Wed, Dec 11, 2019

Who would have thought that when Ben Roethlisberger went down for the season back in Week 2, the Steelers‘ Week 11 game against the Cleveland Browns would see Pittsburgh in possession of a playoff spot? Who would have thought that when the Browns acquired Odell Beckham and Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson this offseason, their Week 11 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers would see Cleveland two full games outside of the playoff picture and sitting in 13th place in the AFC? 

That’s where we are as these two teams are set to square off on Thursday Night Football. The AFC playoff picture is still muddled enough that each of these teams actually has a chance to wind up playing into January, so this division game holds great importance. Let’s break things down. 

Jared Dubin joined Will Brinson on the Pick Six Podcast to further break down the matchup between the Steelers and Browns. Listen below and be sure to subscribe:

How to watch

Date: Thursday, Nov. 14 | Time: 8:20 p.m. ET
Location: FirstEnergy Stadium (Cleveland, Ohio)
TV: 
FOX, NFL Network | Stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
Follow: CBS Sports App
SportsLine Odds: Browns -2.5, O/U 40

When the Steelers have the ball

As the Steelers have barreled their way back into the playoff picture, it’s been the defense getting all the attention. Deservedly so. The offense is still lagging far behind, and leaves much to be desired. Pittsburgh currently ranks 28th in yards per game, 19th in points per game, and 28th in offensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA. The Steelers are one of only five teams with a pass offense and run offense that each rank in DVOA’s bottom third of the league. 

Mason Rudolph has largely avoided turnovers while filling in for Ben Roethlisberger under center, but he’s also pretty clearly holding the offense back with his lack of ability to push the ball downfield. Rudolph is averaging just 6.6 yards per attempt — a figure that ranks 31st out of 33 qualified passers. His average throw has been 0.9 yards short of the sticks, per Football Outsiders, which also ranks 31st there. Rudolph’s lack of field-stretching ability has essentially turned JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson into relatively equivalent receiving targets, which obviously would not be the case were Roethlisberger at the controls of the offense. 

An offense that cannot depend on its passing game is obviously heavily dependent on the run, and that’s just not really a tenable strategy in 2019. That’s especially true because Pittsburgh’s 3.5 yards per carry average ranks 28th in the NFL, while their 42 percent success rate on runs ranks 29th, per Sharp Football Stats. 

A complete lack of passing threat combined with muted rushing success is how a team with the fifth-best average field position in the NFL ranks only 20th in points per drive and 21st in the percentage of drives that end in a score. It doesn’t help that in high-leverage situations like third downs (23rd in conversion rate), fourth downs (28th), and the red zone (28th), the Steelers have come up wanting far too often. 

Against the Browns, it’ll be interesting to pay attention to the alignment of the cornerbacks. Smith-Schuster lines up in the slot more often than not (61 percent of his routes, per Pro Football Focus), and Cleveland’s obvious weakness in the secondary is its slot cornerback T.J. Carrie. Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams have rarely bumped down inside, but it doesn’t appear to make much sense to waste their two best corners defending Johnson and/or James Washington on the perimeter, being that they are far less threatening than Smith-Schuster. 

It’s likely that returning running back James Conner will reclaim feature duties in this one, being that the Steelers were reluctant to hand that same role to Jaylen Samuels, that Benny Snell is still injured, and that Trey Edmunds and Tony Brooks-James did not exactly stake their claim to the role in Conner’s absence. Cleveland’s run defense has been slightly below average throughout this season, but Pittsburgh’s typically strong offensive line has disappointed in the run game. The Steelers rank only 29th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards, as well as success rate in power situations (third or fourth downs with two or fewer yards to go). 

Cleveland’s defense has been better than its offense this season, but it’s not as though the Myles Garrett-led unit has just been dominating the opposition. Given the strength of Pittsburgh’s defense, the Browns will likely need their own point-prevention unit to impose its will, creating pressure and forcing Rudolph into the types of field-swinging plays he has not made many of this season. 

