8:20 PM EST, FOX – Line: Browns -2.5, Over/Under: 40
One of the league’s most bitter rivalries adds another chapter tot heir history, as the surging Pittsburgh Steelers make the short trip west to face the Cleveland Browns from FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. If we had told you before the season began that the Steelers (5-4, 2nd in AFC North) would play the majority of this season without the services of Pro-Bowlers, Antonio Brown, Le ‘Veon Bell, and Ben Roethlisberger, and still remain firmly entrenched in the chase for the Playoffs, you’d probably have scoffed at the notion of that being a remote possibility. However, that’s exactly what has happened in Pittsburgh, where after jettisoning Brown and Bell in the Offseason, and watching Roethlisberger go down with a season-ending elbow injury after just the second game of the year, they’ve caught fire winning five of their last six games on the strength of a familiar formula: defense, defense, and more defense. Indeed, the job that Mike Tomlin and Defensive Coordinator, Keith Butler, have done with this group is rather remarkable, with their collective play on this side of the football elevating a team that has lost so many of it’s playmakers on Offense. Ironically, it all started with the addition of a new face to their beleaguered Secondary, as the club sent a pair of First Round Picks (2020 and 2021) to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for Sophomore Safety, Minkah Fitzpatrick (45 TKL, 1 QBH, 2 FF, 2 FR, 1 TD, 5 INT, 1 TD, 8 PD), who would be one of many talents to escape South Beach this fall. Initially, the price was thought to be incredibly steep for a Franchise that could very well be looking for a new Quarterback via the Draft in the near future, but once the former No. 11 Overall Pick hit the field, he’s proven why his new team was so bullish on obtaining his services. In seven games since the trade, the versatile Defensive Back immediately stepped in as a Starter while exceling in multiple roles, totaling Thirty-Four Tackles and a league-best Five Interceptions along with a Recovered Fumble, returning one of each for a Touchdown. Furthermore, his presence has absolutely transformed the Defense as a whole, affording Tomlin and Butler the opportunity to institute far more Zone Coverage concepts, which has improved their play on the field exponentially. This is a case in which the numbers simply don’t lie, folks; in the first two games of the season before the Fitzpatrick Exchange, the Steelers’ Defense was getting gashed for 30.5 Points per Game on 445.0 Total Yards, including 320.0 Yards against the Pass, but in the seven games that have followed have relinquished just 17.1 Points per Contest on a scant 300.0 Total Yards, including 200.3 Yards versus the Pass. Furthermore, they’ve taken away the football at an alarming rate, with all but two of their Twenty-Six Turnovers (2nd Overall) coming since the trade, leading to a very healthy Plus-13 Turnover Differential over that period of time. That trend continued when we last saw them, as Pittsburgh shut down the reigning NFC Champion, Los Angeles Rams in a 17-12 defensive slugfest on Sunday afternoon. It was an affair in which the only Touchdowns would be scored by the opposing Defenses, with the Rams opening their account with a 26-Yard Fumble Return for a score, while the hosts would reply shortly before Halftime, as Fitzpatrick scooped up a Fumble of his own, and returned it forty-three yards to the End Zone. A Safety of Mason Rudolph (64.5%, 1,330 YDS, 6.00 NY/A, 11 TD, 4 INT, 41.1 QBR), would cut the Steelers’ lead to three, though a 33-Yard Field Goal from Place Kicker, Chris Boswell, would effectively end the game. On this day, you wouldn’t know that Los Angeles was the highest-scoring team in the league in 2018, for they could muster just 306 Total Yards on Sixteen First Downs, including Eighty-Eight Rushing Yards on Twenty-Three Attempts, committed Four Turnovers, were penalized ten times for a loss of Ninety-Five Yards, were a dreadful 1-of-14 on Third Down, and 0-of-2 on Fourth. The home side made life miserable for opposing Quarterback, Jared Goff, who struggled once again without the benefit of Running Game, completing just 22-of-41 Passes for 243 Yards and a pair of Interceptions, was sacked four times, and fumbled on three occasions, losing one of them. His counterpart, Rudolph, wasn’t much better, connecting on 22-of-38 Attempts for 242 Yards and a Touchdown, but did a far better job of simply managing the game and avoiding catastrophic mistakes despite taking Three Sacks including that aforementioned Safety late in the game. With Tailback, James Conner (97 CAR, 380 YDS, 3.9 Y/C, 4 TD), missing a second straight game due to a sprained AC Joint in his shoulder, the Offense was once again very conservative, though that’s been necessary with the 24-Year Old Rudolph at the helm. A Third-Round Pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the Oklahoma State product has managed the attack week after week, though it’s been a very far cry from the explosive Passing Game that we’ve come to expect from this unit; the Steelers are averaging just 5.97 Net Yards per Attempt (22nd Overall) thus far, which is indicative of the emphasis on short to intermediate passing plays that they’ve been successful with, which contrasts greatly to the 7.02 (8th Overall) that they averaged in 2018 with Roethlisberger under Center. A serious concussion that kept him sidelined or three weeks no doubt hindered his development, but as Rudolph gets more comfortable within the scheme, look for him to start expanding his focus downfield, where he can properly utilize the talents of Pro-Bowl Receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster (36 REC, 503 YDS, 14.0 Y/R, 3 TD), who has seen his production decrease significantly with the changes made to better accommodate his young Quarterback.
