4 Reasons the Browns Should Not Panic over Loss to Jets
Cleveland Browns fans should take a deep breath—inhale and then exhale.
Without their top wide receivers because of COVID-19 tracing protocols and starting left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. thanks to illness, the Browns lost 23-16 to the New York Jets. The absences within the starting lineup aren't excuses. Cleveland turned the ball over twice, which led to 10 points for Gang Green, and missed an extra point.
Nevertheless, we could see Cleveland's offense at close to full strength against the Pittsburgh Steelers in an essential play-in postseason game for the Browns.
Among the five AFC teams in the playoff hunt, Cleveland has the lowest chance (53 percent) of securing a spot, per ESPN's Football Power Index (h/t Jamison Hensley).
However, we'll explain why Browns fans should look past probability and focus on a winnable matchup with the Steelers. Remember, Cleveland still controls its destiny.
Wide Receivers Expected to Return Thursday
The Browns went into the previous game with a skeleton crew at wide receiver. The team placed Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, KhaDarel Hodge and Donovan Peoples-Jones on the reserve/COVID-19 list. The four wideouts have recorded a combined 124 receptions for 1,781 yards and nine touchdowns this season.
To fill in, Marvin Hall and Ja'Marcus Bradley made starts at wide receiver. Three weeks ago, the club acquired the former off waivers. The latter came up from the practice squad to suit up for his third game.
Along with the inexperience on the perimeter, the tight ends left plenty of yards on the field because of drops. Austin Hooper led the pass-catching group with seven receptions for 71 yards, but he also had issues securing the football, specifically in the second half.
Regardless of who suits up in any given week, we often hear the next-man-up mentality in the NFL. The Browns had some self-inflicted miscues that changed the complexion of the matchup with the Jets. However, we should see fewer missed opportunities in the passing game if Landry, Higgins, Peoples-Jones and Hodge return to action.
The Browns anticipate offensive help on the way. Head coach Kevin Stefanski hopes to see his wide receivers on the practice field Thursday if they continue to test negative for COVID-19.
Jedrick Wills Jr. and Wyatt Teller Could Re-Energize Ground Attack
In addition to the wide receivers, the Browns placed left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. on the reserve/COVID-19 list for two days last week. Up until Monday, he's tested negative for the virus as a high-risk close contact, which means the impressive rookie could suit up for the final game.
Wills has played a solid role in Stefanski's zone-blocking scheme, opening holes for the fourth-ranked ground attack this season.
Wyatt Teller has done the same at right guard. He's missed the last two outings because of an ankle injury, but Stefanski remains "hopeful" that he's able to practice and play in a must-win matchup. Running back Kareem Hunt put Teller's presence into perspective, per Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal.
"We miss him a ton," Hunt said. "Wyatt's a great offensive lineman, a tough guy and he brings it. So we definitely could use everybody."
With two starters back in the trenches, the Browns can go back to what they've done best throughout the season: running the ball. Cleveland averages 4.7 yards per carry, which ranks eighth leaguewide.
Browns Face Vulnerable Steelers Run Defense in Week 17
The Steelers beat the Colts to capture the AFC North title but allowed 4.5 yards per carry in that game. Pittsburgh has surrendered 104-plus rushing yards in three consecutive contests.
Stefanski drifted away from a successful run-heavy formula against the Jets. Running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt recorded a combined 15 rush attempts for 39 yards and two touchdowns. Cleveland logged a season-low 45 yards on the ground.
From Weeks 12 to 15, Baker Mayfield had a strong stretch as a passer, throwing for 10 touchdowns and just one interception while averaging 308 yards. The Browns fell behind 20-3 in the third quarter against the Jets, which prompted a more aggressive attack, but they pulled within four points with 12:38 left in regulation.
Mayfield threw a season-high 53 passes, which doesn't seem like a sound approach with a short-handed wide receiver unit.
The Browns must revert to their brand of winning football with a heavy dose of Chubb and Hunt on the ground against a susceptible Steelers run defense.
Browns Will Head into Week 17 with More Urgency Than the Steelers
The Steelers have punched their ticket to the postseason. At 12-3, they'll either finish second or third on the AFC side of the bracket. Either way, Pittsburgh will host a playoff game. The Browns have more at stake in a possible win-or-go-home situation.
"We'll ponder those possibilities [Monday]," he said.
He implied other possible changes to the starting lineup, though nothing specific.
"This is an NFL team that will go play, minus Ben and maybe another player or two," Tomlin said.
Pittsburgh's stout defense has also lost two key starters for the season in edge-rusher Bud Dupree (ACL) and inside linebacker Devin Bush (ACL). Robert Spillane replaced the latter and suffered a knee injury as well, though he could eventually return to action.
While the Browns fight for their playoff lives, a few Steelers first-stringers may have a view of the game from the sideline. Cleveland's starters hold a significant advantage over Pittsburgh without its starting quarterback.
The Browns' dire situation gives them the edge over a squad that's eyeing the postseason.