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Scouting Report: Browns Shorthanded But Talented

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It has been one wild week for both the Steelers and the Browns leading up to a consequential Week 17 for Cleveland. Both teams are missing players due to COVID protocols. For the Browns, they are also missing notable members of their coaching staff. Players like Denzel Ward, Joe Haden, Eric Ebron, B.J. Goodson, and more will all miss Sunday’s game as a result of positive COVID tests or contact tracing.

So, what does the matchup look like then? The Steelers are resting notable veterans such as Ben Roethlisberger, T.J. Watt, Maurkice Pouncey, and Cam Heyward on top of injuries and COVID protocol. It should be a wacky one on Sunday.

Browns improving down the stretch

Since the last time the Browns were chronicled in this weekly series, their schematics have not changed. This is still a team that wants to run the football and uses play-action a lot. They roll Baker Mayfield out of the pocket as much as ever. The last time these two teams played, Nick Chubb was out, so they will have an added challenge with him and Kareem Hunt both in the fold. Despite their loss to the Jets last week, the Browns have steadily improved over the course of the season.

That loss to the Jets has to be into context. The Browns were literally missing their entire wide receiver corps. That matters a lot. In the NFL, even the worst teams in the league are not exponentially far off from the playoff contenders. The talent gap is just so minimal. So losing that entire position group was just a decisive blow for the Browns to lose that game. The Jets sold out for the run and dared the Browns to beat them over the top, which they simply could not do until late in the game when it was too late.

On top of a rapidly improving offensive line, the Browns have been powered by the uptick in play by Mayfield himself. Since that Week 6 loss to the Steelers, Mayfield has been more precise and accurate than any other time in his career to date. He is seeing the field much better and that play-action game is deadly. He and Kevin Stefanski mesh well as a unit. It will not be easy for the Steelers to slow down this offense given how shorthanded they are.

Defensively there has not been a ton of improvement, unfortunately. This team has holes in the secondary and a gaping hole at linebacker. It was a problem all season, and now the Browns are without Goodson, Malcolm Smith, and potentially Sione Takitaki. The safety position is depleted with Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo both out. Even when healthy, the defense has been somewhat of a mess. Myles Garrett is an impact player and Oliver Vernon on the other side is a force to be reckoned with, but they rely heavily on that pass rush.

Players to Watch

RB Nick Chubb

Already discussing Mayfield at length, the lead running back deserves some love too. Chubb is an engine that gets this offense going. There may be no better pure rusher in the NFL than Chubb. His contact balance, easy acceleration, and great vision come together to make a running back who is a terrorizing force to opposing offenses. Chubb has never truly cracked the code against the Steelers just yet. In every game they have faced Chubb, he has been held under 4 yards per carry. His career average is 5.2 yards per carry. Still, with a depleted defense, this game has the potential for Chubb to run wild and make the play-action all that more effective.

EDGE Myles Garrett

Garrett is the man of the game both on the field and in the headlines. The story and tension between him and Mason Rudolph has been discussed at length already this week. However, he is the Browns’ best shot defensively to make a big-time impact and get turnovers. Garrett is a phenomenal football player. He is the blend of explosiveness and flexibility that defensive line coaches dream of in their ideal edge rusher. He will be moved around the defensive formation to try and create chaos in Rudolph’s pocket.

WR Rashard Higgins

Higgins is a new name that most Steelers fans may not be familiar with. Since the injury to Odell Beckham Jr, Higgins has stepped into the new role as the WR2 of the Browns quite nicely. While he missed last week’s rendezvous with the Jets, Higgins is a vertical threat with steady hands. Mayfield has developed a consistent rapport with him and they seem to be on the same page. He will be someone to watch with Joe Haden out for the game.

Matchup to Watch

Mason Rudolph vs Joe Woods

The ultimate matchup will be how well Mason Rudolph can read Joe Woods’ defensive schemes. The Browns will throw the kitchen sink at Rudolph today in their pursuit of a playoff berth. However, there are obvious holes to exploit for the Steelers. If Rudolph can stay patient, read through his progressions, and make accurate throws, it could be a surprisingly productive day for the Steelers offensively. It could just as easily be an absolute disaster if Woods fools Rudolph with post-snap rotations. Rudolph has the opportunity to place himself into the Steelers’ future plans in some way, and he has to take it.

Steelers Opponents

Ravens Assistant David Culley Hired as Houston Texans Head Coach

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Baltimore Ravens assistant head coach and former Steelers assistant coach David Culley has been hired as the new coach of the Houston Texans, according to a report by John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

Culley, 65, will be a head coach for the first time. He was most recently assistant head coach, passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach for the Baltimore Ravens in 2019-20.

He was the Steelers’ wide receivers coach from 1996-98, serving under head coach Bill Cowher and offensive coordinators Chan Gailey and Ray Sherman.

A 26-year NFL assistant, Culley has also worked as wide receivers coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1994-95), Philadelphia Eagles (1999-2012) and Kansas City Chiefs (2013-16) and was quarterbacks coach for the Buffalo Bills (2017-18), working under current NFL head coaches Andy Reid and Sean McDermott.

