Browns lose Vernon for playoffs with torn Achilles tendon

CLEVELAND — Browns starting defensive end Olivier Vernon ruptured his Achilles tendon during Sunday’s playoff-clinching win over Pittsburgh and is done for the season.

Coach Kevin Stefanski said Monday that Vernon, who has played well in his second year with Cleveland, will have surgery.

“Obviously I’m very disappointed for O.V.,” Stefanski said. “He was playing at a high level. We’re going to miss his leadership.”

Stefanski declined a chance to update the status on top cornerback Denzel Ward, who missed Sunday’s game after testing positive for COVID-19 and could possibly return for the playoff game at Pittsburgh.

Ward was one of six players and three assistant coaches who weren’t available for the Steelers game because of the virus.

Stefanski also said rookie wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones suffered a concussion against the Steelers and is in protocol.

Vernon had his ninth sack this season before he went down in the fourth quarter. He was unable to put any weight on his leg while being assisted to the sideline medical tent before being driven in a cart to the locker room.

The Browns (11-5) beat the Steelers (12-4) to end a 17-season playoff drought, the NFL’s longest. The AFC North rivals will play at Heinz Field on Sunday night in the first round. The teams split their two matchups in the regular season.

Vernon is scheduled to be a free agent after this season. The 30-year-old, who came to Cleveland last year in the blockbuster trade with the Giants that brought Odell Beckham Jr. to the Browns, agreed to restructure his contract this past offseason to stay with the team.

When the Browns lost star defensive end Myles Garret for two games with COVID-19, Vernon picked up the slack for Cleveland’s defense. He had three sacks in a Nov. 22 win over Philadelphia, and forced a fumble the following week in a win over Jacksonville.

“He stepped up his game,” Stefanski said. “A bunch of guys have done that this season, and O.V.’s a great example of that. We were counting on him, we needed him and he stepped up. He’s a leader for the football team in how he plays. O.V. doesn’t say much, but when he talks, I think the guys listen — just goes about his business.”

“Hard to replace. I don’t know if you replace any player, but we need guys to step up.”

Adrian Clayborn will replace Vernon in the starting lineup and Porter Gustin will get more playing time.