In between the game and the game, they’re playing the game within the game.
If that seems a little complex for football, it might be. A lot will likely be made of the fact that the teams will be meeting on Sunday night for the second time in eight days, and how that will impact the play on the field in the game that really matters.
The game within the game actually started last week, as the Steelers and Browns decided how much of their actual game plans for one another they wanted to reveal in the regular season contest.
The Steelers, with little to play for, rested four starters, while Cleveland needed the win to secure a playoff berth. So the Steelers had the upper hand when it came to playing games, and they used it.
The Steelers ran out different personnel packages across their formations, some because of the artificially created absences and others, seemingly just out of a desire to mess with their opposition, from a renewed emphasis on the jet sweep to Josh Dobbs’ package of plays as a running quarterback.
Now the Browns will spend a week figuring out how much of what the Steelers showed last week they actually intend on using, while also examining their own game plan for potential improvements as they prepare to face a full-strength Steelers squad.
“It is not like you can Xerox a gameplan,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. “You have to go back in and see what you called, see what worked, see what did not work and see who is available to you, and they will do the same. It is going to be quite the challenge. Again, we respect that team over there. It is a really good team, and we are going to have to play our best to have a chance to beat them.”
Of course, that was before it was revealed on Tuesday that Stefanski, who calls the plays for the Cleveland offense, will miss Sunday’s game, as he, two assistants and two starting offensive players tested positive for COVID-19.
Those absences, along with two more players lost to injury and at least one more potential injury absence, will have the Browns re-working whatever plan they had coming into the week. All of that has combined to make the game within the game not as impactful as it might have been, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said on Tuesday.
“I don’t want to make it sound like it is something significant,” Tomlin said. “It’s simple, prudent business decision making. What’s the potential benefit and what are the potential costs?”
Where the Browns feel they may have some advantage is mentality. While their plan might change drastically from last week to this week based on their available players and coaches and the Steelers’ reinforcements, they are in the same situation as a team: win or else.
“It was win or go home for us already,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “Our playoffs started a week early. It just so happens that we play the same opponent next week. We know what the Steelers are all about.”