BEREA, Ohio--Do the Browns have a chance to finish the season on a winning streak?
Much to the dismay of many Browns fans, odds are in their favor.
The 10-5 Steelers clinched the AFC North last week with a win over the Ravens and coach Mike Tomlin confirmed on Wednesday that he is going to rest key starters and contributors for Sunday's regular season finale with the Browns at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. The Steelers have the third seed in the playoffs regardless of Sunday's outcome.
“We have to designate seven inactives for the game," Tomlin said in a conference call Wednesday. "We have a number of guys that are injured. Obviously, if they don’t get better from a health standpoint, they will be inactive. I will use the remaining spots on some guys that I would like to assure that we get to the playoffs – guys like our quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger), Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, and then the guys that are in helmets and available and suited for the game, we will proceed business as usual.”
Hue Jackson was asked what he thought about Tomlin's decision.
“That is his choice,"Jackson said. "He gets to do what he wants to do. We will know more when we walk out there. I will believe it when I see it. I am not going to worry about that. I am worried about us playing well. All I can do is coach our team.”
Leading the list of players that Tomlin said won't play are offensive stars Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown. Bell has 1,268 yards rushing with seven touchdowns to lead the AFC and has caught 75 passes for another 616 yards and two touchdowns. Brown has 106 receptions for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns to lead the AFC in receiving. Meanwhile, Roethlisberger has thrown for 3,819 yards with 29 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. The trio has accounted for 6,987 yards with 50 touchdowns. That's a lot of firepower on the sidelines.
By comparison, the three players behind them are quarterback Landry Jones, running back DeAngelo Williams and wide receiver Eli Rogers. Jones has thrown 49 passes on the season and has one touchdown and one interception. Williams has 276 yards rushing with three touchdowns and 15 receptions. Rogers has 38 receptions for 449 yards and three touchdowns.
Christian Kirksey said it doesn't matter to him and the other players who they're going up against as they are all NFL players.
"They're in the black and yellow uniforms," Kirksey said. "My job is to go out there and compete and win, regardless of who plays, we have to do our job. That's all we're focused on right now. I have to go out and do my job. It's really not faces to me. I'm just going to go out and do my job to the best of my ability."
The Browns currently sit with the first pick in the NFL Draft next spring, but a win over the Steelers and a loss by the 49ers to the Seahawks will drop the Browns to the No. 2 pick by virtue of a strength of schedule tie breaker with the 49ers.
Jackson said the draft choice has not been talked about in his world.
“Oh no, we are trying to win a game," Jackson said. "That talk, we don’t even get into. Like I said before, these guys have worked so hard that every chance you go out there, you are trying to win. All of that will take care of itself on how it all unfolds. First pick, second pick, third pick, there are good players every year. We are going to be at the top of the draft regardless of how we finish. We will be fine that way.”
Jackson said he hasn't begun to think about next year's draft.
"...I don’t know much about this draft yet and how it is going to unfold," he said. "That is not what I am concerned about. I am concerned about getting this team ready to play and go win.”
The players echoed their coach's message.
"We're not thinking about the draft," Kirksey said. "It's all about this week. Each game is a fresh start. In my mind, we're 1-0, looking to win and carry on to next season."
Hue Holding Out Hope for RG3: There's a good chance that QB Robert Griffin III will start for the fourth-straight game, despite still being in the NFL's concussion protocol as of Wednesday. Jackson sounded as though he still is holding out hope that Griffin will be able to play on Sunday against the Steelers. Griffin did not practice Wednesday and is still in the NFL's concussion protocol. Griffin was knocked out of Sunday's game.
“I think if he is cleared, if they clear him, I think maybe the concussion was not as bad as we all thought, No. 1," Jackson said. "We would not put him back out there unless medically we say it is OK. No. 2, we have seen him get better from the first opportunity to the second to the third. Hopefully, he can keep making jumps as you go because that says a lot to me. I would like to if we could, but if we can’t, I understand that, too.”
Jackson sounded as though there's a good chance that Griffin will be cleared before Thursday's practice.
“I think there is an opportunity, but we will know more about it tomorrow so we will leave it there until we find out more.”
