On Sunday, the Cleveland Browns take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 13 of the NFL regular season. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
- Devlin Hodges is an undrafted free agent out of Samford. Hopefully, Cleveland had a bit of a reality check when they lost to Brandon Allen of the Denver Broncos earlier this season — no matter who is under center, don’t take anything for granted. Mason Rudolph was simply terrible, but Hodges is more of a risk-taker who stepped in and delivered a 75-yard touchdown pass pretty quickly last week.
- Hodges has one start this season, which was a road victory against the Los Angeles Chargers in which he went 15-of-20 for 132 yards, 1 TD, and 1 INT. Overall, I think Pittsburgh’s gameplan, given their limited offensive personnel, will focus on Hodges limiting his mistakes and trying to grind out a win with their defense.
- Two weeks ago, Baker Mayfield was 17-of-23 for 193 yards and 2 TD against the Steelers. The key was limiting the amount of times he was hit, which will be a tougher task on the road and (likely) without his left tackle. All of the weapons at Mayfield’s disposal has made his life a lot easier, though.
- The Steelers’ likely won’t have James Conner available, as he is listed as doubtful with his nagging shoulder injury. Jaylen Samuels was Conner’s backup most of the year, but was averaging 2.6 YPC. Last week against the Bengals, Mike Tomlin made the decision to run the ball with Benny Snell, a 4th round pick this year, and Kerrith Whyte, a 7th round pick just signed off the Bears’ practice squad. Snell had 21 carries for 98 yards (4.7 YPC) and Whyte had 6 carries for 43 yards (7.2 YPC). The Bengals are worst in the NFL against the run, though — so take that for what it’s worth.
- Nick Chubb is 2nd in the NFL in rushing and has been a workhorse for Cleveland. Two weeks ago against Pittsburgh, he had a season-high 27 carries for 92 yards (3.4 YPC) while Kareem Hunt had 6 carries for 12 yards (2.0 YPC). The commitment to the run was a positive sign with the lead, despite the low YPC. Hunt had 6 catches for 46 yards against Pittsburgh, despite that being a talented defense.
Wide Receiver / Tight End
- JuJu Smith-Schuster has been ruled out against the Browns. Pittsburgh’s top two receivers are Dionte Johnson and James Washington; Washington is the player who had the big catch-and-run touchdown last week from Hodges. It’s still a group that didn’t hold onto the ball well two weeks ago, although, especially when Johnny Holton had 7 targets and couldn’t seem to catch anything. Vance McDonald should be one of the Steelers’ best receiving weapons, but in two games with Hodges, he’s had 2 catches for 6 yards.
- There may not be a hotter receiver in the NFL right now than Jarvis Landry, who in his last four games has 29 catches for 339 yards and 5 touchdowns. Odell Beckham is making more notable plays, although there are still those one or two plays a week where the chemistry still isn’t all there between he and Baker Mayfield. The tight end position is still a question mark heading into this game, as no ruling has been made on whether David Njoku will be active or not. His health isn’t the issue; I think the team is worried about putting him in an intense match-up all of a sudden after being out for so long. Stephen Carlson had a huge touchdown grab the last time these teams met.
- The Steelers’ starting offensive line features LT Alejandro Villanueva, LG Ramon Foster, C B.J. Finney, RG David DeCastro, and RT Matt Feiler. The Steelers still have a very good pass protecting line, but the fallout of the Myles Garrett situation is that Maurkice Pouncey is still suspended. Finney has been a backup for Pittsburgh for four seasons, making 11 starts. Funny enough, prior to last week, Finney had started two games at center, both of which were against Cleveland in Week 17 of the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Finney has been a solid backup interior lineman; one thing someone pointed out last week were his snaps being a bit to the right:
Credit to BJ Finney stepping in for Maurkice Pouncey. Going through early tape, looks like a positive day. Snaps need work though. He's snapping like Scott Norwood kicks. Wide right. #Steelers pic.twitter.com/4JzzsfVkrK— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) November 26, 2019
- Cleveland’s offensive line has been playing at its best, but Greg Robinson seems to be unlikely to play this week with a concussion. He was listed as questionable on Friday instead of out, and did do some individual work — and because his symptoms were self-reported, that gives me a shred of optimism that it was a minor concussion and that he could be cleared in time. Justin McCray would start if he’s unable to go, giving Pittsburgh a definite edge in the pass-rushing department — although Kendall Lamm or Drew Forbes could be thrown into the fire too.
