The Steelers and Browns will clash on Sunday in a battle of two four-win teams looking for better positioning in the AFC North divisional race. Despite tensions between the two teams, at its core, this is a very important game with further implications for the rest of the season. For the Steelers, they have a pivotal three-game stretch starting this week. With the Steelers looking for a win at home, what are they facing in the Browns?
Kevin Stefanski came into Cleveland and made two things the bread and butter of this Browns offense — a diverse rushing attacking and play action. When under center, in particular, the Browns run almost some variation of the two out of a multitude of looks. Thus far on the season, the Browns have found success with the best rushing attack in the NFL. However, they will be missing Nick Chubb and starting guard Wyatt Teller on Sunday, which could put a dent in this plan for the Browns. Still, it has been the foundation of an offensive attack that has taken the stress off the shoulders of Baker Mayfield and onto the shoulders of defenses who have deal with a confusing amount of keys to read through.
The original part of Stefanski’s scheme was that it was an outside zone scheme. Coming over from the Vikings, Stefanski’s mold was all wide zone action with some inside zone mixed in. However, much like Sean McVay and others from a similar branch as Stefanski, these coaches have started to put in more gap concepts. Last week against the Colts, that is exactly what made it so hard for the Colts to stop the potent running game. Not only were they getting blown off the ball, but the same look had three or four different schemes that could be run out of it. Pullers in particular are prominent out of this Browns scheme and it gives the ability to really work off play-action and RPOs out of the shotgun whenever they wish to make that distinction.
However, this has been the real star of the Browns passing attack. Not only do the Browns use play-action, but it often on rollouts. They give Mayfield multiple reads at different levels of the field to process and use his mobility to the biggest possible extent. Every team not named the Ravens has fallen victim to the bootleg game from this offense, and it is largely because they are keying in hard on the rushing attack that has gashed them all game. It is a delightful series of shot plays, levels concepts, and traffic building concepts that the Browns can use in 11 personnel, 12 personnel, and most other places when operating under center.
One thing the Browns have not used a whole lot of but have flirted with is an empty package. Now, it has not been used on film enough to say the definitive concepts they have out of this package, but the goal is to spread out teams, get chips in on pass rushers, and attack them as a result. The Steelers could very well see this as the Browns may go to a more up-tempo, quick passing game to try and set up their rushing attack before finally working through the ground game thanks to the Steelers pass rush.
As for the Browns defense, they run a 4-3 scheme that heavily relies on their pass rush upfront. The defensive line likes to slant and get upfield with aggressiveness. That has long been a philosophy of Joe Woods. The ‘under’ set is a staple of the Woods scheme, and he uses both a 3-4 under and 4-3 under. The biggest key to the scheme up front is how he uses Myles Garrett. Garrett is not a stationary edge, but rather a guy who moves around the defensive formation along the front and finds mismatches. This includes acting almost as a spinner right up over the guard or center at times to take advantage of Garrett’s explosiveness. On the back end of the defense, Woods often runs lots of Cover 3 and Quarters concepts, but it is a fluid coverage situation given his secondary.
Players to Watch
QB Baker Mayfield
Mayfield is off to a good start to the season. The gunslinger and outspoken quarterback has been throwing bullets and has a growing rapport with his receivers. Most impressive has been those tight-window throws that he has pulled off. However, Mayfield has sailed a few passes and his accuracy has not been great. The one game he was tasked to put the game on his shoulders and stage a comeback, he fell flat against the Ravens. With a rib injury to boot, the Steelers will want to put the game into the hands of Mayfield and make him prove that he can beat them.
WR Odell Beckham Jr
The number one receiver of the Browns, Beckham Jr is still a Top-10 receiver in the NFL. As one of the best route runners in the NFL, Beckham is a consistent mismatch that the Steelers secondary will have to deal with. He can win at all three levels of the field and has the suddenness and speed to be dangerous after the catch and in the open field. Having a nice, sure-handed complement in Jarvis Landry does not hurt either for the talented Beckham Jr.
DE Myles Garrett
Make no mistake, Garrett is the most important player to watch in this game bar none. Garrett has been the force that has churned an opportunistic Browns defense. No, they have not been great, but Garrett’s unreal blend of length, speed, explosiveness, flexibility, and mental aptitude makes him a ticking time bomb waiting to happen. The Steelers will need to know where he is at all times and plan accordingly for that gameplan.
Matchup to Watch
Myles Garrett vs Steelers offensive line
There is no more important match up than this one right here. Garrett has been the one guy keeping the Browns defense truly afloat. The Browns have multiple injuries in the secondary that will affect them this week, and that means Garrett’s ability to get pressure and force errant throws will be even more important. Rookie Kevin Dotson must stay alert in case Garrett lines up directly over him on the interior. Both Alejandro Villanueva and Chukwuma Okorafor have to make a big stand as well against Garrett. He will get pressure, but they need to keep Ben Roethlisberger upright and allow him lanes to escape the pocket away from the dangerous Garrett.