1:00 PM EST, CBS – Line: Steelers -1.5, Over/Under: 32.5
A key division clash between bitter rivals highlights the eleventh Sunday of the season, as the Cleveland Browns play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers this afternoon from Cleveland Browns Stadium in Northern Ohio. With just over one half of the campaign in the books, it may come as a surprise that the Steelers (6-3, 2nd in AFC North) have inserted themselves firmly in the race for a Wild Card within the hierarchy of the AFC. Then again, others may not feel that way given (Head Coach) Mike Tomlin’s history of success in Western Pennsylvania; in sixteen seasons, the 51-year-old has NEVER finished with a losing record, winning a stellar 63.7% of his games. Granted, Pittsburgh may not be fun to watch, and they are FAR from sexy, but never let it be said that they don’t know how to win ugly, which has become a habit ever since the midway point of the previous season. Since starting 2-6 in 2022, this is a team that has really found its footing, posting a 13-5 record ever since, with all but one of those wins coming by eight points or less. Hell, the running joke this Fall is how they’ve managed to be successful despite being outgained by an average margin of 96.1 total yards thus far and are remarkably the only team int he NFL that has yet to amass more yards than their opponent in any single game. So, what in the name of Mean Joe Greene is going on, you ask? Well, by any metric this is has been a fairly poor offensive team, ranking twenty-sixth in points (17.3) and twenty-eighth in total yards (300.1), and twenty-second on third down (36.1%), while netting just 25.1 yards per drive and logging 2:26 of gametime per possession, both of which check in at third worst in the league. However, while the fan base has routinely called for the head of (Offensive Coordinator) Matt Canada, the offense has been able to compensate for the lack of production by taking great care of the football, committing only eight turnovers thus far (3rd Overall). Conversely, the defense has been the most opportunistic in the NFL, racking up eighteen takeaways (1st Overall), which has in turn gifted their teammates possession on a short field on numerous occasions. With that said, we can trace the success that they have enjoyed on this side of the football to the gradual acclimation of (Rookie Left Tackle) Broderick Jones. Tomlin and (General Manager) Omar Kahn entered last April’s Draft on a mission to improve the Offensive Line, which led them to Jones (pictured below), a road-grading mountain of a man who played a large role blocking for the (two-time National Champion) Georgia Bulldogs. Standing 6-5, 311 pounds, the fourteenth overall pick has been slow to integrate into Canada’s scheme but has begun to feature more frequently in the passing weeks, which has in turn jumpstarted the Steelers’ struggling run game. Jones has started three of the last five games, with all three starts resulting in victory for the Black & Yellow. Furthermore, Pittsburgh has averaged a healthy 152.7 rushing yards in those games opposed to just 78.5 yards in the other six outings. In fact, they plowed their way towards a season-high 205 rushing yards in last weekend’s 23-19 win over the Packers, allowing the hosts to possess the football for 30:33, which is remarkably also a season-best. It would be hard imagine a better start for this unit, who took their opening drive seventy-five yards downfield in nine plays, resulting in a 4-yard rushing score courtesy of (young Tailback) Najee Harris. After Green Bay responded with a touchdown of their own, the home side would marshal a 60-yard drive in eleven plays, as (fellow Tailback) Jaylen Warren scampered sixteen yards into the end zone to reestablish the lead. Though the proverbial well would dry up after that, with (veteran Kicker) Chris Boswell nailing three field goals the rest of the way, the defense would take it from there, picking off Jordan Love on back-to-back possessions to end the afternoon. In the end, the Steelers were once again outgained 324-399 on the day, though the two takeaways swung the pendulum in the favor of the hosts. (Sophomore Quarterback) Kenny Pickett completed 14-of-23 passes for just 126 yards, while Warren and Harris amassed 101 and eighty-two yards respectively. (2021 Defensive Player of the year) T.J. Watt logged a sack, two hits, and a pair of pressures, while (veteran Safety) Keanu Neal and (veteran Cornerback) Damontae Kazee each picked off a pass apiece. Balance will be the key moving forward, particularly between the opposite sides of the football, which will only come with more balanced playcalling, which in turn is only possible if they can continue to run the ball with success.
