Well, here it is — the final scouting report of the regular season. This week we are previewing the matchup between the AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3) and the Cleveland Browns (10-5) from FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.
It felt good to insert the word “regular” into that first sentence. “Regular” alludes to the fact there is more football on the horizon. Playoff football, specifically, the most exciting football there is. The Steelers have not qualified for the post-season since 2017, when they lost a demoralizing Divisional Round contest at home to Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
In some ways, the 2020 Steelers are similar to that 2017 squad. Ben Roethlisberger remains the starting quarterback and Mike Tomlin the head coach. The offense and defense each retain seven starters or rotation players from that Jacksonville contest — Roethlisberger, James Conner, Juju Smith-Schuster, Vance McDonald, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Alejandro Villanueva on offense; T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams, Mike Hilton and Joe Haden on defense.
The Jacksonville game precipitated a substantial amount of turnover within the organization, however. It marked the end of the “Killer B’s” in Pittsburgh. Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant are gone, with their careers much diminished in the aftermath. And the secondary, which was a huge liability in 2017, has become a strength with Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds and Steven Nelson replacing Mike Mitchell, Sean Davis and Artie Burns. The receiving corps is far different as well. Brown, Bryant, Darius Heyward-Bey and Eli Rogers have all left. In their place are Chase Claypool, James Washington, Diontae Johnson and Ray-Ray McCloud. Eric Ebron has replaced Jesse James at tight end. It is a far deeper, if not quite as dynamic, group of pass-catchers.
Of equal importance is the fact that the culture of the team is better. These Steelers don’t always make the wisest choices, as Smith-Schuster’s fledgling Tik-Tok career suggests, but they have evolved significantly from the drug suspensions, passive-aggressive radio shows and sideline temper tantrums of the Killer B’s era.
The Steelers are worse off in some ways, too. The line is not nearly as good as it was in 2017, and the offense lacks the elite playmakers it had with Brown and Bell in their prime. Roethlisberger is not the same quarterback, either, as his December play indicated. Then there’s the play-calling, which many believe to be a liability as well. Play-calling is always an issue with the fan-base, as anyone who ever played Madden or managed a fantasy team fancies himself an offensive coordinator. But Randy Fichtner’s struggles are far greater than anything his predecessor, Todd Haley, experienced. This is not a complete team by any stretch of the imagination.
Still, it would be hard to argue the 2017 Steelers had a better shot to win it all than does the current group. The defense is far superior, and when the offense is clicking, as it was from September through November, it’s comparable to the much-heralded 2017 unit. Consider:
2017 Offense: 377.9 yards per game, 26.4 points per game
2020 Offense (Weeks 1-10): 337.8 yards per game, 28.8 points per game
Of course, the big question as we ponder whether this Steelers’ team can make a playoff run in January revolves around which offense we will see. If it’s the September-November unit, or the one that resurfaced in the second half of last week’s thrilling comeback win over Indianapolis, the Steelers are certainly capable. Their defense is championship-caliber and does not require the offense to carry the day to be successful. A merely competent offense will likely give them a chance to win.
However, the offense on display for most of December was not competent. In eighteen quarters of play, beginning with the Baltimore rematch on December 2 through the first half of the Indy game, they averaged 16.7 points per game. That wasn’t good enough to beat the Bengals, much less post-season competition.
Any clues to the question of which offense will surface in January will have to wait a week. We’re not likely to see much from the unit on Sunday. Roethlisberger is sitting out (wisely, in my opinion) and Mason Rudolph will captain the ship. Maurkice Pouncey is likely to sit as well, along with veterans on defense like Haden, Heyward and Tuitt. There is no pressure on the Steelers to win, and given the fact they’ve had one of the more challenging seasons in the league considering the COVID-related interruptions to their schedule, rest and recuperation are more important than any on-field objective in Cleveland.
