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Browns 'very confident' in depth on defense as roster shuffling continues

The defense will return key players Sunday and believes it can still find success without its head coach on the sidelines

Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods spent the majority of last week shuffling pieces in his defense to fit the personnel available to him and the Steelers.

Top cornerback Denzel Ward was out. So was his trusty linebacker leader, B.J. Goodson, veteran LB Malcolm Smith, starting safety Andrew Sendejo and top slot corner Kevin Johnson. The Steelers were sitting several key offensive players, too, but Woods still needed to prepare for their depth.

The opponent might be the same this week, but Woods' preparational tasks won't get any easier.

First, the good news: Goodson, the Browns' tackling leader, was activated off the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Sendejo was, too, and Smith and Ward could be activated from the same list before Sunday, but the Browns won't truly know who's available until game day.

Next, the not-so-good news: Head coach Kevin Stefanski will not be on the sidelines Sunday after he tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday. Safety Ronnie Harrison Jr. was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Thursday and will be out for the game as well. The Browns haven't been able to practice yet this week with the team headquarters closed due to COVID-19 precautions. 

And, on the injury front, defensive end Olivier Vernon — who recorded nine sacks, giving him the second-best total of his career — was ruled out for the season Monday with an Achilles injury.

The defense is in the middle of its most challenging week of the season, but Woods' confidence hasn't changed a bit.

"I feel very confident," Woods said, "because a lot of the guys that (will play), they've played in big games, whether it was last week or in primetime games."

Check out the best photos from the Browns win over the Pittsburgh Steelers yesterday by the Browns photo team

Last week was indeed a game Woods can point to as an example for his confidence. 

Even though the Steelers opted to sit quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a 17-year veteran, they still played all of their top receivers and running backs, and the Browns defense held them to 22 points. Cornerback M.J. Stewart Jr., who has primarily been used on special teams, played a season-high 63 snaps and snagged an interception. Robert Jackson, who played just six snaps before Week 17, was slotted as a starter as a result of the absences in the secondary. 

This week, defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who has 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble, could see an increase in snaps with Vernon sidelined. Stewart and Jackson could all see similar workloads as last week, too, depending on which players are able to return from the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Goodson will be back in the lineup as well.

"All those guys are very capable," Woods said. "We have the ability to have a few different combinations with the guys we will have this week at this point … To get B.J. back, he's been a leader, really the quarterback of our defense. We'll fit him in on maybe more of a rotational basis, but it's definitely good to get back a player that's played well for us."

No loss, perhaps, will be as significant as their coach. Stefanski will still be able to coach the Browns virtually in the days leading up to Sunday night, but he will not be permitted to have any communication with the team when the game begins.

Stefanski's calm, positive and unflappable leadership has been crucial to the successes on both sides of the ball, but Woods believes the defense is well-equipped to play without him. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, who is filling in for Stefanski as interim head coach, has been heavily involved with nearly all of the Browns' defensive players, many of whom also contribute to special teams.

The defense will have a recognizable leader at the top of the coaching tree, and Woods and the defensive staff are still able to build their own defensive game plan the same way they would any other week. 

"From the beginning, we've all been involved — our entire coaching staff — but (Stefanski) lets us run our side of the ball," Woods said. "Kevin will be missed, but I feel like they'll be confident in (Priefer's) ability to fulfill Kevin's role. I feel like we'll be fine."

This week has brought another wave of unexpected news and roster shuffling for Woods, but after a long season — and previous week — of tricky, unprecedented preparations, he knows the defense will still be ready to roll.

"It's always about not making excuses," he said. "The guys understand that. It's been preached all year. I think the players will go out and believe in that message."

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