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.