The Steelers and Browns will meet for a third time this season Sunday night. After splitting the season series, the Browns will be missing some key players due to COVID protocol, including starters Joel Bitonio and Denzel Ward. Head coach Kevin Stefanski and edge rusher Oliver Vernon will also miss the game. As for the Steelers, they are getting healthy with the return of Robert Spillane, Chris Boswell, and Eric Ebron. How does the matchup shake out?
CLEVELAND’S COVID SITUATION CREATES MISMATCHES
The Browns luckily got back Ronnie Harrison this week. That will help a devastated secondary at least a bit. However, there is no denying that the Browns are thin at cornerback. Greedy Williams is out with a shoulder injury, and both Kevin Johnson and Denzel Ward will miss this week too. That means that the Steelers will see Terrance Mitchell and Robert Jackson yet again. Jackson was exposed last week and the Steelers relentlessly attacked him down the field. Not much will change that this week outside of poor quarterback play. Chase Claypool was unguardable. Expect the Steelers to come out with a plan to get Claypool involved early. They need to attack the undermanned secondary.
On the other side of the ball, the Browns are missing stalwart guard Joel Bitonio. With Chris Hubbard and Nick Harris all out with injuries too, the Browns will turn to fourth-string guard Michael Dunn. Matched up against Cameron Heyward, this is an obvious mismatch for the Steelers to exploit not just in the four-man rush, but in their blitzes. The Steelers lots of blitzes from the Sam linebacker spot. On any given play, that can be Vince Williams, Terrell Edmunds, and of course, Mike Hilton. Expect that to be an area the Steelers attack.
Stefanski’s absence as a play-caller is also significant. Practice at this point in the season is not a huge deal. Teams have their offense installed. However, gameplan specifics and the rhythm of an overall NFL week have been disrupted for the Browns and that can be significant. That just depends on the team and their overall reliance on a routine.
SPILLANE’S RETURN COULD BE HUGE
Robert Spillane has been out since he was injured against the Washington Football Team. Since his exit, the Steelers linebacker play has been up and down. It limits their scheme and forces the linebacker to stay back and play possum in some ways. Rather than attacking downhill in an aggressive manner, Vince Williams has been tame. Spillane’s return takes lots of coverage pressure off of Williams and will allow him to simply play with his hair on fire. Expect the Steelers to play lots of combo coverage underneath to confuse Mayfield and try to get Williams home.
BASE DEFENSE CONUNDRUM
The Browns stayed in 12 and 13 personnel (2 and 3 TE sets) and spread the defense out in empty. Because of the heavy personnel, the Steelers were in their base defense with four linebackers on the field. That resulted in Alex Highsmith vs Jarvis Landry and other obvious mismatches for the Steelers. However, the base defense is obviously where they want to be to slow down someone like Nick Chubb. The running game has to be stopped. Do not expect them to suddently scrap the base defense idea completely. Spillane will help bolster this package.
However, the Steelers do need to think about going into nickel. Mike Hilton is a rare slot cornerback who can take on tight ends and actually beat them. If he is in the game, the Steelers get both better coverage and still hold a strong run defense. Even still, playing a lot of single-high coverage makes a lot of sense. Playing tight man coverage with Minkah Fitzpatrick robbing the middle of the field is how the Steelers can take away this package. Of course, they still have to slow down the run. This conundrum is worsened by a strong running game. All of it needs to come down to the Steelers making these adjustments and slowing down the running game.
BIG BEN IS EVERYTHING
If the Steelers are to win this game, Ben Roethlisberger has to play well. He can not play like he did in the four-game stretch from Baltimore through Cincinnati. Should he play like that, the Steelers are staring dwon the barrel of a one-and-done season. However, if he can go through his mental reads and make the downfield throws like he did against Indianapolis, the Steelers can very well win this football game.
Listen, he has the mismatches today. No one is that secondary can reliably cover Diontae Johnson or Chase Claypool one-on-one. That was very much revealed last week. It will not change this week. Everything comes down to if he can make those throws and make the right reads. If he plays his best game, the Steelers have an excellent chance to win this game and meet the Buffalo Bills next weekend.