“Styles make fights,” the boxing writer Bert Sugar once said. He was describing the contrast that made the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier trilogy so compelling. He could have been talking, however, about the difference between the pass-happy Pittsburgh Steelers and the ground-and-pound Cleveland Browns. Their contrast makes for an interesting matchup as they face off Sunday night in Pittsburgh in the AFC Wild Card round.
The Steelers are making their first trip to the post-season since 2017 while the Browns have not qualified since 2002. What should we look for when these rivals hook up for a third time this season? Here are some thoughts.
Chase Claypool is back
Claypool got off to a fabulous start to his rookie season. He caught 45 balls for 611 yards and eight touchdowns through the first eleven games as the Steelers went undefeated. Claypool slumped through the team’s three-game losing streak in mid-December, however, catching just eight passes for 107 yards. As his production slowed, so too did the offense.
If the last two games are any indication, Claypool is back. He caught nine passes for 155 yards against Indianapolis and Cleveland. Not coincidentally, the offense found its stride again. After averaging just 16 points and 265 yards per game during their losing streak, the Steelers went 25/374 the past two weeks.
Why has Claypool suddenly re-emerged? For starters, head coach Mike Tomlin suggested that Claypool may have hit the “rookie wall” a few weeks back.
“I’m not acknowledging that he has hit it,” Tomlin told Sean Gentile of The Athletic. “But I’m acknowledging the potential for that.”
This “wall” of which Tomlin speaks is symbolic for the fatigue young players often experience as they grind through a pro season that is longer, more physical and more mentally taxing than anything they endured as a college player. To help Claypool cope, the Steelers reduced his snaps for several weeks. After participating in nearly 70% of the plays in weeks 3-11, Claypool dropped into the high 50s for weeks 12-15. He was back up to 79% in the week 16 win against Indianapolis before dropping down again in the second half against Cleveland, presumably to protect against injury.
Many on the BTSC discussion boards wondered why we were seeing less of Claypool during the offensive swoon in December. Rookie load-management is your answer. The strategy seems to have worked, as he has looked like a man playing against boys at times the past two weeks. Claypool was especially dominant against the Browns on Sunday, eclipsing 100 receiving yards for the second time this season.
Cleveland defended Claypool in a variety of ways: they pressed him, played him in loose-man, showed press and then bailed into zone. They did not shadow him with a single player, so he was matched at times against both starting corners — Robert Jackson and Terrance Mitchell. Claypool had particular success against Mitchell, notching 41 and 28 yard receptions with Mitchell in coverage. Claypool’s size (6’4-238) and strength were simply too much for the 5’11-191 pound veteran.
Cleveland’s best corner, Denzel Ward, remains out after testing positive for Covid. Kevin Johnson, who has also been on the Covid list but should return for Sunday’s kickoff, may replace Mitchell in the lineup. Whoever draws the assignment will have their hands full with the Steelers’ re-energized rookie.
Pittsburgh’s vertical passing game
Of course, rest alone has not led to Claypool’s re-emergence. He has benefited from the renewed emphasis in Pittsburgh on the vertical passing game.
The Steelers finished the regular season 30th in the NFL in yards per pass attempt at 6.3. But they broke from that mold over their final six quarters, amassing 559 yards on 68 attempts for an average of 8.2. Ben Roethlisberger threw the ball down the field in the second half against Indianapolis better than he has all season. He was 23-29 for 244 yards while rallying the Steelers from a 24-7 deficit.
The vertical trend continued on Sunday against Cleveland, as Mason Rusolph threw for 315 yards on 39 attempts. Over a full season, the 8.2 yards per attempt Pittsburgh averaged in their final six quarters would have ranked 4th in the league.
Among Claypool’s nine receptions the past two weeks have been explosive plays of 41, 34 and 28 yards. Diontae Johnson has caught 47 and 39 yard throws. Juju Smith-Schuster has a 25 and a 26 yard catch. The Steelers had eight pass plays of 25 yards or more against Indy and Cleveland, which is as many as they had in the previous seven games combined.
One beneficiary of this success has been Pittsburgh’s rushing attack. In that aforementioned seven-game stretch, they ran the ball 139 times for 418 yards. That’s an average of 3.0 yards per carry and 59.7 yards per game. The past six quarters, when they’ve thrown effectively downfield, they have 25 carries for 103 yards (4.1 ypc). While the numbers don’t represent a huge statistical difference, a full yard-per-carry more is not inconsequential. More importantly, their run game has appeared functional as of late after weeks of incompetence.
The following play perfectly illustrates the impact of a vertical passing attack on the run game. In the midst of the Steelers comeback, after having hit on several deep throws, Pittsburgh faced a 2nd and 3 from their own 44 yard line. They aligned in a 2x2 formation with both sets of receivers stacked outside the numbers. Indianapolis played with two high safeties and, more importantly, walked both their slot corner (bottom of the screen) and weak-side linebacker (top) into the alleys so they could maintain their two-high structure and defend the vertical throw:
This gave the Steelers a five-on-five look in the box, against which any NFL offense should successfully run the football. Pittsburgh did just that, hitting a zone play for 12 yards:
Pittsburgh is not a dominant run team, nor should we expect them to be. But they have been productive in the run game over the past six quarters when presented with opportunities. If the vertical passing game is clicking on Sunday, they should capitalize on the run-looks they will get from Cleveland’s defense.
