Yes, in all of our time doing the Browns Mailbag, this will be our first PLAYOFF EDITION. Let's not make it the last.
On with the questions!
How healthy can we expect our secondary to be this week? It would obviously be an enormous boost to have the likes of Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams back to help cover Pittsburgh's talented group of pass catchers. — Nick D., Wayne, West Virginia
First things first. Williams won't be back. He hasn't practiced since early October, when he was placed on injured reserve.
Now, let's continue with the cornerbacks.
As for Ward and Kevin Johnson, they've yet to be activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list. That could change in the next 48 hours, but as of Friday afternoon — as the Browns embark on their first practice of the week — the team will prepare as if they won't be on the field Sunday night. Obviously, if one or both are able to return, it'd be a big boost to the group. Last week's performance shows the Browns can hold their own without them, and they may have to do it again.
"I do not know what the outcome of that is going to be," defensive coordinator Joe Woods said regarding the uncertain status of Ward and Johnson. "But we do have guys who have some experience and got some experience last week playing so I feel like we will be good either way."
Another name to watch in the Browns secondary is veteran Terrance Mitchell, who has played almost every snap this season. He was listed as questionable Sunday for non-injury related reasons.
That said, the Browns had players like Robert Jackson and M.J. Stewart step up last week, and they'll likely be called upon to do the same Sunday. Stewart intercepted his second pass of the season, making arguably the biggest play of last week's game, while Jackson played every snap after seeing the field for just a handful in the previous 15 games. Woods was impressed with both, all things considered, and expects Jackson especially to learn from the opportunity.
"That was really his first exposure. Throwing him out there under those circumstances was really a tall task," Woods said. "I feel like he made some plays. We all have seen the plays that he did not make, but when you go back and you watch it, it is always what I try to tell the players is 'This evaluates your technique. Could it have been better?' When you look at it, he definitely could have been better technique-wise on a couple of those plays, and he was a half-step away from making those. Hopefully, he can make that jump this week because I think they are definitely going to target him."
Now, the safeties.
On Thursday, the Browns activated veteran Andrew Sendejo but lost Ronnie Harrison Jr. to the reserve/COVID-19 list. Backup Jovante Moffatt was also placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list and won't be available Sunday.
That means the Browns will go back to the safety unit it had while Harrison was on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. It's the same starters Cleveland had at the beginning of the season, too, and Joseph has played well while filling in for Harrison. Sheldrick Redwine, who started last week's game in Sendejo's place, also will be available.
"Who knows who it is going to be," Woods said, "but we do need to step up and find a way to get takeaways to give us a chance to win."
Can you explain the reasoning behind not letting Coach Stefanski communicate in any way with his team during the Steelers game? — John M., Homer, Alaska
We have seen the positive effects of technology this year with Zoom conferences. Is Coach Stefanski permitted to analyze on-demand game film during the Browns game and contribute as a consultant? — Rob M., Charleston, West Virginia
Here's what we know about Kevin Stefanski's situation Sunday. He can be in contact with the team up until a few hours before kickoff, but that's where it ends. He'll be just like the rest of us watching the game Sunday night.
That said, he's still been serving the duties of head coach throughout the week, which was completely virtual until a late Friday afternoon practice. The Browns will have a couple of more walk-throughs that Stefanski can watch (virtually, of course), and he plans to speak to the entire team Saturday night like he typically does. From there, acting coach Mike Priefer will fill the role.
"I have a ton of faith in him. The guys know the message," Stefanski said. "They don't need a Zoom call from me before the game to understand what they need to do."
Is there ever going to be a Mailbag that doesn't have Rob M W Va. as a contributor? Methinks I smell a pseudonym/nom de guerre! What changes if anything can the Browns do on defense to make some stops and get the offense back in the field? — Brian N., Whitehouse
Scout's honor: Rob M. is a very real and prolific questioner. He brings it with both quality and quantity.
Regarding the second part of your question, the Browns simply need to be better on third downs than they were last Sunday, when the Steelers converted eight of them. That's been a bit of a pressure point for the Browns all throughout the season, and Sunday will need to be one of their best performances in this area. Pittsburgh ranks 14th in the NFL in third-down conversions with a 42.1 percent success rate, but the Steelers have struggled a bit of late. Over the past three games, the Steelers have converted just 36.6 percent of their third-down tries.
Against Mason Rudolph, it was the deep ball that got the best of the Browns. That may not be the case against Ben Roethlisberger, who has been lightning quick getting the ball out of his hands. That'll put even more pressure on the Browns' ability to tackle. Make the plays that are there, and the Browns will be in good shape.