Defensive Line / Linebacker
- The Steelers run a 3-4 defense, with DT Cameron Heyward, NT Javon Hargrave, and DE Tyson Alualu. The biggest priority for Cleveland is focusing on blocking LB Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt again. Combined, they had 1 sack the last time these teams met, which was a big victory in my book. Mark Barron has not graded well in coverage this year, and was the linebacker who was beat by Carlson for the last touchdown two weeks ago.
- The big player missing for the Browns is obviously Myles Garrett, who had 3 hits on Mason Rudolph in the stat sheet. Last week, the Browns put Sheldon Richardson at defensive end, and he responded in a major way. Richardson has been on fire the past four weeks, as PFF points out:
Over the last four weeks, only Aaron Donald has a better defensive grade among interior DTs* than #Browns Sheldon Richardson (90.7).— PFF CLE Browns (@PFF_Browns) November 26, 2019
*Out of 121 DTs with qualifying snaps
- Larry Ogunjobi will be back from his suspension to start in one of the defensive tackle spots. Olivier Vernon was limited in practice all week and is listed as questionable. That is usually a sign that the player is a week away still, but you never know.
- The Steelers’ two starting cornerbacks are Joe Haden and Steven Nelson, with Mike Hilton being the nickelback. Pittsburgh’s starting safeties are FS Minkah Fitzpatrick and SS Terrell Edmunds. It’s the same unit that started last time, and Cleveland managed to escape with the edge over them. They were also one of the few teams not to have Fitzpatrick make a game-changing play against them.
- Freddie Kitchens issued the challenge to Denzel Ward this week to start creating some turnovers. Ward has quietly gotten back to his normal self in terms of lockdown coverage, so it’s time that his instincts kick in more again for some game-changing plays. Greedy Williams is aware that teams, including the Steelers two weeks ago, are targeting him heavily. Hopefully that awareness helps Williams get his head snapped around to make some more plays on the ball and punish teams for going after him so much.
- Chris Bowell is the Steelers’ kicker. He is 21-of-23 on field goals this year and 21-of-21 on extra points, with one of his two misses coming in the Dawg Pound direction in Cleveland. Austin Seibert has three misses in two weeks, but all of them were in the winds heading into the Dawg Pound. If he starts missing kicks badly besides that direction, I’ll be more concerned.
- Jordan Berry is the Steelers’ punter. He is 12th in the NFL with an average of 46.3 yards per punt, and 19th in the NFL with a net average of 41.6 yards per punt. Jamie Gillan had some shots at having his punts downed inside the 5 yard line the last time against Pittsburgh, but the coverage units botched things.
- Dionte Johnson will handle punts, and last week, Kerrith Whyte handled kickoffs. Last week, Cleveland implemented something I liked on punt returns: two plays back, with Dontrell Hilliard as the primary returner and D’Ernest Johnson as the upback. Too many times, I thought Hilliard failed to come up and fair catch shorter punts, only to watch them roll back. That is less of an issue if Johnson can already be camped underneath them.
Here are predictions from multiple staff members at DBN.
Chris Pokorny: “It’s only been two weeks since the last time these two teams met, but the offense for the Browns was in the middle of coming together that week, and continued that momentum against Miami last week. The system of two star backs and two star receivers is unlike anything else in the NFL, so much that even against Pittsburgh’s talented defense, there is always a match-up or read Cleveland can win the battle on. Red zone execution has improved drastically in the past two weeks as well. The Browns’ defense obviously took a hit in losing Myles Garrett for the season, but even when you increase the amount of time that Pittsburgh has to throw, the fact remains that Pittsburgh is short on weapons and 28th in the NFL on offense.” Browns 24, Steelers 13.
rufio: “Browns offense continues its upswing against a good pittsburgh defense, getting the Chubb+Hunt combination rolling early. Odell makes a big play or two, Baker avoids turnovers. On the other side of the ball, Ducky struggles early and gets benched for Rudolph, who continues to struggle. Browns give up a big penalty or two and the steelers score off of a short field or a fumble, but the Browns roll.” Browns 31, Steelers 16.
Mike Hoag: “Damarious Randall being held out as a coaches decision tells me he respects Hodges even less than Mason Rudolph. Pittsburgh Started It.” Browns 23, Steelers 12.
Thomas Moore: “Browns break the Heinz Field jinx, silence the Steelers, quiet the pearl clutchers and keep their playoff hopes alive for another week.” Browns 21, Steelers 7.
Who do you think will win, Browns fans? Let us know in the comments section below.