The Browns finally broke the league’s longest playoff drought and are the Number 6 seed in the playoffs. Their opponent is not only familiar, but was their final game – the Pittsburgh Steelers.
So, the stage is set. For the Browns to move deeper into the post-season, they must beat Pittsburgh again. Make that twice in eight days. In Pittsburgh. The rematch is set to be the weekend’s final game slated for Sunday night with kickoff at 8:15pm (eastern) telecast on NBC.
This time, however, the Steelers will be playing their varsity players as they held out many starters in Cleveland’s 24-22 narrow victory which clinched the playoff berth. Vegas has given Pittsburgh a 4-point advantage. The momentum appears to be with the Browns going into this game, so it may be possible that this line comes down somewhere in the vicinity of -3.5 heading into the weekend.
Can the Browns best the Steelers two games in a row? Depends.
Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin had one goal in the season finale: gather as much information about the Browns’ game plan.
The Browns were fighting for their playoff life. They held nothing back. Tomlin can now evaluate Cleveland’s attack and see where the weak points are.
For one: LT Jedrick Wills who struggled against lesser Pittsburgh pass rushers. This time around, T.J. Watt will be lining up on the defensive line. Another spot to peruse is RG Wyatt Teller. When he is completely healthy he is a Pro Bowl caliber player. Can he play full-out all game? How will he play in the fourth quarter when legs are like noodles? The Steelers were able to sack Baker Mayfield four times with key performers left at home and well-rested.
And now that LG Joel Bitonio will not be available because of COVID, how will rookie Nick Harris or perhaps Kendall Lamm do? Losing Bits is huge. Last week the Steelers rested DT Cameron Heyward. And now he gets to go against a second-teamer instead of a Pro Bowler?
Watt led the league in sacks with 15 while teammate Stephon Tuitt, who had a sack Sunday, is ranked ninth with 11. Heyward has four sacks with 18 QB hits.
Right now, in the palm of Tomlin’s hand is a visual game plan to counter-attack what is perceived as the key abilities of the Browns. But, did Stefanski call a vanilla game? The Browns were very stale in the Red Zone and one can only speculate if he was holding back in case a playoff berth was securely in sight.
Now that the franchise is in the post-season, hopefully Cleveland will come up with a new scheme from the hand he didn’t show in Sunday’s game.
For one, CB Denzel Ward will need to play and shut down rookie Chase Claypool who single-handedly exposed the weaknesses of Cleveland’s inept defensive backfield in a game in which the Steelers gained 317 passing yards using backup quarterbacks.
It has been a while since Cleveland won a playoff game. But that is the next item on the list for head coach Kevin Stefanski who should be the front runner for the Coach-of-the-Year award now that the Miami Dolphins’ under Brian Flores failed to make the post-season.
The last time the Browns were in the playoffs was 2002 under head coach Butch Davis. Cleveland had a 9-7-0 record and met the 11-4-1 Steelers in the Wild Card round. In the third quarter after a Kelly Holcomb touchdown pass to Dennis Northcutt, Cleveland held a 24-7 lead but lost 36-33 as Pittsburgh outscored the Browns 22-9 in the fourth quarter.
Since then, seven head coaches and two interim head coaches have failed to find the playoffs.
The most successful Browns head coach in the playoffs was Paul Brown. Coach Brown won seven titles in two leagues and went a combined 9-5 in post-season play. The Browns went to the league championship game 11 of 12 seasons from 1946-1957, winning seven.
Blanton Collier took his rosters to the playoffs five of his seven years as head coach. The Browns won the NFL title in 1964 and then came back the following season but lost in the championship game; plus was on the losing end of two more championships games in 1968 and 1969. In all, Collier went 3-4 in the playoffs and never coached Cleveland to a losing season.
The Browns went to the playoffs all four years in which Marty Schotteheimer was the head coach from 1985-1988. Cleveland won three divisional playoff games including the famous 23-20 double overtime thriller over the New York Jets in 1986. Schottenheimer’s squads would play in two AFC Championship Games, losing the duo. In all, Schotts was 2-4 in playoff matches.
The only other great success was one year from head coach Bud Carson who took Scottenheimer’s roster and played in the AFC Championship Game the following year of 1989, but was defeated 37-21 by the Denver Broncos.