From a betting perspective, the Steelers are both 6-3 straight-up and against the spread, winning and covering each of their last two outings after failing to do so in a Week Eight loss to the Jaguars (10-20). In fact, that has very much been the pattern that they have followed this Fall; Pittsburgh has lost on both fronts only to win in each regard in the two games that have followed, replicating that model three times over. Dating back to last season, Tomlin’s troops are a stellar 7-3 against the spread over their last ten contests overall, while matching that mark in their last ten trips away from Acrisure Stadium, including four covers in five road tries. Furthermore, they’ve been a solid bet of late as a road underdog, covering FIVE consecutive games when receiving points from the oddsmakers away from home. Interestingly, it has been the home team that has dominated this series of late, winning eight of the last ten meetings outright and covering all but three of them. In fact, the hosts have won and covered four straight encounters, with the last instance of visiting success coming in a 15-10 Steelers’ victory on Halloween of 2021. Of course, these bitter rivals crossed paths in primetime back in Week Two, where Pittsburgh rode the wave of FOUR takeaways en route to a 26-22 win. Though they only amassed 255 total yards, nine first downs, and fifty-five rushing yards, the home side scored bookending defensive touchdowns that ultimately decided the affair; (veteran Linebacker) Alonzo Highsmith kicked things off with a 30-yard pick-six on the first offensive play of the game, while Watt put an exclamation on the night with 16-yard scoop and score. As for Pickett, he has won each of his two starts against the Browns, completing just 47.4% of his passes for an average of 208.5 yards on 6.59 net yards per attempt, with a pair of touchdowns opposed to one interception. On the injury front, the defense figures to be thin in some areas for not only this weekend but moving forward as well; (Linebackers) Kwon Alexander (Achilles) and Cole Holcomb (knee) are out for the remainder of the campaign, while (Pro-Bowl Safety) Minkah Fitzpatrick will miss another week due to a tender hamstring. However, Tomlin & Co activated (Tight End) Pat Freiermuth off injured reserve, beginning the 21-day window for the 25-year-old, who is listed as questionable to participate in this afternoon’s tilt, to return to the field. Looking ahead, the Steelers will continue their run through the state of Ohio for a date with the Bengals next weekend, which appears to be in the favor of the Black & Yellow following news of the season-ending injury of Joe Burrow. Pittsburgh will face a very generous schedule the rest of the way, with just TWO of their remaining six opponents currently owning a winning record, which bodes well for the hopes of returning to the postseason following a one-year hiatus.
Meanwhile, the long, drawn-out saga that has been the Quarterback position took yet another turn for the Browns (6-3, 3rd in AFC North), as (veteran QB) Deshaun Watson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in last weekend’s 33-31 rally at Baltimore. By now we all know the story with Watson (pictured below) since arriving in Cleveland; the three-time Pro-Bowler was acquired by the franchise two offseasons ago in exchange for three first-round picks and a pair of seconds, while in turn earning a mammoth 5-year, $230 million contract that was 100% guaranteed. However, the 28-year-old missed the entirety of the previous campaign as a result of ongoing litigations over 30+ lawsuits stemming from sexual misconduct, with the eventual suspension costing him the first eleven games of the 2022 season. Needless to say, he didn’t play particularly well down the stretch last Fall as the team fell to a 7-10 finish and a second consecutive year without the playoffs. With that being said, optimism began to filter out of Browns camp that with a full offseason program under his belt that Watson would return to the form that made him a Pro-Bowler in Houston and make good on the sizeable investment made in his talents. While he has shown signs of life thus far, any progress has almost immediately been halted by injuries, with the latest being a fractured bone in his right throwing shoulder. If we’re being honest, his throwing motion didn’t look right in the first few weeks of play, and after missing three of six games, his campaign was officially ended in that win over the Ravens last weekend, which ironically featured an impressive rally led by the veteran signal-caller. Trailing 9-24 late in the third period, the browns finally got rolling on the strength of a marathon 17-play, 75-yard drive culminating in a short touchdown run by (veteran Tailback) Kareem Hunt, followed immediately by a short jaunt into the end zone by Watson for the 2-point conversion. The two sides would trade touchdowns on the next two possessions, before (young Cornerback) Greg Newsome picked off Lamar Jackson and returned it to the house, cutting the deficit to one point with over