Q: I was just curious as to why you think the Browns don’t use Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt like they used Greg and Mike Pruitt. With so many injuries to the receiver corps, last week was the perfect opportunity to introduce the duo in the backfield. It seems like it’s a wasted opportunity of two great running backs. Has this topic been broached with coach Kevin Stefanski?
A: Stefanski was asked about it throughout the season and again after the 23-16 loss to the Jets. His explanation after the Jets game was the receiver news came too late — Saturday — to make wholesale changes to the game plan. His previous answer was that using Chubb and Hunt together would be a small part of the playbook.
The run scheme is elaborate and requires as many blockers as possible. So I believe Stefanski doesn’t want to remove a tight end, fullback or receiver for a second tailback in the backfield.
The option that could work is Hunt as a slot receiver. But Stefanski has resisted that. Perhaps it’s as simple as liking his wideouts better, whether it’s rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones or KhaDarel Hodge. I think Stefanski would’ve used Hunt as a receiver against the Jets if he’d been able to practice in that role.
The Browns have also been adamant they like the rotation that allows both running backs to remain fresh throughout the game and season.
Q: Now that we are through Week 16, what is your gut feeling on the Browns in the playoffs this year?
— Justin Nalley
A: I think they win today, make the playoffs, go on the road and give some team hell.
But I’m a lot less confident than before the COVID-19 issues of the past eight days, including cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson being ruled out. If Pittsburgh backup quarterback Mason Rudolph plays just OK, the Steelers have receivers who can take advantage of the Browns secondary. The Browns may have to win a shootout, which would require the offensive to be clicking.
As for a potential playoff game, a lot will depend on who’s available. The guys on the COVID list are all question marks.
Q: After the Ravens game, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer labeled Cody Parkey’s two misses as “inexcusable,” which I thought was pretty strong as a public comment. Priefer was correct, of course, but Kevin Stefanski’s policy with the press has been consistent: When a player screws up Coach Stefanski takes most of the blame with the press and player critiques to the press are much softer, along the lines of “we expect better.” This week Priefer was a bit more generous when commenting, even as Parkey continued his struggles last week. Do you think Stefanski asked him to tone it down, or is Priefer just trying to boost his kicker’s confidence, or am I just a bit too focused on every syllable coming from our coaches in these press conferences?
— John Palazzo
A: You could be a reporter. We spend too much time analyzing each word from everyone.
As for the Parkey situation, you’re right about Stefanski being extremely cautious about criticizing players to reporters. Position coaches and coordinators have a different relationship with the players and are often more critical publicly. That’s how I took the previous Priefer comments.
The noticeable change in Priefer’s tone this week could have been on direction from Stefanski. It could also be as simple as the organization doesn’t have a better option than Parkey, so it’s time to try to rebuild his confidence.
Q: Do you think defensive coordinator Joe Woods will be returning? It seems he has the same defense that former coach Mike Pettine used here and the linebackers were always slow and confused.
A: I do think Woods will be back. Although I would stop short of saying it’s guaranteed.
Stefanski was supposed to bring stability to the organization and I think that starts with his coaching staff, which he’s praised all season.
As for Woods, he was dealt a difficult hand. The linebackers and secondary were question marks to begin with, then suffered a series of injuries. The coverage breakdowns shouldn’t still be happening but that also fall on the players. I’d give Woods another year with a more talented roster, which he should have after general manager Andrew Berry spends free agency and the draft addressing the weaknesses.
Q: Any word on right guard Wyatt Teller’s status for today?
A: It feels like it’s a week early, but I expect him to start after missing two games with an ankle sprain. The cruel reality is the Browns don’t have any better options than a recovering Teller.
Top backup Chris Hubbard had knee surgery and is done for the season. Rookie Nick Harris, who started for Teller last week, was ruled out with a knee injury. Veteran Kendall Lamm, who’s more of a tackle anyway, didn’t practice all week with an illness. Michael Dunn would be next up and has no real experience in an NFL game.
The hope is Teller’s close to 85 percent and that’s good enough to improve the line and beat the Steelers.
Q: It seems to me that we are losing 20-40 yards a game lately in an underperforming punter. Is Jamie Gillan an unremarked-upon weak link in our special teams?
A: Gillan has certainly struggled. He ranks 29th in the NFL with 43.9 yards per punt.
The regression from his rookie season is surprising and hard to figure. He’s got an extremely strong leg and is a hard worker, but too many kicks just don’t go far enough. Maybe it’s just a sophomore slump, but it’s disappointing for a guy who was so good as a rookie.
Q: In the Browns’ loss to the Jets, the only active wideout from the 53-man roster was Marvin Hall, but Baker Mayfield surprisingly targeted him only twice, preferring instead to throw to receivers activated from the practice squad. Can you please explain Hall’s lack of targets?
— Bob Williams
A: Hall has actually been with the Browns for far less time than Ja’Marcus Bradley, who caught five passes for 60 yards against the Jets. Bradley was signed as an undrafted rookie in May, spent training camp with the team and had been on the practice squad.
Hall was claimed off waivers Dec. 7 and hadn’t been active for a game until last week vs. the Jets.