Cleveland, fresh off of a very impressive win over last year’s AFC North champion, Cincinnati Bengals, looks to continue to build momentum as the teams continue throughout the season. With a solid roster, top to bottom, the Steelers need to be more prepared the the Browns than they were in Week 1 if they intend on securing a victory.
Here are four keys that can bring home the Steelers' first win of the season.
Key #1: Stop the run
The Steelers defense does not have time to breathe after last week's disaster against the 49ers, as Cleveland brings its top rushing attack to Pittsburgh. The Steelers will have to do without All-Pro DT Cam Heyward as he is out for what looks to be about eight weeks. At this stage of Heyward’s career, it may just be time to move on. Hopefully, he can make it back and contribute this season but moving forward, father time and a groin injury suggests this may be the Steelers stalwart’s swan song.
Next up is rookie Keeanu Benton, selected by the Steelers 49th overall in the 2023 NFL Draft. Welcome to a full-time role. Breiden Fehoko also is likely to be brought up from the practice squad as Armon Watts and Benton try to fill the void left by Heyward.
The Browns have one of, if not the best run game in the NFL. The offensive line is a top-five unit across the league. The only positive is not really a positive at all, in that Browns starting right tackle Jack Conklin went down for the season. Now, the Steelers will see rookie Dawand Jones on the right side. Jones is a monster of a man at 6’8 and 375 lbs so the physical aspect of his game is there by default. The only way Pittsburgh can truly take advantage of the mismatch between Jones and T.J. Watt, is to stop the run. If Pittsburgh does not, Cleveland will run the ball until they do.
Similar in game plan philosophy to the Steelers, the Browns play solid defense while controlling the clock with RB Nick Chubb. Chubb has been the best and most efficient running back in the league for a few years now. Chubb has averaged a hefty 5.3 yards per carry over the course of his career, and at the NFL level, that means you are the best of the best. The Browns broke the 200-yard mark as a team Week 1; their run game is dominant.
Considering the workload Chubb gets, it calls to the glory days of when Jim Brown ran over the league. With great vision and burst (and unlike the Steelers’ Najee Harris), he can and will take it to the house if given a crease. A load to bring down to even with the healthiest of defenses, the Steelers must not allow the Cleveland rush attack to find their rhythm.
Key #2: Contain Browns QB Deshaun Watson
Stopping the run will put the game into the hands of Deshaun Watson who has not shown himself to be quite as prolific as he was before his suspension and trade to the Browns. The arm talent is there and although a veteran, he is still learning his way in the new offense. He threw for 154 yards on 16 completions with 29 attempts last week in an impressive win.
Possibly more important to Pittsburgh is they must contain Watson and not allow his legs to beat them on crucial downs. Watson ran 5 times for 45 yards in the Browns upset over the Bengals. Solid numbers but it was the timing of those runs with 3 of them securing 1st downs in key situations to keep the chains moving.
A veteran signal-caller who was once the face of the Houston Texans, Watson is trying to live up to the mega-deal he received prior to being suspended. He hasn’t shown the ability to beat teams deep often in his new uniform but the arm talent is there. It hasn’t gone away just yet but it’s his veteran presence and leadership on the field that make him dangerous.
Watson understands football. He knows when to tuck and run to keep the chains moving or to simply buy himself time while keeping his eyes downfield while looking for the big play. Look for Pittsburgh to spy on Watson a good bit because if they do not, Watson will likely make them pay.
Key #3: Move the chains
Something the team did not do opening weekend – move the chains. It’s a simplistic task in nature but possibly the biggest key to the Steelers season, let alone for Week 2.
The talk of the off-season was for Pittsburgh to be more explosive. After last week's throttling, this team needs to get first downs, regularly. QB Kenny Pickett has to be more accurate moving forward or the Pittsburgh Steelers will be looking to draft a signal caller in the next couple of years.
“Week 1 is a liar,” according to Kyle Brandt of Good Morning Football. That gives the Steelers and their fans reason for hope. Meaning there are teams every year that get blown out to start the year and make the playoffs and teams that shock the world, yet are sitting home come January. It’s a long season, and in no way is any team graded out for their first game of the year. The Bengals are still the Bengals and a contender although they only scored three points to start the season last week against the Browns.
The same can be said for the Pittsburgh Steelers when looking at the way they finished the season last year by moving the chains consistently. This is the same team, with a few new shiny pieces that need to all get on the same page again. This year, the team is hoping to expand on that, but in order to do so, they must play within themselves and consistently move the chains.
The Steelers' offense will see more of the same until they are able to move the ball consistently. A crowded front on early downs and blitzing on passing downs.
Key #4: Play with urgency
Urgency (n): Of importance requiring swift action / an earnest and persistent quality; insistence.
If you watched the Steelers vs. 49ers game opening weekend, it was easy to see which team brought this element to the field. It was not the Pittsburgh Steelers.
On defense, the Steelers played with some urgency for the most part but got burned by San Fran’s ingenuity and scheme on critical downs. San Francisco has an All-Pro at every skill position and when they needed a play on third down, they made the play. Routinely.
There’s no need to go down the routine road at all until the Steelers play with some urgency, most notably on the offensive side of the ball. Seeing an all-out blitz on Pittsburgh’s first play to start the year, they should have known they were in a fight, and without that urgency, the team was never able to impose their will on the 49ers.
Look for the Steelers to be on fire Monday night against the rival Browns. Tomlin’s teams of past years would fall flat in moments where they needed to be elevated. Losing coming off a bye week or a slow start to the season is not unusual for a Tomlin-led squad. Maybe by design, the team takes the field in a workman-like manner, but this team has not shown the “urgency” or consistency yet to walk onto the field without a fire burning inside of them that shows.
Pittsburgh will be without who has been the Steelers catalyst on defense, Cam Heyward. Out for at least the next 6-8 weeks, the Steelers will need to call on some of the newly acquired depth to plug the hole in the lineup.
If there is no urgency on Monday night, it may be a long season for Pittsburgh. That same history that shows sluggish starts and playing down to the competition reveals that Tomlin squads typically respond with said urgency. So there is hope as this all plays out for the Pittsburgh Steelers in week 2.