CLEVELAND (AP) — The Browns are trying to shake free from COVID-19 to face the Steelers.
Cleveland’s issues with the virus continued Thursday as rookie tight end Harrison Bryant and linebacker Malcolm Smith tested positive, forcing the team to close its facility and delay practice for the second straight day with the biggest game in decades coming fast.
The Browns’ latest COVID-19 situation has further impacted preparations for Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh. If they win, the Browns will make the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and end the NFL’s longest current playoff drought.
A league spokesman said at this point the game will be played as scheduled, and that the situation is being closely monitored as standard contact tracing continues.
Bryant and Smith will miss Sunday’s game along with starting linebacker B.J. Goodson and safety Andrew Sendejo, both of whom tested positive.
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski was awaiting word as to when — or if — his team will be able to practice Thursday. After a long delay, the Browns were able to practice indoors for an hour on Wednesday and Stefanski is confident they’ll be ready for their biggest game in years.
The Browns could get some help as Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is resting several starters, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and perhaps Defensive MVP candidate T.J. Watt. Roethlisberger is 23-2-1 in his career against Cleveland.
However, the rival Steelers (12-3), who beat the Browns 38-7 in October and clinched the AFC North last week, won’t hand out any free passes.
“We want to make sure we give Cleveland all they want,” said Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Kevin Butler. “We’re not going to let them walk into the playoffs.”
It’s been a taxing few days for the Browns, who didn’t win a game three years ago but have turned things around under Stefanski.
Last weekend, after a positive test led to players being ruled out because of high-risk close contact with Goodson, the Browns were missing eight rotational players, including star Jarvis Landry and three other wide receivers, and lost 23-16 to the New York Jets.
Landry, Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and KhaDarel Hodge were cleared for practice Thursday and their return will be a huge boost for quarterback Baker Mayfield, who was throwing to players pulled off the practice squad hours before kickoff against the Jets.
The Browns were getting ready to leave for the New York area on Saturday when Goodson’s test came back positive. After the league reviewed video inside the facility, the four receivers were ruled out as close contacts after the group had gathered in the tub recovery area — a lapse in virus guidelines.
Cleveland also has an unidentified assistant coach who tested positive this week.