Wow. Just… wow.
Color me impressed, Steelers Nation. Just when I thought Pittsburgh couldn’t POSSIBLY hit on another wide receiver, they go and draft the NFL Offensive Player of the Week in the second round! How do 31 other NFL franchises keep letting this happen?!? What is Kevin Colbert‘s secret? Seriously! It makes me sick as a Ravens fan to watch the Steel City manufacture one playmaker after another. It’s getting out of control. Can’t the NFL sanction Pittsburgh or something?
Okay, I’m done.
Now, the Pittsburgh Steelers (4-0) get a feisty and talented Cleveland Browns (4-1) squad that seems intent on having a seat at the Big Boys’ table in the AFC. Can the Steelers stay undefeated in the best division in football so far?
Here are my thoughts before Sunday’s clash of division rivals:
Which Team Gets More Creative?
Sunday’s tilt will pit two curious offensive minds against each other: Kevin Stefanski and… Randy Fichtner? While the Steelers coordinator doesn’t get much mention amongst the NFL’s great offensive minds, it’s hard to not be impressed by what Fichtner has done so far this year. The Steelers stand at 10th in the league in scoring at almost 30 points per game thus far. They’ve gotten quite creative compared to past seasons. Among the offensive wrinkles employed thus far are jet sweeps, pre-snap motion, end-arounds, and heavy sets that I mentioned in my Week 5 preview that continued versus the Eagles. Everyone from Eric Ebron to Ray-Ray McCloud has been involved in keeping defenses off-balance. Perhaps Pittsburgh is just following some trends, but it’s working. I applaud them for finding a way to keep pressure off Ben Roethlisberger as he reacclimates his elbow this season.
On the other side of the field stands Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski, who has quickly settled in calling the shots for Cleveland. Spear-headed by a league-leading rushing attack in yards per game (188.4), expect the Browns to throw some wrinkles of their own at the best pass-rushing team in the NFL. Wide receiver Jarvis Landry has thrown a touchdown this season. Landry’s running mate, Odell Beckham, Jr. has a rushing touchdown and a pass completion of his own. Three different Browns tight ends have caught a touchdown. To Stefanski’s credit, he’s made every effort to simplify quarterback Baker Mayfield’s job. So far, so good.
No matter where you look 1:00 PM at Heinz field this Sunday, there will be formations and packages sure to delight nerdy football fans. In a pivotal division matchup, I expect both teams to dig into their bag of tricks a couple of weeks early.
Match-ups to Watch:
1. Baker Mayfield vs. the Steelers defense
Perhaps this is a bit obvious, but I encourage you to look closer. The Steelers are the No. 2-ranked running defense in the NFL right now. Aside from one big run, Pittsburgh COMPLETELY shut down Philadelphia on the ground last week. Kevin Stefanski has been marrying the Browns running attack to their passing game with play-action all season. If Cleveland can’t pound the rock, Baker Mayfield might have an uphill battle against what happens to be the best pass-rushing defense in the NFL, too.
2. Chris Hubbard vs. Stephon Tuitt/Steelers Pass Rush
With right guard Wyatt Teller week-to-week with a calf strain, backup Chris Hubbard steps in at an inopportune time. Cleveland’s offensive line has undoubtedly been one of the NFL’s best this season, so it’s hard to imagine Pittsburgh not attempting to take advantage of a weak point. Hubbard should see a lot of time against Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt. This could be a long day for Hubbard, as he’s also likely to see some blitzes geared at confusing his protection assignments from stud linebacker T.J. Watt and others.
3. Chase Claypool vs… Who?
Sorry, but I have to talk about Claypool just a bit more. After he was utilized in several ways — in the slot, outside, on sweeps, etc. — what do the Steelers do with him on Sunday, and what do the Browns do to slow him down? Receiver Diontae Johnson has already been ruled out with a back injury, so Claypool should see the field again plenty. Besides, can Pittsburgh really afford to keep him on the bench? Claypool has given the deep passing game a shot in the arm and seemed to be Big Ben’s go-to receiver after Johnson went down in the Eagles game. The Browns surely have a plan for the rookie, but with strong safeties Karl Joseph and Ronnie Harrison both out (as well as reserve linebacker Jacob Phillips), the middle of their defense is looking a bit suspect.
Chase Claypool had a king’s feast in the middle of the Eagles defense. Can he do it again? My fantasy football team is counting on it.
- The Browns are going to be fired up for this one. After stumbling out of the gate, Cleveland has shown a surprising amount of mettle, rattling off four straight victories, averaging 37.5 points per game over that span.
- The Steelers will be without right guard David DeCastro, so rookie Kevin Dotson gets the nod this week.
- Speaking of offensive creativity, I really like the continued use of rookie running back Anthony McFarland. He provides a great change-of-pace to Pittsburgh’s backfield.
- In the midst of all the Chase Claypool hype, don’t forget about JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Score Prediction: Steelers 27, Browns 20
I was all over the place trying to predict a score this time around. This game has the potential to be closer, but I just can’t see Baker Mayfield making enough plays to pull this one out. He struggled against heavy blitzing Week 1, and I expect a start of the season encore on Sunday with a defense looking to improve upon their lackluster Week 5 performance. Pittsburgh remains undefeated atop the AFC North for another week.
Until next time, Steel City!*
*P.S.- Just for the record, I’m SO fair to you. Would you ever know, admission aside, that a Ravens fan is writing these great articles for your viewing pleasure? It’s called respect**. I call it like I see it, and this is a damn good football team.
**I may also live in Pittsburgh now and I’m trying to sleep easy at night, so I guess there’s that…
(Featured Image Credit: Steelers.com)