Meanwhile, as their bitter rivals have been one of the better stories of the season, the Browns (3-6, 3rd in AFC North) have no doubt been one of the most disappointing, falling considerably short of the heightened expectations generated by the downtrodden franchise’s first buzz-worthy Offseason in ages. Indeed, there are many different tiers in sports, with teams ranging from bad, competitive, good, and great, with the NFL being no different. Of course, Cleveland has been bad (or worse) for a very long time, and the fact that they finished the 2018 with a 7-8-1 record left many feeling that they were primed for bigger things. High-profile Offseason Acquisitions such as All-Pro Receiver, Odell Beckham Jr. (44 REC, 632 YDS, 14.4 Y/R, 1 TD), only furthered this belief, with this club being picked by may to not only win the AFC north for the first time since returning tot the league back in 1999, but competing for the Super Bowl. However, going from bad to competitive isn’t very difficult, for after all, it happens quite often in the parity-rich NFL, but going from simply competitive to good or great is a far more difficult endeavor. And that’s precisely where we find the browns, who for a variety of reasons have stumbled along their path towards progression. So where should we start, folks? First and foremost, we’re going to start on the sideline, where Freddie Kitchens has really struggled in his first season as Head Coach. It was a surprising decision at the time, and only looks more puzzling in the here and now that General Manager, John Dorsey, eschewed hiring a more experienced candidate than elevating the Interim Offensive Coordinator, which was a blatant attempt at maintaining continuity for the sake of his young Quarterback’s development (more on him shortly). While we don’t necessarily disagree with that logic, Kitchens has looked woefully out of his depth, both in regards to calling plays, the Offense has regressed from 2018 averaging just 19.0 Points per Game (26th Overall) on 370.7 Total Yards (19th Overall), and instituting any semblance of discipline; Cleveland is by far and away the most penalized team in the league, averaging 15.4 Penalties per Game for an average loss of 126 Yards, which is simply inexcusable. Unless there is a serious turnaround in Northern Ohio, it’s difficult to see this guy lasting much longer, which brings us to our next subject, Baker Mayfield (59.9%, 2,201 YDS, 5.99 NY/A, 9 TD, 12 INT, 39.9 QBR). Indeed, the 2017 Heisman and No. One Overall Pick in the 2018 NFL Draft was the foundation of much of the Browns’ expectations heading into this season, but you would be hard-pressed to find a more disappointing Quarterback in the league at this point than the polarizing Sophomore; statistically, he’s plummeted across the board, completing just 59.9% of his Attempts for an average of 7.1 Yards per Attempt, with Nine Touchdowns to Twelve Interceptions, which when you include three Lost Fumbles, amounts to the most Turnovers committed by any player at his position, all amounting to a dismal QBR of 39.9 (28th Overall). However, he certainly hasn’t benefitted from anything close to quality protection, for Cleveland’s Offensive Line has been one of the worst in terms of Pass-Protection in 2019, with Offensive Tackles, Greg Robinson and Chris Hubbard, resembling turn-styles on a weekly basis. Mayfield was sacked twenty-five times in fourteen games last year for a Sack Percentage of 4.9%, but this season has been sacked as many times in five less games for a figure of 7.5%, which has really negated his ability to stretch the field, causing his Net Yards per Attempt to regress from 6.95 last season to 5.99 this year. As a result, he hasn’t been able to link up with the aforementioned Beckham or for that matter, Jarvis Landry (45 REC, 652 YDS, 14.5 Y/R, 2 TD), with both Receivers posting Catch Percentages below 60.0%, a career-low for the former who has hauled in only One Touchdown Reception. The former college teammates made headlines when they were reprimanded for wearing custom cleats that ran afoul with the league’s dress code policy in a 19-24 loss at the struggling Denver Broncos two weeks ago, giving more credence to the notion that the inmates are indeed running the asylum in Cleveland. However, despite their lengthy list of issues, there is still an opportunity for this team to turn things around, for the schedule is set to loosen up considerably down the stretch; they play the Steelers and Bengals twice apiece, with a home date against the formidable Ravens (whom they defeated handedly earlier this year), along with the Dolphins and Cardinals, who altogether have a cumulative Win Percentage of .377. When we last saw them, the Browns ended a four-game losing streak with a narrow 19-16 victory over the Buffalo Bills, coming from behind late in the Fourth Quarter to steal a much-needed positive outcome. Trailing 12-16 with 5:21 left to play in the game and starting from his own 18-Yard Line, Mayfield and the Offense got to work, putting together an impressive 10-Play, 82-Yard Drive, that saw the maligned Quarterback complete 7-of-8 Passes for Sixty-One Yards, culminating in a 7-Yard Touchdown to Rashard Higgins to take the lead. Buffalo would in turn make their final push all the to the host’s 35-Yard Line, but failed to make good on a 53-Yard Field Goal, allowing Mayfield to return to the field to take a triumphant knee. This was clearly one of Cleveland’s better performance thus far in 2019, with the Offense racking up a balanced 368 Total Yards against a solid a Defense, committing Zero Turnovers and only Four Penalties for a loss of Seventy Yards. Mayfield completed an efficient 26-of-38 Passes for 238 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns, while criminally-underused Tailback, Nick Chubb (174 CAR, 919 YDS, 5.3 Y/C, 6 TD), rushed for 116 Yards on Twenty Carries. With a quick turnaround ahead, we’ll see if this win will in fact spark a run for the Browns, who will be looking to best an opponent whom they haven’t in eight consecutive meetings.