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Browns Mailbag: Which position groups have shown off their depth most?

Senior Writer Andrew Gribble answers your questions every week

The Browns Mailbag is back after a one-week hiatus. Sacrifices have to be made during a short week, and the Browns Mailbag unfortunately was one of them. We'll make it up with a bye week edition whenever the Browns finally get a bye.

So, we're back to normal and back on track as the Browns prepare for Sunday's Halloween showdown with the Steelers.

How about three questions to cap a three-game homestand?

I thought Tony Fields was a good pick for depth in our linebacking corps, especially now with JOK being on injured reserve. Is his foot injury that kept him from competing in the preseason still an issue? — Anthony B., Sugar Hill, Georgia

Fields has been healthy for most of the 2021 season, though he didn't get a ton of work during the preseason because of those aforementioned injuries. He was inactive for Weeks 1 and 2 before making his NFL debut Week 3 against the Bears, picking up 17 snaps on special teams. He's been active four times since and played a similar amount of special teams snaps in those games, too. He's yet to see the field on defense.

The Steelers game in Cleveland will be a great test for the defense to attack Big Ben from all angles against the Steelers' young offensive line. Can the Browns win the turnover battle and play mistake-free football? — Rob M., Charleston, West Virginia

Normalcy returned last week to the Browns' defense and the team as a whole. What we mean by that is the Browns won the turnover battle (1-0) and won the game. Up until Week 5, when the Browns won the turnover battle but lost to the Chargers in a heartbreaker, that's been the stone-cold lock of a way to win a game ever since Kevin Stefanski took over as head coach. We bring that up because this key to victory was especially important in the Browns' two big wins over the Steelers in 2020. It was also a big reason why Cleveland was on the wrong end of a lopsided loss Week 6 in Pittsburgh.

In the regular season finale, the Browns got the big turnover they needed when M.J. Stewart intercepted Mason Rudolph to set up a short field for the offense, which played a turnover-free game. The Browns capitalized with a touchdown that would turn out to be the game-winner. One week later, of course, the flood gates opened, and the Browns throttled Pittsburgh in its own stadium by forcing five turnovers.

This is a long-winded way of saying turnovers are very important for the Browns, especially when the offense continues to play relatively clean football. Cleveland enters this game tied for 19th in the NFL with a minus-2 turnover margin but are tied for ninth with the fewest giveaways (seven). In fact, the Browns and Steelers are the only two teams in the league to be ranked in the top half of the league in fewest giveaways while carrying a negative turnover margin. 

Cleveland has forced five turnovers on the season — three interceptions and two fumbles. Though the Browns rank third in the NFL with 20 sacks, they've yet to post a strip-sack on the opposing quarterback. Dialing up one or two of those Sunday against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers — who have surrendered just 12 sacks on the season — would be huge in a game that likely will hinge on whichever defense makes the most big plays.

What position groups have shown the most depth at this point in the season (one offensive and one defensive)? — Nick D., Glendale, Arizona

This is a tough one because the Browns have been so taxed by injuries through the first seven games. Depth has been tested just about everywhere, and that'll remain the case all the way to the end of the NFL's first-ever 17-game season. So there are a lot of ways to answer this question, but we'll do our best.

On offense, I'm picking the tight ends, who have remained relatively healthy while thriving with three players who are all getting starter-worthy snaps. Austin Hooper, David Njoku and Harrison Bryant have given Cleveland the productivity and reliability to allow Stefanski and Alex Van Pelt to dial up a ton of plays that feature two or three tight ends on the field. Without that depth, the Browns simply wouldn't have as thick of a playbook.

"They all have different things that they do well," tight ends coach Drew Petzing said recently. "It makes us dynamic and hard to defend. I love having those guys on the field. Obviously, they bring something to our offense in a lot of different ways so we feel like it really allows us to attack the defense in any way we see fit."

It also goes without saying the Browns have found success at running back with D'Ernest Johnson and at tackle with Blake Hance despite both players entering the season as the third option at their respective positions. That's commendable in its own right and is a testament to the overall depth of the entire 53.

On defense, the Browns have proven to be particularly deep at defensive tackle — deep enough where rookie DT Tommy Togiai hasn't needed to be active for a game this season. Malik Jackson and Malik McDowell have been healthy and active in all seven games while Jordan Elliott and Andrew Billings have helped give them some relief when necessary. They've played a big part in the Browns ranking No. 2 in the NFL against the run.

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