1:00 PM EST, CBS – Line: Steelers -3.5, Over/Under: 51
Bitter rivals are set to renew acquaintances though this time it will be under unusual circumstances as the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers play host to the surging Cleveland Browns from Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Though they meet twice a season it’s been an utter rarity that both of these teams have sported a winning record at the time of combat, but in this most unusual 2020 that is precisely what we’re going to get when these enemies lock horns. That’s because the Browns (4-1, 3rd in AFC North) are off to their best start since 1994, leading many in Northern Ohio to believe that over two decades of ineptitude may finally be behind them. Going from Point A (a mess) to Point B (competitive) has been something that has routinely puzzled this long downtrodden franchise, who has earned just one winning season since returning to the NFL back in 1999 (2008). Following an unmitigated disaster of a season that was marred by poor quarterbacking and coaching, suspensions and penalties, along with a ceaseless parade of drama, Cleveland’s Ownership pushed the proverbial reset button once again, this time hoping to finally get it right, eventually settling upon (General Manager) Aaron Berry and (Head Coach) Kevin Stefanski. With a quarter of the campaign now in the books, the early returns on this new regime appear promising indeed…
After getting utterly embarrassed in their Season Opener at the Baltimore Ravens (38-6), many were quick to trash the new Coaching Staff for making many of the same mistakes that had plagued their predecessor. The Offense was turnover prone (3), while the Defense couldn’t get off the field (allowed 6-of-11 on 3rd Down), and altogether the visitors were flagged eight times for eighty yards. However, credit must go to Stefanski and his charges for not wavering from a single poor performance, for in the four games that have followed, the Browns have been nothing short of impressive, particularly on the offensive side of the football where they have developed into something of a juggernaut. Of course, this is why Stefanski was hired in the first place; the 38-year old rose to prominence as the Minnesota Vikings Offensive Coordinator two years ago, finding great success in streamlining the attack by placing an emphasis on the ground game, which brought some sorely-needed balance to the unit as a whole. Sound familiar? Along with Berry, he made a concerted effort to improve this facet of the Offense, signing Tight End, Austin Hooper (17 REC, 153 YDS, 9.0 Y/R, 1 TD), and Right Tackle, Jack Conklin in Free Agency, while selecting Left Tackle, Jedrick Wills, tenth overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. Cleveland was already solid on the ground in 2019, ranking twelfth in yards (118.8) and fourth in yards per carry (4.8) behind Tailback, Nick Chubb (57 CAR, 335 YDS, 5.9 Y/A, 4 TD), who churned out a franchise record 1,494 yards. However, they only ranked twenty-second in attempts (24.6), which is what Stefanski set out to change, and quite frankly has managed to do so in rather short order. Through five contests, this unit has plowed through opposing Defenses to the tune of a staggering 188.4 yards per game (1st Overall) on a healthy 5.5 yards per carry (2nd Overall) all the while logging an average of 34.4 attempts (2nd Overall). This in turn has led to much more efficient play from third-year Quarterback, Baker Mayfield (61.2%, 976 YDS, 5.89 NY/A, 9 TD, 4 INT, 76.1 QBR), who served as the poster boy for the team’s struggles in 2019. A successful run game always makes life easier for the Quarterback and Mayfield is no different, showing promising improvement across the board; he’s been afforded much better protection after being sacked on 7.0% of his passing attempts a year ago, down to a career-low 4.4% thus far, while enjoying a much more palatable TD/INT Ratio of 9-4, which was a miserable 22-21 last season. Sure, he’s much more of a game manager at the moment, but there is nothing wrong with that when you’re winning games, which is still something of a novelty in Cleveland. Over the last four games, the Browns have averaged a prolific 37.5 points on 406.8 total yards, with 201.0 yards coming via the run, including a season-high 307 yards in a 49-38 thumping of the Dallas Cowboys two weeks ago. Furthermore, this success on the ground has also made quite the impression on their own Defense, which has looked staunch given the rest that they’ve been afforded; Cleveland has all but shut down the run at just 87.0 yards per game (4th Overall) on 3.9 yards per attempt (9th Overall), while logging the most takeaways in the league (12). Granted, they’ve feasted largely upon the league’s worst during this stretch, with the Bengals, Cowboys, and Washington Football Team alone combining for a dismal record of 4-10-1 (.266), but it wasn’t that long ago that this club was struggling mightily just to be beat teams of that distinction, for they were one of them after all.
