Browns at Steelers: 3 Things to Keep An Eye On (Wild Card Edition)

Joe Sargent/Getty Images

By: CJ Lester, @CJLester58
SteelerNation.com

 

Last week, the Pittsburgh Steelers fell to the Cleveland Browns 24-22 to finish off the regular season. The game didn’t really have any playoff implications for the team, so the Steelers decided to rest quite a few players to prepare for this week’s Wild Card playoff matchup against the Browns at home. With the loss, the Steelers finished the regular season with a record of 12-4 and as the 3 seed in the AFC Playoff picture. QB2 Mason Rudolph played well in his only start of the 2020 season finishing with 315 passing yards, 2 touchdowns, and an interception while completing 22 of 39 passes. The Steelers collectively ran the ball 20 times for 85 yards. Rudolph’s favorite target of the day, WR Chase Claypool, finished with 5 receptions for 101 yards and 1 touchdown. On the defensive side of things, rookie OLB Alex Highsmith, led the team with 9 total tackles (6 solos), 1 sack, 1 tackle for loss, and 1 QB Hit. This week, the moment we have all been waiting for, the Steelers take on the Browns once again during the AFC Wild Card weekend. Before we take a deeper look into our playoff matchup against the Browns, let’s review our regular season finale.

 

Last week in review

The three things I noted that we should keep an eye on last week were:

 

     1. Mason Rudolph’s Progress

Rudolph played well all game long, if you take away the terrible interception. I am comfortable with saying that I saw quite a jump in Rudolph’s play compared to a season ago. Rudolph made some very impressive throws and gave his receivers a chance to make a play. A couple of things I noted to keep an eye on during Rudolph’s only start this season was his pocket awareness and his ability to throw deeper passes. On the day, Rudolph was only sacked 1 time and looked much more comfortable moving around in the pocket. There were some plays in which he struggled, but to see improvement in this area of his play was very promising. Rudolph showed he wasn’t afraid of throwing the football down the field. He averaged 8.1 yards per completion on Sunday which is much improved from last season’s 5.7 yards average. Even though it was just a single game, Rudolph provided hope to the organization and to fans that he is a capable quarterback.

     2. Rushing Offense Success against the Browns’ Defense

The Steelers’ rushing offense had great success earlier in the season against the Browns. The Steelers ran the ball 37 times for 129 yards. James Conner led the team with 20 carries and 101 yards on the ground during the Week 6 matchup. I was confident the Steelers were going to lean more heavily on the run with Ben Roethlisberger resting last Sunday. I was wrong. I didn’t expect the Steelers to throw the ball 39 times with Rudolph filling in at quarterback. The Steelers’ offense ran the ball 20 times for 85 yards for a 4.3 yards per carry average on Sunday. Conner led the team with 9 carries for 37 yards. The Steelers did get a little more creative in the run game last week, employing a package with third string QB Josh Dobbs. Dobbs only ran the ball twice for 20 yards, but with his speed and mobility he adds another dimension to this offense. The Steelers’ coaching staff have hinted at employing a Dobbs’ package in the playoffs to aid the running game struggles and it really couldn’t hurt.

     3. A Look at Depth Pieces

Last week, the Steelers were missing quite a few pieces for a variety of reason. The Steelers decided to rest Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, TJ Watt, and Cam Heyward. Other players that were ruled out due to injury were Terrell Edmunds and Chris Boswell. Joe Haden, Eric Ebron, and Cassius Marsh Sr. due to COVID protocols. Haden tested positive, while Marsh and Ebron were deemed close contacts to the cornerback. I was intrigued to see how the Steelers’ depth pieces responded to the chance to play. OLB Jayrone Elliot was able to get some extensive playing time with Watt and Marsh being ruled out last week and he finished with 4 tackles (3 solo), 1 sack, and 2 tackles for a loss. Our old friend, Sean Davis, showed some flashes with some big hits, but missed quite a few tackles on the day. Davis finished with 6 solo tackles and 1 pass breakup. Chris Wormley played well while receiving more playing time last week. He finished with 2 tackles (1 solo), 1 sack, 1 QB hit, and 1 tackle for a loss.

 

Let’s take a look at 3 things we should watch for in the Wild Card Playoff matchup against the Browns:

 

  1. Gap Discipline: Contain the Run

It is no secret how dynamic the Browns’ backfield can be. Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb combined for 1,908 yards on the ground this season. The Browns’ rushing offense finished ranked 3rd in the league with 148.4 yards per game. The Steelers will have their work cut out for them against both Chubb and Hunt. Last week, the Browns’ duo ran 24 times for 145 yards. The Steelers’ defense hasn’t been a slouch against the run this year at all. Insert a Tomlinism here, but with significant players resting last week; it definitely made it a lot easier for the Browns to move the ball. On the season, the Steelers gave up on average 111 yards per game. The Steelers’ defense needs to contain the run and force QB Baker Mayfield to beat them.

  1. Get to Baker Mayfield/Keep him Inside the Pocket

The Steelers’ defense leads the league in sacks and have tormented Mayfield in both matchups with the Browns this season. In two games against Mayfield, the Steelers sacked the quarterback 8 times and collecting 13 QB hits. If the Steelers are going to win to move on to the AFC Divisional round, they must make Mayfield uncomfortable, but keep the quarterback inside the pocket at the same time. Mayfield is most dangerous when outside the pocket. He isn’t dangerous based on his ability to scramble for a big gain, Mayfield throws on the run better than he does inside the pocket. The Steelers’ defense must collapse the pocket while keeping outside contain. With the Browns missing starting guard Joel Bitonio due to being placed on the COVID reserve list earlier in the week and the other starting guard Wyatt Teller dealing with an ankle injury, it should be a big game for inside guys like Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. Both Tuitt and Heyward have the ability to collapse the pocket and get to opposing quarterbacks. Tuitt finished the season with 11 sacks and Heyward with 4 sacks. The given is that DPOY candidate and NFL sack leader, TJ Watt, can provide pressure from the outside, but the other outside linebacker, Highsmith, has only gotten better as the season has gone on. This defense can put pressure on opposing quarterback from any position and they must do so on Sunday night!

  1. Ben Roethlisberger

Week after week, this Steelers team has had the most success when Roethlisberger is running the show out of no huddle. It allows the offense to get into rhythm and it lets Big Ben be Big Ben. Entering the playoffs, where a loss is going to sit your team on the couch, it is important to play to your strengths. A week of rest for 38-year-old, Roethlisberger, should have done him some good! The last time we saw Roethlisberger this season was Week 16 when the Steelers came back from a 17-point deficit to win the game. In the second half of that game, the Steelers’ offense allowed Big Ben to be Big Ben. The offense ran a lot of no huddle and picked apart the Colts’ secondary. Roethlisberger finished that game completing 34 of 49 passes for 341 yards, and 3 touchdowns. Against a depleted Browns’ secondary that will be missing CBs Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson and possibly S Ronnie Harrison, the Steelers’ offense needs to attack the Browns’ defense downfield. Just as we saw in Week 17, it is time for the Steelers to unleash rookie WR Claypool in his NFL Playoff debut!

 

What do you think, Steeler Nation? What should we watch for in the Wild Card playoff matchup against the Browns? Sound off in the comment section below, or on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram!

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