This situation might be new, but this isn't uncharted territory for the Browns.
Over the past two days, the Browns have seen three of their running backs, including Pro Bowler Nick Chubb, land on the reserve/COVID-19 list. With Kareem Hunt on injured reserve for at least one more week, the Browns entered their first practice of the week Wednesday with just one running back on their active roster: D'Ernest Johnson.
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski declined to make any excuses for the Browns' predicament. Instead, he laid out the situation in matter-of-fact terms, acknowledging the uncertainty that comes with players going on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
"We will see how this week goes if we can get them back or not," Stefanski said. "If they are unable to make it to the game, D'Ernest Johnson obviously is our starter in that scenario, and we have some other options that we are going to look at this week."
The other options include two new faces on the Browns' practice squad, Brian Hill and Dexter Williams. Hill last saw the field in 2020, when he wrapped up a three-year stint with the Falcons that included 198 carries for 945 yards. Williams has seven career carries for 19 yards.
Johnson, of course, is just a few weeks removed from his breakout performance against the Broncos. Without Chubb or Hunt available, Johnson took center stage, rushing for 144 yards and his first career touchdown in the 17-14 victory.
"We have kind of talked about it over the years that guys have to step up," Stefanski said. "We talked about it going back to the Denver game with D'Ernest, and he did. His role for us moving forward is somebody who we are going to count on, and he works very hard."
Stefanski said there was "no magic wand" to get Hill and Williams ready for action if they're needed Sunday against the Patriots, who rank ninth in the NFL in total defense.
"You just have to get them out on the practice field, explain our techniques to them and meet quite a bit virtually to catch them up to speed," he said.
Last year, the Browns lost almost all of their active wide receivers to COVID protocols just one day before they faced the Jets in a pivotal Week 16 matchup. Cleveland was heavily favored but struggled from start to finish in a game it lost in disappointing fashion.
Stefanski said the Browns have time on their side compared to last year's situation.
"We just have to be problem solvers and see what comes, whether it is today, tomorrow or whatever," Stefanski said. "That situation was a little bit different. It was later in the week with that. We will see who is available to us. We have contingency plans and just have to really deal with it day to day."
Check out exclusive photos from the practice fields at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus of the Browns preparing for their Week 10 game against the New England Patriots
Checking In With Baker
Baker Mayfield was considered limited at Wednesday's practice because of a sore foot. Mayfield is also dealing with an injury to his left shoulder, though he said he continues to gain comfort throwing with a harness on it.
"Just as the weeks go on, it is going to, hopefully, continue to improve each day with the rehab and everything we are doing here," Mayfield said. "Just more comfortable with that and just trusting those guys down the field, as well."
Mayfield is coming off his best performance of the season after completing 14-of-21 passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns in the Browns' rout of the Bengals. His quarterback rating of 132.6 was his best since last year's Week 13 win over the Titans.
"I thought he made quick decisions," Stefanski said. "I think he saw it clearly, which I think is important for quarterbacks to see it, especially when teams are trying to disguise, whether pressure or coverage. I think he saw it clearly and got through his progressions quickly."
Because of the Browns' recent stretch of positive COVID-19 tests, the team has entered the league's enhanced protocols. The Browns have instituted daily COVID-19 testing, exclusively virtual meetings and universal mask-wearing while inside the team facility at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus.
"It is things that we have done before," Stefanski said. "We know virtual meetings are not ideal, but we also understand that you can cover a lot of ground in them. We just talked this morning with the players about making sure they are engaged in those meetings and getting everything out of them that we need to."