The Cleveland Browns activated multiple players off the reserve/COVID-19 list on Saturday, but star cornerback Denzel Ward was one name that was missing.
The Browns got safety Ronnie Harrison, tight end Harrison Bryant and linebacker Malcolm Smith back, but Ward and fellow cornerback Kevin Johnson will not make the trip to Pittsburgh, per multiple reports. Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio and receiver KhaDarel Hodge, who tested positive earlier in the week, also won’t be available Sunday.
#Browns CB Denzel Ward stays on the COVID-19 list and will not play tomorrow.
— Tom Withers (@twithersAP) January 9, 2021
Ward had been a bright spot in the Browns secondary this season, despite missing some time due to injury. He started 12 games, snatching a pair of interceptions and defending 18 passes — a team-high. Johnson, one of the top options to replace Ward, will also miss the game, meaning Tavierre Thomas, Robert Jackson and MJ Stewart will take on larger roles.
“Just how things have been going all through last year and early through this year, it is just something that you have to be ready to deal with,” Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods told reporters on Thursday. “It is not like it caught us by surprise because every day we take the test, and you never know what is going to happen. We practice multiple guys. We have done that all season. It was unfortunate that we did not have those guys, but we were ready to move on with putting Robert in and M.J. and just going with that combination with (CB) Terrance Mitchell. I hope that is not the case this week and we can just keep rolling, but we were ready to deal with it.”
Ronnie Harrison Makes Surprise Return for Browns
The Browns were planning to be without Harrison this week, but it turns out his previously reported positive test was a false positive. His test would have likely knocked him out for the following week as well if the Browns were to advance.
Last week the Browns were forced to play Jackson and Stewart, who had small roles previously. Jackson played all 67 defensive snaps, his previous high being six. Stewart — who had an interception — played on 94 percent of the defensive plays, a season-high.
“We do have options and you talk through all of those options and make sure you are putting a plan together that you think makes sense,” Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski said earlier this week. “We will do that again this week. As it pertains to Robert, he stepped up in a tough spot, just like a bunch of guys have stepped up in a tough spot. That is the name of the game right now. You have to be ready to go in at a moment’s notice.”
Browns Also Missing Pass-Rusher Olivier Vernon
Beyond COVID-19 issues, the Browns will be missing starting defensive end Olivier Vernon. He had come on strong in the second half of the season but was placed on IR this week with a ruptured Achilles.
The next man up would be veteran Adrian Clayborn, who has played a rotational role with the Browns. Clayborn has 12 tackles, 3.5 sacks and one forced fumble in 15 games this season. Porter Gustin could also see an increased role for the Browns.
“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.”
Despite the upheaval this week, the Browns are just 6-point underdogs for their matchup against the Steelers, per Odds Shark.