The Cleveland Browns were dealt a harsh blow on Tuesday with the announcement that several coaches and a pair of players will miss Sunday’s playoff game after testing positive for COVID-19.
The Browns will head to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers without head coach Kevin Stefanski, tight ends coach Drew Petzing, defensive backs coach Jeff Howard, wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge and left guard Joel Bitonio.
We have placed G Joel Bitonio and WR KhaDarel Hodge on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) January 5, 2021
We've also placed C Nick Harris (knee) and DE Olivier Vernon (Achilles) on injured reserve. pic.twitter.com/qHtn9ABQ3e
From an on-field perspective, while it is frustrating that the Browns will be without Hodge, they should be able to hold up OK at the position as long as no one else goes down.
The absence of Bitonio is a completely different story, however.
Bitionio earned this third Pro Bowl selection this season, and a second-team selection to Pro Football Focus’ All-Pro team, while being a key part of an offensive line that has become one of the league’s best units.
Joel Bitonio, three straight Pro Bowls, is No. 1 in the NFL in pass block win rate and No. 11 in run block win rate among guards. The #Browns were already without their top two backup guard options in Chris Hubbard (season-ending injury) and Nick Harris (knee) @ESPNStatsInfo— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) January 5, 2021
With Bitonio out for the Pittsburgh game, the Browns are facing some hard decisions on how to fill his vacant spot.
Veteran Chris Hubbard did a nice job filling in for right guard Wyatt Teller earlier in the season while Teller was dealing with a calf injury. But Hubbard went down with a torn ACL in Week 15 against the New York Giants and is currently on injured reserve.
Rookie fifth-round draft pick Nick Harris stepped in for Hubbard against the Giants and did an admirable job, but struggled the following week against the New York Jets. Harris also picked up a knee injury during the Jets game and was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday.
So where does that leave the Browns as they prepare for their first playoff game in 18 seasons?
If they want to go with a veteran option, they could always try Kendall Lamm, who has played in 74 games and made 27 starts (including a playoff game in 2018) in his six seasons in the league. Sadly, only one of his offensive snaps during that time period have come at guard, so Lamm might be a risky option given that the Browns may only get in one or two actual practices this week.
If they don’t want to risk Lamm learning the position on the fly, the Browns might go with Michael Dunn, who was signed in August and has been added to the gameday roster a handful of times this season. Dunn was originally an undrafted free agent in 2017 who signed with Los Angeles Rams. He has spent time on the practice squads of the Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars, and also was in camp with the Miami Dolphins in 2019. He was last seen plying his trade in the AAF and XFL.
After Dunn comes Cordell Iwuagwu, who the Browns signed to the practice squad just last week. Originally an undrafted free agent signed by the Houston Texans, Iwuagwu spent time this season on Houston’s practice squad before being released.
Then there is Blake Hance, who was originally signed by the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted free agent in 2019. Hance spent the 2020 season on the practice squad of the New York Jets before the Browns signed him all of three days ago.
Javon Patterson could also be an option, but he was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list on December 30, so it is probably for the best to not count on him being available.
The problem with all of the options, outside of the fact that none of them are Bitonio, is that they have combined for exactly two offensive snaps at the guard position in a game. That is not exactly a recipe for success when lining up against Pittsburgh’s front seven.
The Browns are going to have to do something, however, and while their choices may be less than ideal, all they can do is hope for the best at this point.