,” he said.
The Browns aren't the only club dealing with COVID-19 issues. The Steelers will be without veteran cornerback Joe Haden, who is on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Cam Sutton will fill in. Sutton has developed a habit of being around the ball, making an interception and recovering three fumbles while serving in a variety of roles.
“Cam has learned the defense, he knows the defense,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “He knows what everybody is doing, what his help is. ... That always helps when you have players like that.”
Bitonio’s loss was a cruel personal blow to the Browns’ longest-tenured player. Drafted in 2014, Bitonio endured a 16-loss season and constant change to finally make the playoffs, only to be flattened by COVID-19 before his biggest game.
“We know what Joel would give to be out there,” said wide receiver Jarvis Landry. “This is definitely one for Joel.”
Bitino's absence weakens Cleveland’s offensive line, which recently lost top backups Chris Hubbard and Nick Harris to season-ending injuries. As late as Thursday, the Browns still weren’t saying who would replace Bitonio and face Steelers stud Cam Heyward.
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.
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