Browns Mailbag

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Browns Mailbag: What are Browns' options at safety after more adversity?

Senior Writer Andrew Gribble answers your questions every week

The Browns are 4-1. The Steelers are 4-0. This is the kind of big game we've all been waiting for within the AFC North.

We're just two days away from kickoff, and we're getting you oh so closer by answering four of your questions on this sunny, chilly Friday in Northeast Ohio.

When might we expect to see Mr. Chubb return? — David B., Raleigh

As of this writing, Nick Chubb is now 12 days removed from suffering an MCL injury in his knee. He was placed on the injured reserve Oct. 5 and has already missed one of the requisite three games for being placed on that list. Coach Kevin Stefanski said Chubb would be out for several weeks, and that's what we're sticking with. Chubb is attacking his rehab and can hopefully rejoin a Browns running attack that continues to run deep with Kareem Hunt, D'Ernest Johnson and Dontrell Hilliard.

The Browns are stacked at tight end. Will they use more three tight end formations because as a group they have many opportunities? — Rob M., Charleston, West Virginia

With last week's return of David Njoku, the Browns tight end room is back to full strength. In the win over the Colts, Njoku saw the field for 21 snaps. Rookie Harrison Bryant played 29 snaps, a bit of a drop from his usage while Njoku was sidelined, while Pro Bowler Austin Hooper continued his typical workload of 58 snaps. Stephen Carlson was used exclusively on special teams one week after he played 16 snaps against the Cowboys. Yes, Cleveland is using its tight ends much more than in previous seasons, but that hasn't necessarily meant a ton of three tight end formations.

Check out exclusive photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers

The back end of the secondary seems to be an area of weakness on this team, though Coach Woods seems committed to his current personnel despite the safety position looking overmatched in real time. Is there something that the average fan might not be seeing that could be contributing to the defensive struggles over the top? — Benji C., Lansing, Michigan

The Browns are looking to be better than they have been against the pass so far this season, and their rankings, while mostly middle of the pack, indicate there's room to grow. So far this season, Cleveland has surrendered 15 plays of 20+ yards and two plays of 40+. The Browns rank 23rd in the league in explosive pass plays allowed (15+ yards).

The defense, though, has made up for some of these plays by forcing more takeaways than any other team in the league. That opportunistic nature came to the forefront last week against the Colts when the Browns got two interceptions from the safety position. Ronnie Harrison Jr.'s pick-six and Sheldrick Redwine's interception late in the fourth quarter were huge plays that made a difference in the final outcome. So much has been made about the Browns' offense, particularly the running attack — and it's all well-deserved — but this flurry of turnovers is one of the biggest reasons why Cleveland stands at 4-1 entering Sunday's showdown with the Steelers.

This game will provide a major challenge for the safeties for multiple reasons, the biggest of which being the overall health of the unit. Karl Joseph (hamstring) and Harrison (concussion) have yet to practice this week. If neither are available Sunday, the Browns would be left with three safeties — Andrew Sendejo, Redwine and Jovante Moffatt — all of whom are listed as free safeties. Ever since Grant Delpit's season-ending injury in training camp, this group has been forced to dig deep into its depth, and it will likely do so again in some capacity against the Steelers.

"(Pass game coordinator/defensive backs coach Jeff Howard) has done a good job throughout training camp just always rotating all the guys we have in the back end," defensive coordinator Joe Woods said. "The guys are all familiar with the defense. We have the ability to move pieces around. With Ronnie, it is really day by day with him, but I think we may get him back. We will see. Regardless, we will have guys that will be ready to step up and play."

Some big improvement is seen in the linebacker position. Can the Browns shut down Ben and Pittsburgh's tricky short passes to James Conner? — Rob M., Charleston, West Virginia

From my view in the press box, it seems like the Browns have been much better this season at limiting running backs in the passing game. This past week, Indianapolis' duo of Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines accounted for just four catches and 39 yards through the air. The previous week, Ezekiel Elliott had a big game (eight receptions, 71 yards) but you've got to consider the circumstances of the fourth quarter, when Dallas trailed by as much as 27, before making too much of it.

One of the biggest differences is how the Browns are using their linebackers. Gone are the days of two linebackers playing every single snap, as Cleveland has doled out numerous snaps to five different players at the position. Linebackers coach Jason Tarver credited his time with coaching legend Bill Walsh as the reason why he's rotated so many players at a bunch of different spots.

"One of his favorite phrases was 'Know your personnel and use your personnel,'" Tarver said. "What that means is figure out what guys can do and then give them a chance. We do some substitutions, and we put guys in what we feel is the best position to be successful. Listen, sometimes it is not going to turn out perfect, but it is what you do the next time. 

"That is what we have been impressed with this group for the most part is when something happens to us, nothing is going to be perfect but making quick adjustments and then going out and executing it the next time is what we want to see. We have been pretty good on that."

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