In four starts, Griffin is 58-of-107 for 654 yards (54.2 percent) with no touchdowns and two interceptions. His rating is 64.9. If Griffin does not play, QB Cody Kessler would make his ninth start of the season. On the season, Kessler has a team-best rating of 92.3. He's 128-of-195 (65.6 pct.) for 1,380 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions.
Griffin has been knocked out of two of the four starts he's had this season. Jackson admitted that durability is a factor in determining if Griffin can be next season's quarterback.
"Hopefully, it is the fact that he won a game, but you have to stay healthy," Jackson said. "I will be the first to tell you that. It is hard to play in this league when you are not out there playing. He did everything to help us have a chance to win the game. He played better in some areas, but you have to find a way to stay out there. In respect to how it was, the guy took a lot of different hits – some that he can get better at but a lot that where we have to continue to get better at. I think it goes both ways.”
Erving to Tackle?: With the release of OL Jonathan Cooper, the Browns will have yet another look on their offensive line. One possibility is to move center Cameron Erving to right tackle to see if he would be better suited at that position moving forward.
“Yeah, that could happen," Jackson said. "I am just going to take the week and keep looking at different combinations as we have had almost all year. We have kind of been in this situation with guys moving in and out and doing all those things. Anything can happen this Sunday. I just want to try to put the best guys out there to give us the chance to win and have an opportunity to evaluate our team as we move forward.”
In the locker room, Erving said he practiced at right tackle Wednesday and there's a chance he might start there this week.
“It is definitely a little exciting just to be able to potentially have that opportunity to go out and play tackle again because although I have never played right tackle," Erving said. "It would be definitely cool to be able to go out there and play a game at right tackle and just kind of gauge where I am at. We will see."
If Erving moves to right tackle, OL Austin Pasztor could move back to right guard. Another possibility is to play third-round draft choice Shon Coleman, who has yet to play this season other than in extra linemen blocking situations. OL Alvin Bailey is also in the mix after coming off a two-game suspension. OL Anthony Fabiano is listed as the backup at center, if Erving moves to tackle.
After three-straight starts at right guard, Jackson was asked why Cooper was released.
"We saw what we needed to see," Jackson said. "We appreciate his time here."
Jackson admitted the offensive line needs to improve in the off-season.
“It is not just the line," Jackson said. "We need to get better everywhere. I really believe that is our charge as an organization. What we have done is not going to be good enough. There are a lot of areas that we need to improve. Obviously, the line is going to be one of them. Everywhere on our football team is going to be one. I just don’t want to put it to an area. That is where it starts. I truly believe that you win in this division up front, offensively and defensively. That is something we will have to address as we move forward.”
Starting guards Joel Bitonio and John Greco are on injured reserve, along with center Austin Reiter.
Jackson Seconds Awards: Earlier in the day, the local chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) awarded OL Joe Thomas with the Player of the Year award and LB Christian Kirksey with the 'Good Guy Award'.
“I support that wholeheartedly," Jackson said. "Joe is probably my player of the year, too, for what he has done for our football team and organization for being out there playing. I can’t say enough about a guy that does not miss a football snap. That is dependability at its best. Kirko is a rising football player on our football team and within pro football itself. He has had a hell of a year and he needs to keep growing, but I think he gets it. It is about team for him. It has never just been about him, and I appreciate it. At the end of the day, your good guys have to be that way because they have to keep pulling people over this wall as we move forward. I think the two guys you guys nominated and selected are the right guys.”
They're Off: The following players did not practice Wednesday: QB Robert Griffin III (concussion), OL Joe Thomas (knee), DB Joe Haden (neck), RB Duke Johnson (ankle), LB Cam Johnson (groin), DB Jamar Taylor (groin), LB Dominique Alexander (abdominal/groin), TE Randall Telfer (ankle/thumb) and DB Trey Caldwell (hamstring).
At Least They're Consistent: The Browns are 31st in total offense and defense in the NFL. The only team they are ahead of in offense is the Los Angeles Rams, while the only team they are ahead of on defense is the San Francisco 49ers led by former Browns defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil.