Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski, two additional members of the coaching staff and two players have tested positive for COVID-19 and will not be available for the AFC wild-card game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night if the game remains as scheduled.
In making the announcement Tuesday, the Browns said special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer will serve as the acting head coach. Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt is expected to call the offensive plays in place of Stefanski, a source told ESPN.
Wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge and Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio were the players to test positive, a source told ESPN, while the other coaches to test positive were defensive backs coach Jeff Howard and tight ends coach Drew Petzing.
According to NFL rules, anyone testing positive must sit out at least 10 days.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said Tuesday there is no change to the status of Sunday night’s game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh and that contact tracing is still ongoing. The Browns shut down their practice facility Tuesday for a fifth time in 10 days.
“If any players or personnel are identified as such, they would remain apart from the team and facilities for five days from the last exposure to a positive individual,” McCarthy said in a statement. “They would be eligible to return to the team and play in the game.”
During Sunday’s win over the Steelers in the regular-season finale, the Browns had to play without six starters because of COVID-19 protocols, as well as offensive line coaches Bill Callahan and Scott Peters and wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea.
Star cornerback Denzel Ward, tight end Harrison Bryant, linebackers Malcolm Smith and B.J. Goodson and safety Andrew Sendejo all sat out Sunday’s game after testing positive for COVID-19. Nickelback Kevin Johnson was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list as well, a day before the game.
The Browns are playing in their first playoff game since 2002, snapping the NFL’s longest postseason drought.
“What this proves is, even when doing all the right things, this virus is so contagious that it doesn’t guarantee you full protection,” said Browns center JC Tretter, who is also the NFLPA president. “I feel for the guys who tested positive over the last 11 days.
“Coach Stefanski has had an amazing first season as head coach. Brings us to the playoffs and won’t be able to be out there to be with us. Joel Bitonio, who’s played so long in Cleveland and has his first shot to play in the playoffs and misses out. That’s tough. I feel for them. That hurts. That hurts them. And we as players feel for them.”
The consensus line, which opened with the Steelers -3.5 and had risen to -4.5 as of Tuesday’s opening, has now jumped to -6 at Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill after Tuesday’s news.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he knows “very little” about the Browns’ Priefer, but he said the change in coaches wouldn’t affect his team’s preparation for the game.
“I’m sure he’ll be the guy acting as the head coach on the sideline and making those decisions pertaining to challenges and things of that nature, but I imagine, behind the scenes, that they’re going to disperse Coach Stefanski’s responsibilities,” Tomlin said. “It’s not just Coach Priefer. I’m not going to spend a lot of time worrying about that. I know Coach Stefanski and do have a relationship with him, but [his being out] doesn’t assure you of anything from a preparation standpoint.”
After a series of roster management changes this summer, including an expansion of practice squads to 16 players, the NFL has made clear it would not move games for competitive reasons. The league followed through on that pledge, shifting games only when it believed an internal team outbreak was underway and could lead to further infections and possibly spread to opponents.
As a result, the Baltimore Ravens lost a Week 12 game against Pittsburgh without quarterback Lamar Jackson, who was among at least 14 players who tested positive during the team’s outbreak. The Denver Broncos were forced to play in Week 12 without any of their four quarterbacks, losing to the New Orleans Saints. And the Detroit Lions played in Week 16 without interim head coach Darrell Bevell and most of their defensive staff, losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
ESPN’s Kevin Seifert and Brooke Pryor contributed to this report.
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