Scheme matters, but when that scheme hits the field, it’s up to the players involved to execute the game plan and make the plays on the field. This week the Steelers face the Browns in an elimination match, and the Browns are not at 100%.
Throw the ball deep
Last week Mason Rudolph hit Chase Claypool deep on a route where the defensive back didn’t even touch him. I mean, look at this:
That’s Terrance Mitchell, a good slot corner who will again be the Browns #1 CB. You have to attack that. All day.
And not just with Chase Claypool. JuJu Smith-Schuster has been the Steelers most effective receiver on downfield throws since 2018 (when healthy). He catches over 50% of those routes. Get JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool going.
Of course if you are going to do that, you need to . . .
Keep the pocket clean for Ben Roethlisberger
Olivier Vernon is out, the Browns have Myles Garrett (12 sacks) and Sheldon Richardson 4.5 sacks) left to attack Ben Roethlisberger. Richardson is a problem. He is a beast to deal with, not as a skilled technique rusher, but a brute force pocket collapser. Meet that with David DeCastro who is starting to look more like himself again, and Kevin Dotson, the perfect counter for that brute force. Don’t rely on Matt Feiler coming off an upper body muscle injury, let the big man do his thing against the Browns nastiest interior pressure creator.
Dotson and DeCastro did fantastic against Deforest Buckner in week 16, shutting him down in a month he earned defensive player of the month honors. In week 17 J.C. Hassenauer was a weak spot, but the guards did their job. With Pouncey back, the Steelers can slide help to Myles Garrett’s side and keep the interior pocket clean for Ben Roethlisberger to step up and make throws.
Interior line play has been the #1 correlation to Ben Roethlisberger playing well. The 4 game stretch where Ben Roethlisberger looked terrible happened to completely coincide with J.C. Hassenauer playing significant snaps. Ben isn’t the young man throwing defensive lineman around and extending plays, he needs that pocket.
Attack the Browns with your best blitzes
The Browns beat the Steelers by 2 points with Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt out. This week they are back and the Browns are down Joel Bitonio and most of their offensive line was on the injury report this week. Add to that the game Alex Highsmith had against the Browns in week 17, and the Steelers hold a huge advantage up front.
For me, that means the Steelers need to blitz Mike Hilton more. Stay with me here, Mike Hilton’s blitzes sometimes work, he’s a fantastic pass and run blitzer. But even when they don’t fool the opposition, when he blitzes he pulls a blocker, leaving a lot of one on ones for T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt, whoever is on that side.
And with Robert Spillane back, the counter punch to those blitzes won’t be as effective. If teams keep a running back in to block, Robert Spillane is a fantastic Green Dog Blitzer, and if they go to their screen game, Robert Spillane is great against screens too. Spillane should be a big boost to this game specifically because of his skillset and how the Browns operate.
Put the pressure on, because the Browns can’t convert long downs against the Steelers. If this game becomes Baker Mayfield and his receivers against the Steelers secondary the Steelers will be in fantastic shape, Minkah Fitzpatrick and company will eat this team for dinner.
This all goes a whole lot better if the Steelers succeed at key #3.
Get an early lead
I’m looking at the defense, especially early. Ben Roethlisberger tends to start slow, and with a week off, we’ll likely see a slow start again. The best way to get the Steelers quarterback going early is to give him great field position. get an early turnover and either score, or set the offense up with a short field.
With a lead the Steelers have less to worry about from Nick Chubb, partly because the Steelers don’t give up big runs. I know Nick Chubb had a huge run in week 17, but that was without Terrell Edmunds and Robert Spillane. When those two are on the field the Steelers have given up one run longer than 20 yards, they have played over 1⁄3 of defensive snaps together and given up one. the Steelers have 7 on the year, meaning roughly 6 runs in 10 games with at least one out, and only one in the 6 games worth of snaps Spillane and Edmunds were together. The Browns beat the Steelers in large part because they got two long runs in week 17. With both Edmunds and Spillane returning, that should be fixed.
Attack the Browns weakened offensive line, get Ben Roethlisberger going with some deep throws against a depleted secondary, take the lead and make Baker Mayfield attack the Steelers secondary, something he doesn’t have much success doing.
In the Steelers wild card game, the scheme doesn’t need to be complicated, just take advantage of the mismatches on the field.