Browns-Steelers. Big-time game not only in the AFC North, but in the AFC playoff picture in general for both teams, and it comes with the Browns being dealt a significant blow midway through the week.
As is well known at this point, the Browns lost starting quarterback Deshaun Watson for the season, putting the Browns in a major bind at the quarterback position. On Sunday when they host the Steelers at Cleveland Browns Stadium they’ll do so with rookie fifth-round pick Dorian Thompson-Robinson under center against a defense that takes the football away at the best rate in the NFL.
Tough task for Cleveland.
Sunday’s game will be about much more than just the rookie quarterback starting though. Cleveland still has an elite-level defense. The Steelers are firing on all cylinders in the run game, and they have figured out how to play some ugly, low-scoring football games that more often than not leads to wins.
Can they do it again? We shall see. It’ll come down to some key matchups.
Let’s take a look.
Steelers’ DL Cameron Heyward vs. Browns’ LG Joel Bitonio
It feels like for nearly the last decade every time the Steelers and Browns get together the matchup of Cameron Heyward against Joel Bitonio in the trenches is must-watch. Though both are getting up there in age and mileage, they remain high-level players and can really swing the matchup Sunday.
Heyward, who made his return to the lineup in Week Nine against the Tennessee Titans after missing the previous six games with a groin injury that required surgery, hasn’t fully gotten his legs underneath him, but that should be happening here soon. Even while he’s still working his way back to full strength and peak conditioning, Heyward remains effective.
Heyward grades out at at 59.7 on the season from Pro Football Focus, which is on pace to be the lowest of his career, but he has three pressures in the last two games and eight combined tackles as the Steelers’ defense gets a major boost with his return.
Last season against Cleveland Heyward had three sacks and seven total pressures, dominating in Week 18 last season. Now he gets a crack at the Browns again.
As for Bitonio, he’s been a force. He grades out at a 68.2 on the season, but he’s a 73.3 in pass blocking on the season, allowing 17 pressures. In Week Two against the Steelers, Bitonio graded out a 58.0 overall and allowed two pressures. Historically, he’s been a great player on the interior.The last two seasons he’s graded out at 93.6 and 87.5 from PFF.
He might be slowing down some, but Bitonio is still a great guard. Enjoy watching Heyward and Bitonio battle while you can.
Browns’ DE Myles Garrett vs. Steelers’ LT Dan Moore Jr.
Once again, another familiar matchup to watch. It was a matchup to watch in Week Two and Moore was part of the game-plan that held Garrett with just three pressures but no sacks. That was a continuation of the strong play overall Moore has had against Garrett. Over the last three seasons in five matchups to date, Garrett has just one sack and 17 pressures against the Steelers primarily going up against Moore.
When he’s not playing the Steelers though, Garrett is a monster. He has 11.0 sacks on the season and is in the heart of the discussion for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
As for Moore, he’s played better in recent weeks since returning from a knee injury suffered against Houston. He’s much better in the run game, so if the Steelers want to help slow down Garrett even more, they need to establish the run and let Moore do what he does best, which is displace people in the trenches.
Garrett can change the game in a hurry though. So the Steelers will have to chip and give Moore extra help like they usually do.
Steelers’ ILBs vs. Browns’ TE David Njoku
In back-to-back weeks the Steelers lost veteran linebackers Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander for the season, taking away their two best coverage linebackers. Now, it’ll fall to veteran Elandon Roberts, second-year pro Mark Robinson and practice squad elevation Mykal Walker to handle the duties inside against the Browns.
On paper, that’s a great matchup for standout tight end David Njoku. The veteran Browns’ tight end already has 38 receptions for 377 yards and two touchdowns on the season and is a real weapon in the middle of the field for Cleveland, whether that’s stretching the seam or carving up defenses on screen passes.
He’s a serious matchup problem and will certainly be that on Sunday for the Steelers, who gave up a couple of big plays down the field to Green Bay rookie Luke Musgrave just a week ago after losing Alexander. Now, the Steelers will be without safety Keanu Neal for the matchup, too, putting more of an onus on the Steelers’ inside linebackers against tight ends.
Njoku is averaging 1.36 yards per route run on the season with an average depth of target of 3.0. He’ll be around the line of scrimmage a lot, which should help the Steelers’ linebackers, but Cleveland moves him all over with 173 snaps in-line, 129 snaps in the slot and 28 snaps out wide. He’s going to be a guy that the Steelers have to know where he is at all times.
Browns’ Head Coach Kevin Stefanski vs. Steelers’ Defensive Coordinator Teryl Austin
On paper, it seems like the Steelers and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin will have a leg up in this matchup as Cleveland head coach Kevin Stefanski, who calls the plays offensively for the Browns, will be working with a rookie fifth-round pick. Historically, that’s a great matchup for the Steelers under head coach Mike Tomlin as he’s 24-5 against rookie quarterbacks in his career, including 1-1 this season.
For Stefanski, not much should truly change with Deshaun Watson out of the lineup, at least stylistically. Cleveland is going to run the football to set up the pass, and they’re going to utilize the screen game a ton to try and combat Pittsburgh’s pass rush as the Browns are down to second and third string tackles at this point.
For Austin, he has to know when to attack, and when to sit back and just be smart. While it’s key to be aggressive against a young rookie quarterback and try to confuse him with looks, the Steelers can’t afford to get too cute, not with their own injury issues at safety and the lack of in-game experience at inside linebacker outside of Roberts right now.
It’s going to be a low-scoring game that should have a handful of turnovers. Keep an eye on the chess match going on between Stefanski and Austin, though. It’ll be a key one based on play-calling and personnel groupings.