“I think we have a ways to go… We’re in this to win it. We know that. Every week we’re trying to win these games, and they’re going to be hard… But we’ll celebrate this one first.”Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland Browns Head Coach on his team’s strong start
When we last saw the Browns, they made quite a statement in running their recent winning streak to four games, this time against a quality opponent, the Indianapolis Colts, who had also won three consecutive contests. Stefanski had to have been pleased with the effort of his charges in this 32-23 victory, as the hosts managed to continue to churn out the yards on the ground, even against what was statistically the top defense in the NFL through four weeks. Cleveland pounded away 124 yards on thirty-three attempts, allowing them to convert a healthy 10-of-17 third downs and possess the football for a commanding 34:45. Even without the aforementioned Chubb, who bruised his MCL in the previous week, the Browns found success on the ground, with Kareem Hunt (70 CAR, 347 YDS, 5.0 Y/A, 3 TD), accounting for ninety-three yards from scrimmage and a touchdown on twenty-three touches. With that said, Mayfield was far from great, completing 21-of-37 passes for 247 yards and two touchdowns and interceptions apiece. The key was that the visitors were unable to capitalize on his mistakes, while Cleveland made his counterpart pay dearly; they intercepted Philip Rivers twice, with young Safety, Ronnie Harrison (5 TKL, 1 INT, 3 PD, 1 TD), returning the first forty-seven yards for a touchdown, while forcing a key safety late in the affair following an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t leave Sunday’s contest unscathed for there were a number of players dealing with injuries by the evenings end; the Defense in particular was beat up, with Defensive Linemen, Olivier Vernon (Abdomen) and Adrian Clayborn (Hip), alongside Cornerback, Denzel Ward (Groin) all limited in practice, with fellow Defensive Back, Greedy Williams (Shoulder), being placed on Injured Reserve. Furthermore, Mayfield suffered a Caden of bruised ribs, while his favored target, Pro-Bowl Receiver, Odell Beckham Jr. (21 REC, 294 YDS, 14.0 Y/R, 3 TD), hasn’t practiced all week due to an undisclosed illness.
Meanwhile, the Steelers (4-0, 1st in AFC North) too have made a bit of history, and it’s rather remarkable all things considered. That’s because at 4-0 they are off to their best start in franchise history, which is downright shocking when consider some of the great teams that they’ve fielded over the course of their illustrious history, or hell, even in the last two decades alone. Make no mistake, folks, this is a team on a mission in 2020; after missing the Playoffs in back-to-back years for just the second time since the turn of the millennium, Mike Tomlin’s charges look to build upon a dogged campaign in which they managed to finish 8-8 despite losing their Franchise Quarterback for nearly the entire season. That’s because their Defense was absolutely HELLACIOUS in 2019, ranking fifth overall in points allowed (18.9) and total yards relinquished (304.2), along with third against the pass (194.6), all the while leading the league in both takeaways (38) and sacks (54). Unfortunately, they simply couldn’t get enough production out of their injury-ravaged Offense, which was not only without Ben Roethlisberger for all but two games, but also saw Pro-Bowl Receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster, miss four games with a tender hamstring, and Tailback, James Conner, miss six of his own with a knee injury. Keep in mind that these absences were on top of the exit of All-Pros, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, further depriving the attack of serious firepower.