The same is not true for the Browns. Cleveland must win to get to the post-season. This seemed all but assured a few weeks ago. The Browns were 9-3, had a firm grip on a wild card spot and even entertained thoughts of winning the North. When the Steelers dropped their first game of the season against Washington, Cleveland defensive end Myles Garrett tweeted “Steelers might have opened the door.” Indeed, they nearly did. But the Browns have lost two of three, including last week’s disaster at the 1-13 Jets. Cleveland was missing its entire receiving corps due to a COVID issue, but still, with the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2002 up for grabs, it was reasonable to expect them to rise up and overcome.
They could not. Cleveland fell behind early, abandoned their running game and had Baker Mayfield throw the ball 53 times to his JV receivers. They lost the total yardage, time of possession and turnover battles to a Jets team running neck-and-neck with the Jags for the right to draft Trevor Lawrence. They came up small in one of their biggest games in years.
What will that mean for Sunday’s matchup with the Steelers?
It’s hard to say. The likely scenario is that Cleveland plays like a desperate team. When they’re at their best, they’re a handful. The Browns are averaging 31.9 points per game in their ten wins. They should have their receivers back, and even without Odell Beckham Jr, who is out for the season with a knee injury, they’re a dangerous offense when things are clicking.
Occasionally, however, things don’t click. In Cleveland’s five losses, they’re averaging just 15.4 points per contest. They’ve been held to seven points or less three times, including the 38-7 drubbing they took from their Steelers in their first matchup in October. They scored just ten points against the Raiders and just sixteen against the Jets. As bad as the Steelers offense was in December, Cleveland can look even worse at times.
Part of that is their youth and inexperience. Cleveland’s poor performance against the Jets was Exhibit A of a young team failing to rise to a challenge. Without their receivers, Cleveland needed to lean on its defense, its run game and a sound performance from Mayfield to succeed. None came through.
Mayfield is a tantalizing talent with a bravado that would make Brett Favre proud. Like Favre, Mayfield can be spectacular. He can also cough up a game. In Cleveland’s ten wins, he has 21 touchdown passes against just three interceptions. In their five losses, he has four touchdowns, five interceptions and has fumbled four times.
Mayfield struggled miserably in the initial matchup with the Steelers. He was 10-18 for 119 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, including the pick-six to Minkah Fitzpatrick on Cleveland’s first possession that set the tone for the rest of the game. Fitzpatrick baited Mayfield into the throw by showing two-high coverage and then dropping into a robber role to undercut the inside slant Mayfield believed was open:
Mayfield’s eyes on this throw tell us he never considered Fitzpatrick as a possible drop defender. He believed he had cover-2 and threw accordingly. This is all part of the maturation of the young quarterback, who will learn over time not to trust what he sees pre-snap and instead to anticipate post-snap disguises and rotations. The Steelers are one of the best in the business at coverage-disguise. They are also tops in the league in sacks and takeaways. Cleveland’s playoff hopes may hinge, then, on Mayfield’s ability to diagnose and execute well against an elite Pittsburgh defense.
It’s hard to know what to expect on Sunday. The Steelers may show up disinterested with their eyes on the playoffs. Or they might come out a hungry group looking to build on the momentum of their comeback against Indianapolis. Rudolph, in particular, should be motivated to play well. The contest serves both as redemption for the infamous 2019 “helmet game” in Cleveland and as one final opportunity to audition for the role of Roethlisberger’s successor. If Rudolph stumbles, the Steelers may decide to move on after the season.
The Browns, meanwhile, might play inspired football as they look to secure that elusive playoff berth. Or they might turn in another clunker like the one they authored in New York last week. They are not consistently good enough to bank on the former. But, I suspect, they will rise above the latter. It should be a competitive contest, with Cleveland prevailing in the end.
The result doesn’t matter much. A win in Cleveland on Sunday would be nice. Having the Steelers emerge unscathed from injury would be better. From there it’s on to the post-season, where Pittsburgh will seek its first victory since 2016. The best moments of the football season are coming, and the Steelers are right in the thick of things. As the calendar turns to 2021, a better scenario for the new year seems difficult to imagine.