1. Browns prepared to face any of Steelers QBs
It wouldn't surprise Mike Pettine if Ben Roethlisberger, injured foot and all, played Sunday against the Browns at Heinz Field.
The Browns coach is far from alone, and the team has heeded his advice not to focus on just backup Landry Jones as it prepares for its AFC North showdown in Pittsburgh.
"We know Ben well having gone against him a lot," said Pettine, who saw Roethlisberger for years during his time as an assistant coach with the Ravens. "Knowing him, it wouldn't surprise me if he did, but we'll be prepared either way."
Defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil took it one step further. Not only is he brushing up on both Roethlisberger and Jones, but also veteran Mike Vick, who started three games earlier this season when Roethlisberger was dealing with an injured knee. Vick has been inactive for the past two games.
"Sometimes we tend to over-prepare," O'Neil said. "I think that that's just in our DNA as coaches. Just in case, you don't want to get caught off guard if all of a sudden here's a package in there for him."
Roethlisberger was a limited participant in Pittsburgh's practice Thursday. It was a sign of progress one day after being completely sidelined, but it did not bring about any more clarity to the situation.
Jones has started once and entered a game twice because of an injury to the quarterback ahead of him this season. He lost the start, an Oct. 25, 23-13 loss at Kansas City, and prevailed in the two relief appearances, the most recent of which coming this past Sunday against Oakland.
Browns safety Tashaun Gipson is keeping Roethlisberger and Vick in the back of his mind, but fully expects Jones to be under center for Pittsburgh's first snap.
"I respect (Roethlisberger). He's a tough competitive guy, so if he says he's going to play I'll hold out 5 percent hope that he might play," Gipson said. "I saw the injury just like everybody else saw it and I don't know. If he could play in a boot, he would, but unfortunately he can't."
2. Cleveland's QB situation
Josh McCown was a limited participant in his second consecutive practice Thursday. Pettine called the veteran "sore but functional" as he works back from a rib injury that kept him out of last week's game against the Bengals.
Pettine said he and the coaching staff would have a "decent idea of where he is and what we'll do for the weekend" at quarterback by late Thursday.
A look back at our 33-13 win over Pittsburgh in 2003.
3. The plan for Antonio Brown
Pro Bowl defensive back Joe Haden didn't practice Thursday, bringing the Browns one day closer to the reality of facing Antonio Brown without their top cornerback.
Pierre Desir, who started in place of Haden last week, is the likely pick to do so again Sunday, Pettine said. Justin Gilbert, who had 23 snaps last week, and rookie Charles Gaines, who is expected to make his Browns debut, will also be involved in different packages.
O'Neil said he believes the Browns have a good plan to slow down Brown, who caught a Steelers record 17 passes for 284 yards against the Raiders. Even without Haden, the Browns plan to utilize some man coverage against Brown, Martavis Bryant and the rest of Pittsburgh's wide receivers, but the loss of Haden and constant turnover that's plagued the secondary since the start of the season has forced some week-to-week adjustments.
"If you talk to (secondary) coach (Jeff) Hafley, he would say we've probably had more starting lineups in the secondary than we have uniform combinations," O'Neil said. "We've adjusted as the year has gone on to try to take advantage of who's out there for us and what they do best. We identify guys that can play man coverage. That's what we look for in free agency and the draft."
4. The Gaines plan
Gaines worked himself back to his NFL Combine weight and has shown enough in recent practices to warrant a place in the Browns' game plan against the Steelers.
Gaines spent the first half of the season on the injured reserve - designated to return list with a hamstring injury he suffered in Cleveland's third preseason game. He lost 12-15 pounds during his downtime and took a major chunk out of his body fat percentage.
"He had a really good practice yesterday," O'Neil said. "We're going to see what happens today or tomorrow, and that will determine how big or how small his role will be in this game plan."
Gaines called it a "blessing" to be able to face Brown in his first NFL game. Both Gaines and Brown hail from the Miami area.
"It will be a blessing just to get the opportunity to face him and learn from what he does and how I can get better," Gaines said. "I will be out there having fun."
5. Minimal concern about Cam Erving at LG
Pettine confessed he'd be concerned about rookie Cameron Erving starting at left guard Sunday if Erving weren't so versatile, but that's clearly not the case.
Erving has been on the move since the day he arrived with the Browns. He played defensive line, left tackle and center at Florida State. He'll be at left guard in place of Joel Bitonio (ankle) for the foreseeable future.
"The fact that he's spent time on the left side as a tackle, there's a lot of overlap there," Pettine said. "We truly won't know until he goes out there and plays … I'm confident given his background and given his versatility, flexibility that if anybody can do it, it's him."
John Greco, who has worked in front of Erving at right guard, said it's "not an issue" to move from right guard to left guard when given the proper amount of time to prepare. The heat of the game, as Erving experienced last week against the Bengals, is a different story.
"I know this week he has been doing a great job at it," Greco said. "He can play anywhere. He has already shown that. We are confident in that. This week of preparation has worked wonders for him and he will be ready to go."