J.D. Bagley, @jdbagley5
Just 17 days after the game that will forever be remembered as the Myles Garrett/Mason Rudolph brawl, the Browns and Steelers are set to meet again, this time with elevated stakes including playoff hopes for both teams. Realistically, there is only one wild card spot left in the AFC with Buffalo advancing to 9-3 on the season following their Thanksgiving Day win in Dallas. This Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh is essentially an elimination game for both teams. The loser will need to win out and get tons of help for a chance at the postseason. Both Myles Garrett and Mason Rudolph won’t be playing in this one, but don’t let that take away from the emotions that will be left out on the field. This rivalry is beginning to heat up again after being dormant for quite some time due to Browns incompetence and the Steelers’ sustained success over the years. As a matter of fact, Cleveland hasn’t been favored in Pittsburgh since the 1989 season opener, a game in which the Browns won 51-0.
The biggest matchup to watch for in this game is the Steelers defensive line versus the Browns offensive line. Talent-wise, Pittsburgh has the advantage by a fair margin. But, if the Browns can limit the impact that guys like T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree have on the game, their chances of winning are much higher. Cleveland’s offensive line is nowhere close to where it needs to be, but they have been better as of late in protecting Baker Mayfield. Mayfield and the Browns offense need to feed off of last week’s offensive explosion against Miami, a scene that everyone had hoped to see much earlier in the year. Nonetheless, this offense is beginning to peak down the stretch and will need to build off of their recent success if they wish to stay alive in December. Last week versus Miami, the Browns got out to a sizeable lead but continued to throw the ball in the 2nd half more often than they should’ve. Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. are great, but in a situation like that Freddie Kitchens needs to pound the rock and limit potential mistakes, especially with how effective Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt have been as a duo. Even if the Steelers get out to an early lead, Kitchens can’t abandon the run game when he has two grade A running backs in his arsenal. The Browns have yet to declare David Njoku’s status for Sunday after he was activated off IR last week. If he is able to return, his presence will add another red-zone target for Mayfield and this offense.
The Steelers will turn to undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges under center after Mason Rudolph was benched during last week’s narrow win in Cincinnati. Hodges is set to make his second career NFL start, and will likely be without Pittsburgh’s two most lethal offensive weapons. Juju Smith-Schuster has already been ruled out for Sunday, and James Conner is listed as doubtful according to the Steelers injury report. Pittsburgh will likely use a running back by a committee featuring Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell Jr., and Kerrith Whyte Jr. Their top receiving weapons will consist of James Washington and rookie Diontae Johnson. This is a huge advantage for Cleveland knowing they don’t have to pay special attention to any of the Steelers skill position players. DC Steve Wilks can focus on generating a pass rush in hopes to make Hodges uncomfortable and force him into mistakes. The biggest key for the Browns defense is to limit big plays. With Pittsburgh’s lack of available playmakers, it will be tough for them to sustain long drives which is why explosive plays could be the only thing that keeps them around in this one. Larry Ogunjobi will return from his one-game suspension to help bolster a thin defensive tackle group after the Browns released Devaroe Lawrence earlier this week. Another hopeful addition to the defensive front this week is an edge rusher, Olivier Vernon. He is listed as questionable after missing the team’s previous 3 games but has returned to the practice field in a limited fashion over the last 3 days.
The Browns must stay disciplined in this one. After what happened 2 weeks ago, Cleveland has to go out there with the sole focus on getting a win. They have played relatively clean football during their 3 game win streak and that needs continue heading into Sunday. All the extracurricular stuff can only hurt the team and that’s exactly what the Browns can’t get back in the habit of doing, shooting themselves in the foot. The atmosphere at Heinz Field will be electric and the tensions will be sky-high. Stay focused, do your job, and the rest will take care of itself. Go Browns!