Cleveland’s run game
Speaking of rushing attacks, the Browns gashed Pittsburgh’s defense for 192 yards on the ground on Sunday. Granted, the Steelers were resting starters Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt. But Cleveland was the more physical team up front and Pittsburgh missed too many tackles. The Steelers will have to clean up both aspects to succeed on Sunday night.
Nick Chubb’s 47 yard touchdown run in the first quarter revealed Pittsburgh’s deficiencies. Here’s a look at the play, with our focus on the defenders identified as 1, 2 and 3 in the photo below:
1 is safety Sean Davis, who was forced into an uncomfortable role as the edge-setter by Cleveland’s double-tight/trips formation. You can see in the GIF below how Davis, by getting too far upfield, opened a huge alley for Chubb.
2 is corner Cam Sutton, whose desire to tackle Chubb, as demonstrated by his feckless dive at Chubb’s feet, was less than enthusiastic.
3 is linebacker Vince Williams, whose inability to disengage from the block of the right guard prevented him from making a play on Chubb at the second level:
Finally, appearing at the end of the clip, is safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, whose angle was bad and whose attempt at a tackle was also poor:
This is a breakdown in the run defense at every level. It would be easy to write it off as a product of the JV players populating the lineup. But three of the four culprits were starters and rotation players (four of five if you include defensive tackle Tyson Alualu, who backdoored a reach-block from the center, putting himself out of position to make a play on Chubb). The Steelers will have to be more technically sound, more physical and display a greater desire to tackle to limit Chubb’s effectiveness.
They will also need an answer for Cleveland’s multiple-tight end packages. Cleveland was one of just two teams (along with Tennessee) to use 12 and 13 personnel groupings on 40% or more of their offensive snaps. The Browns did a a nice job aligning their trio of tight ends — Austin Hooper, David Njoku and Stephen Carlson — in formations that created conflict for the Steelers, such as the touchdown run by Chubb or this one, where both tight ends aligned to the left of the formation to create an extra run gap:
The Browns caught the Steelers in their patented Cross-Fire X stunt and Chubb hit the seam for a nice gain:
Cleveland’s seven-man blocking surfaces force the Steelers to either drop a safety into the box as an extra run defender, which makes them vulnerable to deeper passes, or defend the run from a seven-man box, in which case Cleveland gets a hat on a hat up front. In the former scenario, the Steelers must rely on their corners to hold up in single coverage and their linebackers to run with tight ends. In the latter, they will have to stalemate the Browns at the point of attack, get off of blocks and tackle soundly.
Whatever they decide, they must keep Cleveland’s run game in check. They got an assist in that regard with the news on Tuesday that Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio tested positive for Covid and will miss the game. If Cleveland can’t run effectively, they will have to turn to Baker Mayfield to carry the offense. Mayfield has gone just 27-45 for 315 yards with two touchdowns, two interceptions and eight sacks in the two games against Pittsburgh this season. Any scenario that puts the game on Mayfield’s shoulders likely favors the Steelers.
Finally, let’s look briefly at some intangibles that may affect Sunday’s outcome.
a. The Moment. The Browns had tee shirts made just for qualifying for the playoffs, which they displayed proudly in their locker room following Sunday’s game. This seemed juvenile to some observers. It begs the following question of a team with little post-season tradition: will Cleveland be mature enough to rise to the moment, or are they happy just to have made it this far?
b. Covid. The outbreak at the Browns facility continued this week. In addition to Bitonio, head coach Kevin Stefanski tested positive as well. Special teams’ coach Mike Priefer will assume Stefanski’s managerial duties while Alex Van Pelt will take over the play-calling. Stefanski’s absence is bound to have disrupted Cleveland’s practice routine and game preparation and no doubt will affect how the game is called on offense.
c. Olivier Vernon. The Browns pass-rushing star is done for the season with a torn Achilles suffered in last week’s game. If Cleveland struggles to get to Ben Roethlisberger in Vernon’s absence, it will place more pressure on a secondary that, without Ward, is questionable at best.
d. Excuses. For those who felt Cleveland’s offensive line got away with a lot of holding last week, they did. They weren’t flagged once despite some obvious violations. Guess what? They’ll likely hold again on Sunday night. It’s the NFL — there’s holding on every play. The Steelers cannot use it as an excuse for failing to execute. They have to find a way to get off of blocks no matter how the referees call the game.
e. Weather. It’s going to be cold Sunday night (temperatures in the high 20s). When the Steelers struggled to catch the football in early December it coincided with the onset of winter weather. Pittsburgh’s receivers have been more secure with the ball the past two weeks, so maybe the drops are behind them. Nonetheless, the degree to which the cold impacts Pittsburgh’s passing attack is worth observing.
It’s playoff time, ladies and gentlemen. The quest for a seventh Lombardi kicks into high gear Sunday night at Heinz Field. Here we go!