When the Browns have the ball

So, Minkah Fitzpatrick. In seven games with Pittsburgh, he’s got 34 tackles, five interceptions, eight passes defensed, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and two touchdowns. Pretty good! Also, the Steelers have taken their game up several notches since his arrival. As we wrote in our Week 10 recap earlier this week: 

In the chart below, we go week by week and show you Pittsburgh’s opponent, how many yards and points they put on the board against the Steelers, and how many they averaged in their games against non-Steelers opponents. (Games played without Fitzpatrick are denoted with an asterisk.)

WEEK OPP AVG YDS PIT YDS AVG PTS PIT PTS

1*

NE

354.5

465

29.6

33

2*

SEA

391.4

425

27.5

28

3

SF

383.7

436

30.1

24

4

CIN

333.8

175

16.8

3

5

BAL

439.8

277

34.3

26

6

LAC

357.1

348

21.1

17

8

MIA

262.1

230

13.1

14

9

IND

306.4

328

21.3

24

10

LAR

384.5

306

26.8

12

AVG

ALL

357.0

332.2

24.5

20.1

FITZ

ALL

352.5

300.0

23.3

17.1

Pittsburgh has gone from allowing teams an average of 24.8 fewer yards and 4.4 points per game than their season averages to allowing them 52.5 fewer yards and 6.2 fewer points per game. That’s a heck of an impact.

But don’t let Fitzpatrick’s spectacular exploits fool you into thinking he’s the only one balling here. T.J. Watt is the No. 1 graded edge rusher at Pro Football Focus. Bud Dupree is having the best season of his career. Cameron Heyward ranks sixth among all interior defenders in pressures. Javon Hargrave ranks 12th. Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, and Cameron Sutton are all playing well on the back end. Rookie linebacker Devin Bush has provided a sorely needed playmaking presence up the middle. 

So many players playing so well is how you get to a unit that ranks third in the league behind only the Patriots and 49ers in DVOA. Pittsburgh is allowing only 5.0 yards per play, 28.0 yards per drive, and 1.64 points per drive. Each of those figures ranks within the top six of the NFL. The team has allowed a score on only 30.5 percent of opponent drives, while forcing a turnover on a completely absurd 23.8 percent of those drives. 

The Browns’ offense, meanwhile, is essentially the exact inverse of the Steelers’ defense. After adding an All-Pro talent in the offseason, Cleveland has regressed badly from last season, and looks like one of the worst offenses in the NFL. Freddie Kitchens is simply not putting Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham, and company in position to succeed, and that’s reflected in the team’s horrid offensive performance. 

The combination of Kitchens’ poor play-calling and an abomination of an offensive line has completely undermined Mayfield’s confidence, and a quarterback who previously swaggered his way onto the field with the belief that he could and should make any and every throw has become gun-shy and skittish, and it’s turned him into a turnover machine. That is not what you want against a defense that has made its bones by forcing opposing offenses into a league-high turnover rate. 

It seems extremely unlikely that Cleveland’s offensive line will hold up against the devastating Pittsburgh pass rush, so Mayfield will likely be under a decent amount of pressure throughout the evening. The Browns schemed around pressure last week by increasing their rate of quick-strike passes, particularly to Beckham, Jarvis Landry, and returning running back Kareem Hunt. Hunt did not siphon too much work away from Nick Chubb, but instead shared the field with him quite often and also found himself being used as a slot man and split wide receiver more often than he ever was in Kansas City. 

Against a defense so well set up to force their passing game into mistakes, it would not be surprising if the Browns were to rely on a heavy dose of Chubb, as well as those same quick passes to playmakers like Beckham, Landry, and Hunt. How well that reliance works out for them could very well be the key to this game. If Chubb can get anything going, that might be enough to push the Browns over the top against a similarly ineffective Pittsburgh offense.

Prediction: Browns 20, Steelers 16

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