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A Steelers win in Cleveland begins with a more physical effort from the defense

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense will have to try and slow down the Browns’ running game, and it won’t be easy.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The 3-3 Pittsburgh Steelers travel to Cleveland on Sunday to play the 4-3 Browns in a game that bears significance in the AFC North. With Cincinnati’s win in Baltimore last week, those teams sit atop the North standings at 5-2. Baltimore has a bye this week while Cincinnati travels to New York to play the Jets. So, the winner of Pittsburgh-Cleveland will remain one game back in the loss column while the loser will fall two behind.

It’s a pivotal game for both teams, especially considering what lies ahead. Following the Cleveland game, Pittsburgh plays back-to-back home contests against Chicago and Detroit. That sets up a brutal closing stretch in which five of their final eight games are on the road against teams with a current combined record of 29-18. It’s an even tougher close for the Browns, whose final six games are against opponents who are currently 29-12. For both Cleveland and Pittsburgh, a win on Sunday is essential to their aspirations of a division title.

Both teams must overcome adversity to be successful, particularly on offense. The Steelers, with four rookies in the lineup, remain a work in progress. They must also compensate for the loss of receiver Juju Smith-Schuster, who is done for the season with a broken arm. Cleveland has injury concerns, too. A trio of stars — running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and quarterback Baker Mayfield — did not play last week against Denver. Chubb will return against the Steelers but Hunt is out for several more weeks. Mayfield remains questionable.

While Pittsburgh’s ability to move the football will certainly be important, the key to this matchup hinges on whether they can contain Cleveland’s potent rushing attack. With Case Keenum at quarterback, Cleveland doubled down on its run game against Denver. Even without Hunt and Chubb, they gashed the Broncos for 182 yards on the ground. 3rd-year player D’Ernest Johnson got his shot as the feature back and made the most of the opportunity. Johnson ran for 146 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries.

It’s no surprise Cleveland was able to move the ball despite their depleted running back corps. The Browns lead the NFL in rushing at 170 yards per game. Cleveland’s offensive line, which is one of the best in the league, opened plenty of holes for Johnson. But the Broncos helped, too. Watch their linebackers take themselves out of the play on this mid-zone run. The backer to the boundary widens too far and the backer to the field comes under the center’s cut-off block instead of fighting over the top. When a defense loses gap integrity like this, any rushing attack will succeed.

Steelers’ fans don’t need to think too far back to recollect how the combination of a physical Cleveland run game and poor defensive execution yielded disappointing results. The Browns rushed for 104 yards in the first half while building an insurmountable 35-10 advantage in route to a 48-37 win in the AFC Wild Card game last January. Those who are squeamish may want to avert their eyes for the next few paragraphs while we look at how Cleveland did it.

The beat-down in the run game began with a decision by coordinator Keith Butler to go small against Cleveland’s 11 personnel grouping. Butler had a dilemma at linebacker given the season-ending injury to Devin Bush and the team’s lack of depth. Rather than play Avery Williamson, who had failed to solidify the position after being acquired in a mid-season trade with the Jets, or Vince Williams, whose play had deteriorated, Butler opted for a 3-3-5 configuration against Cleveland’s 1-tight end, 3-receiver package that inserted a defensive back into the weak-side (Mack) linebacker role.

Butler’s decision to use a smaller player at the Mack indicated he wanted more flexibility against the pass, where the linebackers had become a liability. He gambled the scheme would hold up should Cleveland run the ball from this grouping. That’s precisely what Cleveland did, and the gamble failed miserably.

Cleveland’s second possession of the game started from their own 35 yard line. On the first play of the drive, the Browns went 11 personnel and aligned in a 3x1 set to the boundary. They ran an inside zone play to the weak side of the formation. Putting their strength into the boundary and running away from it was a nice wrinkle because, in Butler’s 3-3-5 configuration, it forced Terrell Edmunds to be the primary run-fitter to the weak side:

What followed was elementary. Cleveland man-blocked the run, and in every instance they won the one-on-one battle. Alex Highsmith (56) got turned out on the edge, Edmunds (34) was swallowed up by the guard and Chris Wormley (95) got reached by the center. Everything on the back-side followed suit. Nick Chubb rumbled for 15 yards before he was even touched:

