Befitting a season final between the Browns and Steelers, the week brought some unnecessary drama to town in the form of defensive end Jadeveon Clowney complaining about how he was used this season. That, in turn, led to the Browns sending Clowney home from practice on Friday and he reportedly will not play on Sunday.
The Browns, on the other hand, are looking to get started on next season, although sweeping the Steelers for the first time since 1988 and keeping them out of the playoffs is still an admirable goal for Sunday.
It’s Browns vs. Steelers on the regular season’s final Sunday, and here is everything you need to know about the game.
Records: Cleveland is 7-9. Pittsburgh is 8-8.
Kickoff: 1 p.m.
Stadium: Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh
Announcers: Greg Gumbel and Adam Archuleta
Radio: ESPN 850, 92.3 The Fan, 98.5 WNCX
Announcers: Jim Donovan, Nathan Zegura, Jerod Cherry (sidelines)
Last meeting: The Browns won the previous meeting, 29-17, in Week 3 of the 2022 season.
All-time series: Pittsburgh leads the all-time series, 77-66-1, and the Browns have not won a regular-season game in Pittsburgh since 2003.
Uniform: The Browns will close out the season wearing white jerseys and orange pants.
Weather: 40 degrees and mostly cloudy, with a 15 percent chance of precipitation. Winds from the ESE at 5 mph. (weather.com)
Injury report: Browns – Questionable: cornerback Denzel Ward (shoulder). Out: right tackle Jack Conklin (ankle) and defensive end Isaiah Thomas (foot). Steelers – Questionable: safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (ankle), linebacker Myles Jack (groin). Out: defensive back Tre Norwood (hamstring).
The line: Browns +2.5 (DraftKings Sportsbook)
A Few Things to Watch
Hoping to avoid a repeat: The last time the Browns played in Pittsburgh, they were without right tackle Jack Conklin, who was out with a season-ending injury. That night the Browns gave up nine sacks to the Steelers, four of which came from linebacker T.J. Watt, who abused rookie tackle James Hudson III.
On Sunday, the Browns will again be without Conklin and turn to Hudson to figure out how to slow down Watt and avoid a repeat of last season.
Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said that long night should help Hudson this time around (quote via a team-provided transcript):
“That alone, just the experience of going against him and studying what his plan was against James and how he can counter that. We have to help him at the same time. We were deep in the pocket last year at times, and that made it tougher for James. Being where we are supposed to be and things like that. James is a year older … and we expect James to play better than he played last year if he does play.”
That all sounds good, especially the part about giving Hudson some additional help, but this matchup can potentially make things go terribly for the Browns.
First shot at Pickett: The Browns dealt with Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for 18 long years, a stretch that included just three wins by the Browns in 30 career meetings.
Cleveland made the most of their first opportunity to face the Steelers in the post-Roethlisberger era when they slapped around Mitch Trubisky in a Week 3 victory.
On Sunday, they will get their first crack at rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett, who has led the Steelers to five wins in their past six games, including a game-winning drive on the road last week against the Baltimore Ravens.
QB Kenny Pickett is the first rookie in NFL history to have a game-winning TD pass in the final minute in back-to-back games. pic.twitter.com/HrE2FDMwj2— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) January 5, 2023
Despite that, the Steelers are only averaging 18.3 points a game in those six games with Pickett at quarterback, so this is not an offensive juggernaut that the Browns will be facing. Although, as they’ve shown this season against the likes of Joe Flacco, Bailey Zappe and Baker Mayfield, there isn’t a quarterback in the league that they can’t make look better.
Still, if the Browns can keep Deshaun Watson on his feet, that should give them enough of an edge at the quarterback position to balance out anything Pickett may be able to accomplish against the defense.
Pittsburgh, where Cleveland head coaches go to die: Since returning to the NFL in 1999, the Browns have closed out the regular season with a loss in Pittsburgh and subsequently fired their head coach*.
It first happened in 2008 with Romeo Crennel, who Eric Mangini followed in 2010, Pat Shurmur in 2012, Rob Chudzinski in 2013, and Mike Pettine in 2015.
Thankfully, the Browns should not be repeating that scenario this year with head coach Kevin Stefanski. It is always dicey to make definitive statements with Jimmy and Dee Haslam owning the team. Still, there is little reason not to bring Stefanski back and see what he can do with an entire season of quarterback Deshaun Watson and some overdue changes on the defensive coaching staff.
*Somehow, Hue Jackson avoided the same fate in 2017 despite being as deserving of a pink slip as anyone on this list.
The final ride?: There is roster turnover every year in the NFL and Sunday’s game likely marks the end of the road for several players in Cleveland who are set to become free agents.
Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is certainly gone after two years with the Browns following his comments on Thursday and reports that he will not play against the Steelers. Before Clowney opened his mouth and, in the process, showed why he has played on four teams in the past five years, the Browns probably would have been open to another one-year deal with Clowney. Now? Don’t count on it.
Running back Kareem Hunt will likely be moving on as well, given that Cleveland drafted his replacement this year in Jerome Ford and can always re-sign running back D’Ernest Johnson as a cheap insurance policy if they choose.
Speaking of insurance policies, it would be a nice move if the Browns could find a way to keep quarterback Jacoby Brissett for another year as Deshaun Watson’s backup, but in a league starved for competent quarterback play that is probably not happening.
The other potential free agents that may not be back next season include defensive tackle Taven Bryan, cornerback Greedy Williams, linebacker Deion Jones, offensive tackle Chris Hubbard, safety Ronnie Harrison Jr., center Ethan Pocic, defensive end Chase Winovich, tight end Pharaoh Brown and linebacker Reggie Ragland.
Of the players on that list, Pocic is the only one who should feel comfortable about returning to Cleveland for 2023.
A few milestones: There are a few personal milestones in play for the Browns on Sunday.
Running back Nick Chubb needs 47 rushing yards to set a new personal best of 1,495 yards and is just 52 yards away from becoming just the second running back in franchise history, behind Jim Brown, to rush for 1,500 yards in a season.
Chubb is 80 rushing yards away from surpassing Brown’s 1,527 yards in 1958 for third on the all-time list, and 97 yards would put Chubb at No. 2 on the list, surpassing Brown’s 1,544 yards in 1965.
Amari Cooper can pass Mac Speedie (1,146 yards in 1947) for No. 5 on the franchise’s single-season list with 38 receiving yards on Sunday and move as high as No. 4 (Jarvis Landry with 1,174 in 2019) with 66 yards. If Cooper catches one touchdown pass he will have 10 on the season, placing him in a three-way tie at No. 6 with Paul Warfield (1969) and Gary Collins (1965).
Finally, defensive end Myles Garrett is 1.5 sacks away from breaking his “official” team record of 16 sacks in a season, and tie Bill Glass’ “unofficial” single-season record of 16.5 sacks, which Glass set in 1965, and moving into a second-place tie on the franchise list with linebacker Clay Matthews, who had 75 career sacks in 16 seasons with the Browns.
A Final Quote
Defensive end Myles Garrett on the situation with defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (quote via a team-provided transcript):
“We just want volunteers, not hostages.”
Those are just a few things to keep an eye on; now it is time to have your say. What are you looking for from the Browns in Sunday’s game against the Steelers?