As the Cleveland Browns prepare for their first playoff game in 18 years, they have a COVID-19 outbreak. While the outbreak is not (yet) threatening the playing of the game, it is preventing the Browns from gathering to practice.
What if the Browns can’t practice at all before Sunday?
“It will not have an impact,” quarterback Baker Mayfield told reporters on Thursday.
He said that because he has to say that. Privately, Mayfield surely is thinking something like, “How in the hell are we going to beat the Steelers without practicing?”
Publicly, the message necessarily is different.
“It is what it is,” Mayfield said about the possibility of not practicing. “There are no excuses, but luckily, we just played them last week so it is not like we are practicing against a whole new defense, essentially is what I am trying to get at. We have to be ready for the wrinkles, but luckily, we have game planned against these guys and everybody is sitting here in the second week in a row preparation for the Pittsburgh defense.”
Again, that’s what he has to say. The reality is that the Browns faced Pittsburgh’s JV team last week, and that the Pittsburgh coaching staff surely held back a few strategic wrinkles — wrinkles that the Steelers have the luxury (relative to the Browns) of practicing and implementing.
Then there’s the fact that defensive player of the year candidate T.J. Watt didn’t play. Watt has the speed and explosiveness to put real pressure on Mayfield, who hasn’t faced a defensive player like Watt since (scans schedule) T.J. Watt in Week Six. When Mayfield is consistently pressured, it affects his play.
So what will the Browns do if they have to play the Steelers without practicing?
“We just have to rely on our fundamentals,” Mayfield said, “the details that we originally installed in this and then the concepts that we are running and putting in this week to really hammer those down and those details down and just be on the same page to where there is no in between and cover all bases of, ‘If they give us this look, this is what we are doing. If they do this, do something else.’ It is just you have to have your mental ready so you can go out there and execute on Sunday.”
Even if a no-practice approach adequately prepares the Browns for Sunday’s game, they’ll have to win it with no coach. And we’ll all see the value of a good coach like Kevin Stefanski through his absence.
If Mayfield is rattled, who will calm him down? If the Steelers are using certain concepts that weren’t expected, who will spot them and counter them? Kevin Stefanski’s unavailability will be a major problem for the Browns, arguably as big if not bigger than not having practice.