The 3-6 Cleveland Browns will welcome the 5-4 division-rival Pittsburgh Steelers tonight at First Energy Stadium in what promises to be a raucous crowd (keep it down on offense though, Browns fans)1. The Steelers have dominated the Turnpike War since 1999, with a 33-6-1 record, wherein the Browns last victory was on October 12, 2014. The Steelers are one of the best-coached teams in the league, winning five of their last six match-ups on the heels of a commanding defense and an intrepid backup quarterback.
The strength of this Steelers team is the Keith Butler-led defense, which is Pro Football Focus’ (“PFF”) number one rated unit through Week 10 (90.1 grade) and Football Outsiders’ number three ranked unit with a defense-adjusted value over average (“DVOA”) of -12.4%. The defense has historically used a wide variety of personnel groupings, including base package at a 30% rate, nickel at 33%, and dime at 36% in 2018 (rounded and per Football Outsiders). Further, Butler likes to utilize various stunts (or “twists”), which is when two defensive players switch assignments or gaps, with one player crossing behind or in front of their nearby teammate. This can cause fits for opposing offensive lines attempting to protect their quarterback, which has been an apparent issue for the Browns thus far in 2019.
The defense has two cornerstone players that continuously wreak havoc on opposing defenses in outside linebacker T.J. Watt and free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Watt has been a force off the edge in his third-year with the squad, currently leading all defensive ends and outside linebackers in pass rush win rate (33%). Further, Watt has the following statistics and ranks through Week 10 (PFF):
98.6% of his pass rushes have been from the left side, meaning he will face-off against Browns right tackle Chris Hubbard for the majority of the contest. Hubbard has struggled in pass protection this season, currently ranking 51st in pass block grade (61.8). Further, he has allowed 19 quarterback pressures and has been called for seven penalties, which are the 14th-most among all offensive tackles. Watt will be his biggest challenge to-date.
Fitzpatrick has been invaluable to the Steeler defense since being acquired via trade with the Miami Dolphins in Week 3. Just how invaluable? In Weeks 1-2 the Steelers ranked 27th in pressure rate (20.51%) and 14th in sack rate (6.4%). Since Week 3, the team ranks 1st in both pressure rate (38.43%) and sack rate (9.9%) (Sports Info Solutions). Further, per ESPN Stats & Info, the Steeler defense has at least two takeaways in eight consecutive games, which is the teams longest streak since 1989. Fitzpatrick has the ball-hawking skills reminiscent of former Steeler Troy Polamalu, as he is currently tied for the league-lead in interceptions (5) with three touchdowns to boot. His presence will have to be accounted for on every single offensive snap.
The weakness of the team is on the offensive side of the ball, mainly attributable to the season-ending elbow surgery for quarterback (and Browns archenemy) Ben Roethlisberger two weeks into the 2019 season. Second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph has performed admirably, typically focusing on check-down and short to intermediate routes. Per Next Gen Stats, his average completed air yards of 4.3 is the 2nd-lowest among all quarterbacks. Additionally, only 11.8% of his pass attempts have traveled 20 or more yards downfield, but don’t let that statistic fool you: he has the 8th-best passer rating in the league on these passes (109.5). The Browns defense should be in man coverage at a high frequency tonight, allowing for an aggressive defensive attack, thereby accelerating Rudolph’s throwing progression and decision making.
The Browns offense should once again place an emphasis on a ground-and-pound style of football, as the Steelers defense currently surrenders the 16th-most rushing yards to opposing offenses (105.3 yards per game). Specifically, the Browns should focus on “20” (Two RBs, 0 TEs, and 3 WRs) and “21” (Two RBs, 1 TE, and 2 WRs) personnel groupings, for which they found great success in Week 10 vs. the Buffalo Bills with running back Kareem Hunt acting as a fullback/lead-blocker for running back Nick Chubb. Per Sharp Football, the offense had 8.6 yards per carry and a 80% success run percentage out of “20” personnel and 10.4 yards per carry and a 75% successful run percentage out of “21.” Quarterback Baker Mayfield and wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. may be in the limelight, but this is an offense born to run like Bruce Springsteen in 1975.
I expect a low-scoring, slobber-knocker of a match-up under the national spotlight of Thursday Night Football. A win and the Browns theoretically stay in the playoff hunt2. A loss and the team will be searching for moral victories the rest of the way. The margin of error is razor thin. Play disciplined, mistake-free football and the victory will be there for the taking.