(Three points of interest in Sunday night’s game)
The Browns must play this game from in front. Not only would a quick lead calm the nerves of a team with no playoff experience together and not much individually, it would allow Cleveland to stick to its game plan of running the ball and playing a bend-but-don’t-break defense.
The Browns should have the chance to get off to a fast start. The Steelers haven’t scored in the first quarter in five straight games. On the other side, substitute play caller Alex Van Pelt and the Browns offense that didn’t practice much can follow the script written by coach Kevin Stefanski and studied all week on Zoom to get on the board early.
The Browns don’t want to be in a situation where they have to throw it 40 times. That’s not a knock on quarterback Baker Mayfield, just the reality of facing Pittsburgh’s pass rush. The Steelers led the league with 56 sacks, including 15 from outside linebacker and NFL Defensive Player of the Year favorite T.J. Watt, and in two games accounted for eight of the 26 times Mayfield was sacked all season. And that was with Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio in the lineup for the Browns.
The Steelers offense can come back from a two-score deficit. Their defense won’t allow it.
TAKE IT AWAY
The Browns will be without cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson (and possibly Terrance Mitchell) and defensive end Olivier Vernon. They would’ve struggled to stop Pittsburgh’s offense at full strength but will be lucky to slow down quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson and tight end Eric Ebron.
Takeaways are the great equalizer. If Myles Garrett can get a strip-sack or the makeshift secondary can corral a tipped ball or two, the Browns will have a chance. The Browns are 10-0 when they don’t lose the turnover battle but 1-5 when they do. They’ll be doomed against the Steelers if they don’t win it and might need the margin to be plus-2. The Browns were second in the NFL with 17 forced fumbles.
Roethlisberger has a ton of playoff experience, but not all of it is good. He’s won two Super Bowls and is 13-8 overall but has thrown 24 interceptions in 21 games. The Browns are likely to give up plenty of yards, so a red zone takeaway would be a game-changer, and they led the league with six this year.
“Who knows who it is going to be, but we do need to step up and find a way to get takeaways to give us a chance to win,” defensive coordinator Joe Woods said.
WIN ONE FOR THE GUYS
Maybe acting coach Mike Priefer should take a page from Hickory High’s Norman Dale and ask everyone in the locker room their motivation for wanting to win. Stefanski and Bitonio would surely be mentioned.
Many important figures are out or could be out, including four assistant coaches, but Stefanski and Bitonio mean the most. Stefanski ended the Browns’ 17-season playoff drought in his first as a head coach but won’t be on the sideline to soak in the achievement. Bitonio’s absence stings even more after he lived through six losing seasons before the breakthrough.
Players and teams shouldn’t need extra incentive in the playoffs, and the Browns didn’t, but maybe trying to get to the second round so Stefanski and Bitonio can return will be what gets them over the hump.
“Those guys being out is definitely extra motivation to make it another week and win this game for sure,” receiver Jarvis Landry said.
Points scored by the Browns, 14th in the NFL and the most for Cleveland since the championship season of 1964.
Point differential for the Browns, who allowed 419 points this season.
Regular-season wins for Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger, the third-most for a coach-quarterback pairing in NFL history.
I respect the resilience the Browns have shown all year and their defiant attitude during this difficult week. I don’t doubt they’ll put up a fight, but they’re missing too many key pieces to pull the upset. Steelers 26, Browns 20.