An inside look into how the losses of a head coach, starting lineman and a pass rusher will impact the Browns vs. the Steelers in the playoffs.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns are bitter rivals, and after their Week 17 matchup they find themselves playing again in the Wild Card round of the AFC Playoffs at Heinz Field. Believe it or not, but a lot has changed since then. The main difference is on the Browns’ side of the field, where they will be without their head coach, a pass rusher and several others for various reasons.
With there being such a change in the Browns’ lineup, I decided to ask Chris Pokorny, editor of SB Nation’s Browns site, Dawgs by Nature, some questions about the upcoming game. Mainly, what these losses mean heading into the postseason.
Here are his answers…
How big of a deal is it losing Kevin Stefanski during the game Sunday?
I think the good thing is that Stefanski is still the one crafting the game plan for the week, so at least Cleveland has that going for them. And because the game isn’t being played until Sunday night, that gives him that little bit of extra time to work with his offensive coordinator on as many scenarios and situational things as possible. Interim head coach Mike Priefer, who is the team’s special teams coordinator, worked with Stefanski in Minnesota for eight years, so I think the trust is there for him to not deviate too far from the plan. (Priefer was also born in Cleveland, so this has to be a dream opportunity for him).
There’s no doubt that the team will miss Stefanski. He’s been very good with his play calling to cater to Baker Mayfield and the offense’s strengths. He uses his challenges and timeouts well. There haven’t been any knucklehead moves by the team this year — players have the right mix of swagger and discipline. But because Stefanski has helped craft such a good culture all season long, I think for at least a week, him not being there won’t be “the reason” why the Browns win or lose.
On that same note, how big are the losses of Vernon and Bitonio for this Browns team on Sunday night?
Both losses are very significant. I talked to you about Vernon’s impact prior to last week’s game, and he nearly forced a fumble on Mason Rudolph. He became the team’s most solid and disciplined defender over the second half of the season. As you saw in last week’s game, he doesn’t dominate or anything like that; so it’s not like Cleveland is losing a T.J. Watt or anything like that. But for a team already facing issues defensively for much of the year, you can’t afford to have one of your stable pieces become another downgraded position. Taking Vernon’s place will be Adrian Clayborn, who Cleveland likes to use as a rotational pass-rusher, not an every down defender. At this stage of his career, Clayborn’s effectiveness sees diminishing returns with the more snaps he plays.
The loss of Bitonio seems really significant. Think of the Top 3 guards in all of football, and he is in that group. He is the most veteran linemen on the team, and was so eager to finally make the postseason. Making the loss even worse is the fact that Chris Hubbard and Nick Harris, who would have been next in line to replace him, have both gone on injured reserve in recent weeks. Cleveland is poised to start Michael Dunn at left guard, a guy who I believe has only taken one snap in his NFL career. Compound that with the fact that the team hasn’t even been on the practice field this week and Dunn will be going up against one of the best interior linemen in football in Cameron Heyward. The only saving grace is the fact that the rest of Cleveland’s offensive line has been solid all season (the Browns’ line as a whole ranks No. 1 in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus), but we know how much Pittsburgh likes to blitz, and that type of hole can disrupt everything.
Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the black and gold as they prepare for the first postseason game since 2017. Also, if you want to check out the other side of the fence, be sure to visit Dawgs by Nature for the best coverage of the Browns.