eight minutes left to play in the fourth quarter. After finally forcing Baltimore to punt the ball, Cleveland would not relinquish possession again, driving deep into enemy territory to set up the game-winning Field Goal that (veteran Kicker) Dustin Hopkins drove through the uprights from forty yards. Against a team that many believe may be the best in the NFL, (Head Coach) Kevin Stefanski’s troops outgained the blackbirds 373-306, outrushed them 178-106, and dominated time of possession (34:15) along the way. It was a bittersweet performance from Watson, who completed 20-of-34 passes for 213 yards, a touchdown, and interception and that crucial conversion, while rushing for thirty-seven yards on eight carries. Sure, he was sacked four times, hit on eight occasions, and withstood a dozen pressures, but credit to the much-maligned QB, who for one afternoon looked like the guy that the franchise placed so much trust in. (Young Tailback) Jerome Ford led the team with 107 rushing yards on seventeen carries, while Hunt added thirty-two and that aforementioned score, with (veteran Receiver) Amari Copper hauling in six receptions on nine targets for ninety-eight yards. Defensively, (Defensive Coordinator) Jim Schwartz must have loved the performance from his unit, which really disrupted Baltimore in the second half, limiting Jackson to 264 total yards, with two interceptions and three sacks. While that victory pushed them to 6-3 and well within the think of the hunt for a Wild Card, the Browns must survive the rest of the campaign without Watson’s services, with Stefanski turning to (Rookie QB) Dorian Thompson-Robinson for the start in this particular meeting with the Steelers. Drafted in the fifth round of last April’s NFL Draft, the UCLA product made a late start in the previous meeting with the Ravens, in which he struggled mightily against one of the league’s better defenses; DTR completed just 19-of-36 passes for 121 yards and THREE interceptions, suffering four sacks and losing a fumble to boot, which quickly led to Stefanski appointing (veteran journeyman) P.J. Walker as the starter until Watson returned from injury. Granted, Walker did not play very well either, which may have something to do with Thompson-Robinson getting another chance. Has the rookie grown enough to keep the offense afloat for the final eight games of the season? Time will tell, folks…
From a betting perspective, the Browns may be 6-3 straight-up thus far, but they have been marginally worse against the spread (5-3-1), though have managed to cover consecutive games for the first time this Fall. Cleveland alternated wins and losses in this regard for the first six weeks of the campaign, though are unbeaten versus the spread in three straight outings, including last weekend’s miraculous rally to beat the Ravens (-5.5) outright. Dating back to last season, Stefanksi’s troops are 5-4-1 against the spread over their last ten games overall, while covering all but three of their past ten affairs at home. With that being said, it is a different story when they have been favored, splitting their last ten contests when giving points to their opponents. As we stated earlier, the home sides have generally proven victorious in this series of late, taking four consecutive meetings both straight-up and against the spread, though it should be noted that the favorite has covered just two of the past seven encounters. Their previous meeting on Monday night back in mid-September must seem like a lifetime ago due in large part to the injuries that have taken so many performers from the Browns in particular; Stefanski & Co lost (Pro-Bowl Tailback) Nick Chubb (knee) and (veteran Right Tackle) Jack Conklin (knee) to the season in that one, and have since lost (Left Tackle) Jedrick Wills (knee) and the aforementioned Watson (shoulder) for the rest of the campaign as well. Watson, who started that matchup, was responsible for THREE of his team’s four turnovers, ruining an effort in which the visitors moved the football at will in Pittsburgh, totaling 408 yards, including 198 on the ground, and possessing the rock for 35:28 of gametime. With Thompson-Robinson getting the nod to start this afternoon, they MUST do a better job of protecting him after shipping SIX sacks, ELEVEN hits, and THIRTEEN pressures in that earlier meeting. Speaking of pressure, (All-Pro Defensive End) Myles Garrett has enjoyed quite a bit of success against the Steelers, amassing seven sacks, eight tackles for loss, sixteen QB hits, and three forced fumbles in eleven career affairs. On the injury front, we’ve covered Watson’s absence at length, though he isn’t the only Brown of note that can be found on this week’s injury report, as (Rookie Right Tackle) Dawand Jones, who has filled in admirably for Conklin on the right flank, is questionable to participate in this contest due to shoulder and knee maladies. Looking ahead, also face a less-than-arduous remaining schedule, with just two opponents residing above .500 at the moment, which should keep their postseason hopes alive for the time being.