Other head coaches to take Cleveland to the playoffs have been Nick Skorich (0-2), Sam Rutigliano (0-2) and Bill Belichick (1-1).
How to beat the Steelers - again
You have to give the Browns respect. This is a special time for this franchise and their fans. Take a moment and enjoy the fact that this year’s roster not only got a winning record, but actually made it to the post-season. The question is, can they go to the next level? The Browns are certainly capable of beating Pittsburgh.
The Browns defense is the key. In 2020, they had 11 interceptions plus 17 forced fumbles with 11 fumble recoveries. A plus-2 turnover ratio will make this game winnable. And if Cleveland does happen to get ahead, the defense must step up and hold. This defense is famous for not protecting leads as evidenced in games such as against Dallas (27 points), Cincinnati (15), Tennessee (31), Indianapolis (17), plus led Pittsburgh 17-9 in the third quarter. Cleveland won each of these games, but at some point the opponent came back to within a single score.
They are going to have to keep constant pressure on QB Ben Roethlisberger. The Browns are averaging about three sacks per game which are decent numbers. But now Olivier Vernon and his nine sacks, 12 tackles for loss and 16 QB hits are out with a knee injury. Adrian Clayborn (3.5 sacks) and Porter Gustin (0 sacks) will have to step into that role and not just play, but produce. This can’t all be on the shoulders of Myles Garrett.
The Browns are ranked ninth against the run. The problem is, the Steelers will throw the ball in this game. Pittsburgh’s rushing attack will take an overhaul of not only the position but the offensive line in the off-season. The passing attack is quite different. How are Cleveland’s defensive back seven going to contain the receiver group of JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Diontae Johnson, Claypool plus tight end Eric Ebron?
The Browns will not be able to hide Robert Jackson and Terrance Mitchell against Big Ben and his weapons.
It is true that Roethlisberger’s arm is not the cannon he once had and has issues throwing it downfield. Against the Browns, he will use the short game and dump passes. The linebackers in Cleveland’s pass coverage will be critical.
The big question now is how the Browns are going to rebound effectively against the COVID situation. The team’s play caller, Stefanski plus tight ends coach Drew Petzing and defensive backs coach Jeff Howard, WR KhaDarel Hodge and Pro Bowl guard Bitonio are now out. It was going to be hard enough to contain Watt, Heyward and Tuitt already, but now Harris in place of Bits? Ouch.
Apparently, there were three separate strains which meant that the virus was spread outside the Browns’ facilities. Because of this, there will be no postponement of the game. Earlier in the season, the Baltimore Ravens - Steelers game was shuffled from Thursday to Sunday and finally played on a Tuesday. 23 Ravens were placed on the COVID list. The issue, according to ESPN, was the league considered Baltimore’s facilities infected by a staffer and until those facilities were deemed clear, the game was pushed back several times.
It has not been announced yet, but the assumption is that OC Alex Van Pelt will inherit the play calling duties. Van Pelt has had 13 coaching positions employed by six pro football organizations plus one college. The only play calling he was tasked with was in 2005 with the Frankfurt Galaxy of NFL Europe. Losing who has called all of your plays all year round is a critical loss for the Browns.
The Steelers’ offense has really regressed in the past six games. They average just 19.7 points per game and are virtually a one-dimensional group. Pittsburgh ended their year dead last in rushing yards per game at 84.4 and yards-per-carry with 3.6. That only makes this offense one that must throw 40-50 balls to be competitive. Is Roethlisberger’s arm up for that?
Mayfield does extremely well when the pocket rolls and he has an open field to focus on. Against the Baltimore Ravens he had six rollouts and found positive yardage. He is not the fleetest of runners once he decides to take off, but he can gain good chunks of yardage and needed first downs.
Not sure why Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt aren’t in the same backfield more often. This instantly makes the defense attempt to decide which will be the playmaker and provide focus away from the pass. And why can’t the Browns run more wide zone?
The odds are stacked against the Browns with playing in Pittsburgh. In the last 20 games played in the Steel City Cleveland’s record is 0-20. Their last victory was in 2003, a 33-13 win. And now, a COVID epidemic.
What is the key to defeating the Steelers?
This poll is closed
Constant pressure on Big Ben
Great running game
Our offensive line giving Baker time
Browns defense to have a stellar day
Having our real play caller