Match up: Cleveland Browns (4-1) +3 @ Pittsburgh Steelers (4-0)
Location and Time: 1 p.m. EST at Heinz Field
Tidbit: Ben Roethlisberger is 15-0 against the Browns at Heinz Field in his career.
KEY #1: Limit Cleveland's rushing attack
It'll be strength against strength when these two teams line up on Sunday. The Browns currently lead the NFL in rushing by a healthy margin, averaging 188.4 yards per game on the ground, while the Steelers tout the league's second best rushing defense, allowing only 3.3 yards per carry. Even without star running back Nick Chubb, the Browns are still extremely effective with Kareem Hunt toting the rock.
The Browns have made a commitment to running the football and have gotten very good play from their blockers, often rushing out of 12 personnel or bringing in a fullback extra blocker to assist with the play. Here is Cleveland motioning in receiver Jarvis Landry, who does executes the play by clearing out the defensive back. It'll come down to physicality and gap integrity to see which side wins this battle.
KEY #2: Utilize motion and misdirection offensively
If there's one common complaint that Steelers fans often have about the offense, it's that it is often too predictable. To his credit, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner spiced up the play calling a bit against the Eagles, making use of jet motion and misdirection to create confusion at the second level. It led to some big plays, including this 25 yard gain for James Conner. On this play, you can see numbers 22 and 41 on the Eagles defense begin to pursue Claypool on the jet, helping to free the lane for Conner.
Later in the game, the Steelers used a similar concept, but gave the ball to Ray-Ray McCloud for a big gain. The Steelers will need to continue to use window dressing and tendency breakers to get their playmakers in space against a talented Cleveland defense.
KEY #3: Force Baker to create
First year Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski has done a good job of limiting Baker Mayfield's exposure, leaning on the run and creating defined reads for Mayfield to execute the offense. This is reflected in Mayfield's passer rating as the game progresses, as he only has a 29.7 passer rating in the 4th quarter, when the script is changed and the defense has more of an idea of whether a pass or run is coming. Here's an example of Mayfield making a pre-snap decision to throw the ball to tight end Austin Hooper. You can see him stare down his target, leading to an easy interception.
And here's the Colts taking away Mayfield's first and second reads in man coverage. Mayfield panics and forces a bad pick. If Pittsburgh can get hold onto their coverage long enough for Mayfield to have to make plays on his own, there should be takeaway opportunities.
KEY #4: Pass protection from running backs and tight ends
While Roethlisberger has only been sacked 6 times this season, Cleveland's front 7 presents a challenge for the Steelers pass protection. The Steelers used empty sets often in Week 5 against the Eagles, but they probably won't be able to do this much against the Browns, as James Conner (and perhaps Benny Snell) will need to stay in and help protect the quarterback in passing situations. Whichever team does a better job of keeping their quarterback upright will be at a massive advantage in this game.
KEY #5: Rally to the ball
Although the Steelers defense has been lauded as perhaps the best in the NFL, the team's cornerback play has been suspect to this point. It's easy to blame Keith Butler's scheme, as the Steelers blitz so frequently that they often leave their defensive backs on an island, but Steven Nelson and Minkah Fitzpatrick have not yet played to the same level as they did in 2019.
The entire secondary will need to play with aggression and physicality against the Browns. Cleveland is likely to get the ball out of Mayfield's hands early to allow their athletes to make plays. As such, tackling will be of utmost importance, especially on short passes like this one. If the Steelers can rally to the ball on check downs and short to intermediate throws, they can force Mayfield into uncomfortable 3rd down situations. Otherwise, we're likely to be frustrated by plays similar to this one, where Kareem Hunt makes several guys miss en route to the first down.