The Morning Call (Sunday)

Backed into a tough corner

The Browns get 3 players off COVID-19 list but not top CB

- By Tom Withers

CLEVELAND — The Browns flew to Pittsburgh for the playoffs with some reinforcem­ents — and missing some regulars.

Top cornerback Denzel Ward stayed in Cleveland as he recovers from COVID19, leaving a massive hole in the Browns’ secondary as they get ready to face Ben Roethlisbe­rger and the Steelers in an AFC wild-card game on Sunday night.

The Browns, whowere limited to just two practices this week because of another wave of positive COVID-19 cases, including coach Kevin Stefanski, were hoping Wardwould be back in time after he tested positive with the virus last week.

However, he’s still not ready to return and the Browns may miss him dearly.

Cleveland finally caught a bit of a break Saturday as safety Ronnie Harrison, tight end Harrison Bryant and linebacker Malcolm Smith were activated from the COVID-19 list, giving the Browns some much needed depth for their first playoff game since the 2002 season.

Harrison’s a hard hitter and he’ll slow Pittsburgh’s run game, but the bigger issue for the Browns will be covering wide receivers Juju Smith-Schuster or Chase Claypool, Pittsburgh’s top deep threats.

That would have been Ward’s job, but he’s out along with cornerback Kevin Johnson and potentiall­y corner Terrance Mitchell as well.

Johnson tested positive this week while Mitchell’s status is unclear. He’s been out — an issue not tied to an injury — the past two days and is listed as questionab­le. If he can’t play, Tavierre Thomas would likely take on a larger role.

It’s been a strange few days in a strange week in a strange season for the Browns, whowill have to end a 17-game losing streak at Heinz Field to keep it going.

Stefanski can only be in touch with his staff and players until they leave the locker room and he’ll watch the game from his basement at home in Rocky River, Ohio. Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio will also miss his first playoff game as a pro after he tested positive.

League rules require anyone testing positive to isolate for 10 days.

Harrison was just placed on the COVID list Thursday. However, it turns out his test was a false positive and he was cleared to play after subsequent negative tests.

“It was good to get Ronnie back,” defensive coordinato­r Joe Woods said Thursday. “The guys love being around Ronnie. He is just like the kid on the playground who just loves to play football. He brings a lot of energy to our defense.”

The Browns will also have safety Jovante Moffatt after the NFL’s medical experts deemed he was not a close contact.

Along with Stefanski, Ward and Bitonio, the Browns will not have wide receiver and special teams player KhaDarel Hodge, who is on the COVID-19 list along with offensive line coach Bill Callahan, assistant line coach Scott Peters, tight ends coach Drew Petzing and defensive backs coach Jeff Howard.

To minimize the chance of more players getting infected, the team followed the advice of medical experts and flew to Pittsburgh rather than take a 2-hour bus trip.

On Friday, the Browns listed All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett (shoulder) and All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin (illness) as questionab­le. Garrett is expected to play, but Conklin’s status is not as clear — he may be isolating because of COVID-19-like symptoms.

Starting linebacker and defensive signal caller B.J. Goodson came back earlier this week after missing two games with the virus.

The Browns didn’t have their first practice this week until Friday as the team’s training facility was closed for three days for contact tracing after newpositiv­e tests. They received clearance to hold a walkthroug­h Saturday before leaving for Pittsburgh.

 ?? KIRK IRWIN/AP ?? Browns safety Ronnie Harrison (33), pictured with Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatric­k, is one of three Browns players returning from the COVID-19 list for Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh.
KIRK IRWIN/AP Browns safety Ronnie Harrison (33), pictured with Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatric­k, is one of three Browns players returning from the COVID-19 list for Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh.

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