A native of Sparta, Tennessee, Culley is a Vanderbilt alum, and coached collegiately at his alma mater (1979-81), Austin Peay (1978), Middle Tennessee State (1982), Chattanooga (1983), Louisiana (1985-88), Texas A&M (1991-93).

Culley is the fourth Baltimore assistant to depart for a promotion this offseason. Defensive line coach Joe Cullen will be the defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars, linebackers coach Mike MacDonald has been hired to be the defensive coordinator at Michigan and Vanderbilt tapped defensive backs coach Jesse Minter as the Commodores’ new defensive coordinator.

The Ravens will receive two third-round draft picks as compensation for the Ravens hiring away Culley as part of the NFL’s Rooney Rule enhancements, one in 2021 and another in 2022.

The Texans have come under fire from inside and outside of their organization for the way the team approached its offseason, in which it needed to hire a new general manager and head coach after firing Bill O’Brien early in the 2020 season.

Star quarterback Deshaun Watson has reportedly demanded a trade after feeling that his issues were not heard before the team hired Patriots executive Nick Caserio as general manager. It’s unclear if the hiring of Culley, who will become the third Black head coach in the NFL for 2021, will have any impact on Watson’s decision.

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Steelers Opponents

Report: Ryan Switzer Re-Signs with Cleveland Browns on One-Year Deal

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Former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Ryan Switzer is resigning with the Cleveland Browns on a one-year deal, according to a report by ESPN’s Field Yates.

Switzer was signed to Cleveland’s practice squad on Oct. 1, but did not appear in a game this past season.

He had spent the previous two seasons with Pittsburgh, but was cut back in September. Switzer caught 44 passes for 280 yards and a touchdown during his Steelers tenure.

A Charleston, West Virginia native, Switzer was a start during his collegiate career at North Carolina, Over four seasons, Switzer caught 243 passes for 2,903 yards and 19 touchdowns, while also returning 99 punts for 1,082 yards and seven scores.

He was originally selected in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders.

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Steelers Opponents

Offseason Primer: Cleveland Browns to Build on First Trip to Playoffs with Baker Mayfield & Co.

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Coming off a dream season that saw the franchise reach an 11-5 record and win its first playoff game in 27 years, the Cleveland Browns enter an offseason of optimism ready to reload and hungry for more.

While the roster was relatively unchanged from the one that underachieved in 2019, the difference for the 2020 Browns was first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski, who helped Cleveland reach its full potential and unlocked quarterback Baker Mayfield.

Mayfield had an excellent season under Stefanski’s leadership and play calling, passing for 3,563 yards and 26 touchdowns with a career-low eight interceptions. Mayfield’s protection of the football was his most crucial improvement, as he tossed just two interceptions over Cleveland’s final eleven games.

Surprisingly, Mayfield’s play truly took off after the Browns lost star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to a torn ACL. In addition to the decreasing turnovers, he threw 20 touchdowns to close out the regular season and in Cleveland’s two playoff games, all without Beckham.

The Browns also recommitted to their punishing ground game in Beckham’s absence. Running back Nick Chubb was dominant in 2020, rushing for 1,067 yards and 12 touchdowns, while averaging an insane 5.6 yards per carry. His backfield partner Kareem Hunt was no slouch either, 1,145 scrimmage yards and eleven total touchdowns of his own. The backs were great, but the credit must first be given the outstanding Browns offensive line that boasted at least three All-Pro selections.

Cleveland’s success in Beckham’s absence raises an interesting dilemma. Do the Browns need Beckham? Would it behoove them to trade Beckham and his $15,750,000 cap hit away this offseason? Such a move would not only free up additional cap space, but also likely provide a hefty return as well, considering the assets clubs have recently acquired when trading away star wideouts.

Cap space and assets gained in a potential deal for Beckham would allow the Browns to immediately address their porous secondary, which surrendered six 300-yard passing games this season. Beyond cornerback Denzel Ward, Cleveland can improve across the board in back end. If they decide against resigning corner back Kevin Johnson and safety Andrew Sendejo, they could look to boost their secondary via trade, free agency or April’s raft.

The Browns’ defense was led by edge rusher Myles Garrett, who had another dominant season solidifying himself as one of the NFL’s best players. Garrett posed 12 sacks, ten tackles-for-loss and four forced fumbles in 2020, while also recovering a pair of fumbles. By all accounts, the defensive end will be a menace for years to come.

With a renewed confidence that they have finally put their decades of mediocrity behind them, the Browns will look to reload through the free agency and their seven draft picks, as they continue to purse their first ever AFC North title.

Notable Free Agents:

DE Olivier Vernon
CB Kevin Johnson
CB Terrance Mitchell
S Karl Joseph
ILB B.J. Goodson
RT Kendall Lamm
SS Andrew Sendejo
OLB Malcolm Smith
WR Jojo Natson
DT Larry Ogunjobi
K Cody Parkey
WR Rashard Higgins
OLB Elijah Lee
WR Taywan Taylor
WR KhaDarel Hodge (Restricted)
DT Vincent Taylor
WR Marvin Hall
LB Tae Davis
CB Tavierre Thomas (Restricted)
S Tedric Thompson

Cap Commitments:

Cleveland has an active cap of $192,084,011 entering the 2021 offseason, according to Spotrac. The Browns have the 13th-most cap space in the league at $12,775,658.

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