Fortunately for the faithful in Western Pennsylvania, they haven’t had to sit through a Sunday afternoon of Mason Crosby or Duck Hodges overthrowing their targets and misreading coverage, because Roethlisberger (69.9%, 1,016 YDS, 6.42 NY/A, 10 TD, 1 INT, 65.6 QBR) is indeed healthy and back with a vengeance. Now 38-years old, the two-time Super Bowl Champion has looked remarkably crisp and in synch with his supporting cast despite missing nearly all of 2019 and not having the luxury of a proper Offseason to condition his body, completing what is a career-high 69.9% of his passes for 1,016 yards and a sterling TD/INT Ratio of 10/1. Unsurprisingly, the Offense has risen exponentially, with Pittsburgh averaging 29.5 points per game (10th Overall) on 392.8 total yards (16th Overall), including 254.0 yards through the air (19th Overall) on 6.4 net yards per attempt (18th Overall), and another 138.8 yards on the ground (8th Overall) on 4.5 yards per carry (10th Overall), all the while converting a healthy 48.3% of their third downs (9th Overall). Furthermore, his presence has enabled the growth of the supporting cast. Smith-Schuster (21 REC, 188 YDS, 9.0 Y/R, 3 TD) hasn’t been quite as productive as he has in the past, but he’s happy to be catching passes from Big Ben again all the same, reeling in twenty-one receptions on twenty-four targets for 188 yards and three touchdowns. The rest of the Receiving Corps has really stepped up, with Diontae Johnson (15 REC, 147 YDS, 9.8 Y/R, 1 TD) and James Washington (13 REC, 117 YDS, 9.0 Y/R, 1 TD) making plays, while rookie teammate, Chase Claypool (13 REC, 261 YDS, 20.1 Y/R, 4 TD), has emerged as the next great Wideout to cut his teeth in the black & gold. The forty-ninth overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the former Notre Dame star was thought by many to transition to Tight End due to his hulking frame (6-4, 238 lbs). However, Tomlin envisioned him as a matchup nightmare on the perimeter, where he’s shown the speed to get past coverage and the size, hands, and leaping ability to routinely come down with jump balls. Last weekend’s 38-29 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles served as his showcase, with the 22-year old hauling in seven catches for 110 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing for another on a two-yard carry. Roethlisberger has helped nurture a wealth of talented pass-catchers over his venerable career with the franchise, from Mike Wallace to Emmanuel Sanders to Antonio Brown to the aforementioned Smith-Schuster, and it appears that Claypool is next in line.
“He’s talented… He has got some God-given abilities that not many people in this world have. He’s big, fast and strong, and he’s very, very smart. So we’re able to do those things like move him around and do some things with him. That last touchdown is a perfect example. Changed the play, and he makes it happen. I just have to give him a little bit of a cue, and it’s awesome.”Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers Quarterback on his teammate, Chase Claypool
When we last saw the Steelers, they emerged from an early (and impromptu) Bye Week to best their eastern neighbors in a nine-point victory. This one was close throughout the First Half, with the two sides trading blows through the first thirty minutes of play. However, the hosts would open up the Second Half with a quick 14-point flurry within a 4:25 stretch before finally putting the affair out of reach with a knockout punch, courtesy of Roethlisberger and Claypool with just over three minutes to play. At the end of the day, Pittsburgh owned the football for a commanding 34:43 thanks to a ground game that churned out 136 yards and a pair of scores on thirty-two carries, while Big Ben hooked up with Claypool on three occasions, including the final 35-yard score to seal the deal. It was a group effort on the ground with Tailbacks, Ray-Ray McCloud (2 CAR, 63 YDS), Benny Snell (7 CAR, 19 YDS), the aforementioned Conner (15 CAR, 44 YDS, 1 TD), and even Claypool (3 CAR, 6 YDS, 1 TD) grinding out tough yardage against the Eagles’ defensive front, while Tomlin’s Defense habitually got after Philadelphia Quarterback, Carson Wentz, sacking him five times for a loss of thirty-four yards, and intercepting him twice, the last of which came on the visitors’ final drive of the day. Five different players contributed to the sack total, while former Chiefs Cornerback, Steven Nelson (14 TKL, 2 FF, 2 INT, 3 PD), logged both interceptions. And now it’s on to the Browns, whom the Steelers have absolutely owned, going 8-1-1 in their last ten meetings, while Roethlisberger has put together a stellar 23-2-1 ledger over the course of his career, accounting for forty-three touchdowns, which is tied for his most against any single opponent with another denizen of the state of Ohio, the Cincinnati Bengals.