The Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cleveland Browns will meet up for the second, and most likely last, time this season, and there are a ton of changes between the Week 1 matchup and the upcoming game in Week 8 at Heinz Field.
To get the lowdown on the upcoming AFC North grudge match, I was able to ask Chris Pokorny, editor of Dawgs By Nature, to discuss the upcoming game, and the nuances between the two other teams.
Check out the Q&A session I had below, and be sure to get the latest, and greatest, news on the Steelers vs. Browns matchup from the Browns point of view by visiting the Dawgs By Nature website.
Baker Mayfield. What have been the highlights (strengths) and lowlights (weaknesses) of his game so far this year?
Let’s start with the strengths. He has thrown five interceptions in five games, but those picks have not been the type of plays where you roll your eyes and say, “yep, the defense fooled him.” That’s not to say he is being too protective of the football -- I just think a lot of rookies have accuracy issues or make terrible decisions with where to throw the ball, but that hasn’t been the case with Mayfield. His interceptions have largely been due to being off players’ hands, or like a desperation throw near the end of a half. Mayfield has great command of the huddle, and when he gets fired up, he already has the ability to inspire his teammates on both sides of the ball. There are a lot of plays where he uses his mobility to maneuver the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield to make a play.
In terms of weaknesses, I say the same thing every week when people ask: he needs to elevate some of his passes a little more to avoid the out-stretched arms of defensive linemen and linebackers, and his awareness in the pocket needs to improve at times. The pocket awareness appeared as a strength as well, because sometimes he does it very well. Other times, he will be in the pocket, and then tuck and try to roll to his left, having completely lost awareness that the edge or free rusher was on that side, thus walking right into a sack. First half scoring has also been an issue, but I credit that to a team issue as opposed to a rookie issue.
What is the deal with Hue Jackson and taking play calling duties away from Todd Haley? Are fans ready to move on from Hue?
Play calling duties aren’t being taken away from Todd Haley. I feel the media took Hue Jackson’s words a little too strongly; I think he is just frustrated by losing so many games within the team’s reach, and there may have been a few playcalling decisions as he was watching the game that he might have preferred over what Haley did. Jackson providing input or direction to Haley is not a bad thing; I mean, isn’t that his job as head coach? Here is where Jackson comes off really bad: first, I always say that coaches need to play it smart with the media. After a loss, you cannot make a comment about getting more involved with the offense, knowing the firestorm it’ll cause on social media and then down through the rest of the coaching staff. Second, what has Jackson been doing all season? Is he just deciding when time outs should be called, or when to go for it on fourth down? He should be influencing the team’s game plan each week, and I get the impression that he decided to take a completely hands-off approach with the offense to start 2018. Fans are more-than-ready to move on from Jackson; I don’t know if you could find even one Browns fan who would go out on a limb to vouch for him.
A lot has changed since these two teams met in Week 1. How are the Browns better, and worse than the regular season opener?
Good question...but I would say they are about the same, since they are “in” almost every game and half their games have even gone to overtime. In terms of where they are worse, I would start with wide receiver and cornerback. The Browns made the decision after Week 1 to trade Josh Gordon away, and injuries after that have crippled the team’s depth chart for the third, fourth, and fifth guys on the chart. At cornerback, Terrance Mitchell, who had a couple of solid games as a starter out of nowhere, has a broken wrist. E.J. Gaines, who was supposed to replace him, will miss his second straight game with a concussion. That has required some shuffling at cornerback, with safety Damarious Randall returning to his Green Bay days to play cornerback as a fill-in.
How are the Browns better? I would go with the quarterback position and the defensive line. Baker Mayfield has injected life into the Browns’ offense and has the fans’ hopes high for the future. Tyrod Taylor provided more of a mobile threat, but was way too indecisive in his decision making in an effort to avoid interceptions. On the defensive line, Myles Garrett is getting to the quarterback several times per game, Emmanuel Ogbah is coming off one of his best games as a pro, and Larry Ogunjobi continues to be a workhorse defensive tackle as a pass-rusher. Together, the three guys are starting to build up hits and sacks on the quarterback, and each have the size needed to take a guy like Ben Roethlisberger down on first grasp.
If you were an offensive coordinator, how would you attack the Cleveland defense? Where are the soft spots?
The Chargers were extremely effective at running the end around over and over against Cleveland two weeks ago. I’ve never seen anything more embarrassing than Cleveland’s constant inability to defend that play. Last week, the Buccaneers ran the play twice: once for a touchdown, and the other time for a big loss. Cleveland has also had difficulties covering tight ends. A few weeks ago, Jared Cook from the Raiders had 8 catches for 110 yards and 2 touchdowns. Last week, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate of the Buccaneers combined for 8 catches for 90 yards. Nickelback T.J. Carrie is also very easy to get to bite on double moves.
What is your prediction for the game, and how do you see it unfolding?
I try to be optimistic of course, and I love the fact that Cleveland hasn’t lost in the division so far (1-0-1 record). There has only been one game that Cleveland hasn’t been in, and that just seemed like an anomaly. But I see Pittsburgh’s offense falling into more of a groove as Cleveland still has a bit of a hole at one of their cornerback positions. While I’m excited to see Baker Mayfield face the Steelers’ defense, the Browns’ receivers have not “made a play” often enough to allow them to get off to fast starts in games. How can Cleveland have gone seven games already with no first quarter touchdowns? I know Pittsburgh isn’t much better (19 first quarter points vs. 8 for Cleveland), but still, it’s better. Hue Jackson just doesn’t have this team ready enough to clear that next hurdle of winning consistently -- so I think I’m taking Pittsburgh to win this week.