On the next play, the Steelers shifted Edmunds into the slot and plugged Cam Sutton (20) into the Mack role. Cleveland compressed the left side of its formation, ran a trap play and sent receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones (11) into the box to block Sutton. Not surprisingly, Sutton got caught up in the clutter and could not make a play on Chubb, who ripped off another big gain:

Once Cleveland reached the red zone, Butler adjusted. Williams entered the game alongside Robert Spillane at linebacker, putting the Steelers in a 2-4-5 look. On 1st and 10 from the 11, nickel corner Mike Hilton came screaming down from the left slot on a well-timed run blitz. Hilton was a hair late, though, and Hunt squeezed through a hole before Hilton could reach him. Then, Hunt lowered his pads and bullied Spillane into the end zone. While Cleveland did a nice job on the drive of exploiting Butler’s scheme, the real reason for their success was their physicality. Put simply, the Browns were the hammers and the Steelers were the nails.

Fast-forward to the present. Pittsburgh is in a much better position at linebacker, with Bush healthy again and the versatile Joe Schobert along-side him. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they’ve solidified their run defense. Now, it’s the line that’s depleted. Minus Tyson Alualu and Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers were bullied again two weeks ago against Seattle. The Seahawks rushed for 137 of their 144 yards in the second half, largely by running at Wormley and the left side of the Pittsburgh defense, like we see here:

And here:

And here:

In each instance, Seattle manhandled Wormley, created movement elsewhere and got blockers into the faces of Pittsburgh’s linebackers. Cleveland is sure to pick up on that cue, especially given their own success running the football and their need to take pressure off of a shaky quarterback situation.

How should the Steelers respond, then? No team has held Cleveland under 150 yards rushing except Arizona, who bolted out to a 20-0 lead and forced the Browns to throw the football. The Cardinals did, however, play heavy doses of their 3-down front early on, where they were fairly effective against the run. If the Steelers play their own base 3-4, it will require two of the following to join Cam Heyward in the lineup: Wormley, Henry Mondeaux, Carlos Davis and the Isaiah(h)’s: Buggs and Loudermilk. Surprisingly, Loudermilk was the best of that bunch defending the run against Seattle. While Wormley and Mondeaux got pushed around and Buggs played like the backup he is, Loudermilk provided the best anchor at the line of scrimmage and was the hardest for Seattle to move.

I say “surprisingly” in reference to Loudermilk because I, like many others, was critical of the decision to trade up to acquire him in the draft last spring. He looked like a project coming out of Wisconsin whose destiny was the practice squad. There he was against Seattle, however, doing a nice job with his technique and using his long arms to control blockers.

Below, Loudermilk (92) is the 3-technique lined up on the shoulder of Seattle’s right guard. You can see him press away from the reach block of the tackle, then disengage by ripping through with his left arm. While T.J. Watt made the tackle, Loudermilk was in good position to defend a cut-back run had Watt been unable to get there:

On the next play, Loudermilk was even better. With Butler dialing up a 2-4-5 look, Loudermilk bumped inside to the 1-tech. Watch him stalemate the guard before pressing him into the path of the back. This kind of physical play on the interior of the line is just what it will take to keep Cleveland from slamming the ball down Pittsburgh’s throat on Sunday.

The price the Steelers will pay with Loudermilk on the field is that he doesn’t generate a pass rush. That part of the rookie’s game is non-existent at present. So, to compensate, Butler will have to get aggressive with his blitz packages. He may also deploy his outside linebackers creatively, like he’s done at times this season, to disrupt Cleveland’s blocking schemes. We’ve seen Watt, Highsmith and Melvin Ingram line up on the nose, on the edge, even at middle linebacker. Using this package would get three of the Steelers’ best defenders on the field together. Butler could also plug rookie Tre Norwood into the Mike Hilton role and run-blitz the daylights out of the Browns. Norwood has shown a nose for the football and an ability to tackle. There’s also the possibility Butler will use the bye week to concoct something Cleveland is yet to see.

Whatever they decide, one thing is certain: to control Cleveland’s run game, the Steelers must be more physical up front. Scheme adjustments are nice but fundamentals win football games. The Steelers will need to get off of the ball, play with a low pad level, use their hands effectively and tackle well. That’s the secret sauce — tough, fundamentally-sound defense. They must be the hammers, not the nails. If the defense can match Cleveland’s physicality and take away what the Browns do best, it should be a great afternoon for the Black and Gold.