(Three points of interest in Sunday’s game)
DON’T JUST GIVE IT AWAY
Turnovers always matter. They will matter more in this pivotal finale.
The Browns are 9-0 when they win or tie the turnover battle. Quarterback Baker Mayfield is coming off three fumbles in the 23-16 loss to the Jets and started the 38-7 loss to the Steelers in Week 6 with a pick-six. And the Steelers lead the league with 27 takeaways, including 11 games with at least two, and have 65 over the last two seasons. The Browns are more than a touchdown favorite because they need the win to get in the playoffs and the Steelers will rest several key players. But a Mayfield interception or fumble by anyone early would give the Steelers momentum and could allow doubt to creep in for the Browns.
“We have fumbled way too often of late,” coach Kevin Stefanski said. “Everybody who touches that rock has to do a great job, and that pertains to a returner, a wide receiver, a tight end, running back, quarterback, center-quarterback exchange and all of the above. We understand how important the turnover margin is to our success and to really every team’s success in a given game.”
So a good start is important for the Browns. A strong opening from the running game would set a tone and take pressure off Mayfield. The Browns rushed for only 75 yards against the Steelers in October but were without running back Nick Chubb and right guard Wyatt Teller. Chubb is back to full strength following a knee injury, and Teller’s expected to return after missing two games with a sprained ankle. The pair should make a big difference.
“We are excited about it,” Chubb said. “This team has been banged up from the beginning of the season and guys missing throughout the season. We are finally getting everybody back and we are ready to play together.”
“We were fortunate enough not to see Chubb last time,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “We will not dodge that bullet this time. I have a lot of respect for him and his game and their game when he is playing.”
The Steelers have an NFL-high 333 sacks since 2014 and an NFL-record 72 straight games with at least one. So while their streak of four straight seasons with 50 sacks, including a league-high 52 this year, is impressive and hadn’t been done in more than 30 years in the league, they were harassing quarterbacks long before outside linebacker T.J. Watt arrived in 2017. Which begs the question: Is it the scheme or the talent?
The Browns say both.
“They have five very good rushers,” center JC Tretter said. “That is something that they have that is a big advantage of theirs. I think it is the most talented front seven in football. Then any scheme on top of it just helps the cause.”
“They do an outstanding job with their scheme,” Stefanski said. “They give you multiple looks, both on base downs and on third down and down in the red zone. They move their guys around. It is a very, very tall task in protection versus this team.”
Stefanski said that knowing the Steelers are expected to rest Watt, who leads the league with 15 sacks, and defensive end Cam Heyward, who has four. They’re also without outside linebacker Bud Dupree, who terrorized the offensive line and Mayfield for two sacks in the first meeting but is out with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The Browns allowed a season-high four sacks to the Steelers in October, as Mayfield took a beating, and again last week to the Jets. They expect to fix the issue with Teller and left tackle Jedrick Wills back.
Center Maurkice Pouncey won’t play and a couple of other veteran linemen could be pulled early as the Steelers try to ensure their key pieces make it to the playoffs healthy. But substitute quarterback Mason Rudolph will have talented receivers at his disposal, and that’s a concern for the Browns.
Cleveland’s pass defense ranks 21st (243.5 yards), gave up three touchdowns to the Jets with blown coverages and will be without No. 1 cornerback Denzel Ward, nickelback Kevin Johnson and free safety Andrew Sendejo after they were placed on the COVID-19 reserve list. The Steelers are expected to play their top wideouts, for at least part of the game, although Diontae Johnson didn’t practice Friday with an illness. Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster and rookie Chase Claypool are one of two receiver trios in the NFL (Cowboys) with 750 yards apiece. Smith-Schuster and Claypool have eight receiving touchdowns and Johnson seven. Behind them are the dangerous James Washington and Ray-Ray McCloud.
If Rudolph has time in the pocket and makes accurate throws, the game could turn into a shootout.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Browns.
Interceptions thrown by Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph in a 21-7 loss to the Browns in November 2019.
Rushing yards Nick Chubb needs to reach 1,000. He finished 4 yards short as a rookie in 2018 before getting 1,494 in 2019. He missed four games this season.
I don’t think it will be easy — it rarely is in Cleveland — but the Browns complete the turnaround and make the playoffs. Browns 34, Steelers 24.