Matchup: Cleveland Browns (11-5) +6 @ Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
Time and place: 8:15 p.m. EST on Sunday, 1/10 at Heinz Field
Tidbit: Cleveland has not defeated the Steelers in Pittsburgh since 2003
KEY #1: Let Ben cook
While much of the discussion in the second half of Pittsburgh's season was centered on their inability to run the football, this is a game that will be decided by the play of Ben Roethlisberger.
The Browns have a solid rush defense, ranking 10th in opposing rushing yards per game, but have been pretty mediocre defending the pass, ranking 22nd in opposing passing yards per game. Add to this the fact that Cleveland's secondary is depleted with Denzel Ward, Kevin Johnson, and Ronnie Harrison all unlikely to suit up, as well as pass rusher Olivier Vernon out for the remainder of the season with a leg injury.
Look for plenty for formations with 3 and 4 receivers as Roethlisberger tries to pick apart the defense. We probably won't see the Browns play as much man to man coverage as they did in the regular season, but there should be plenty of opportunities to push the ball downfield due to physical mismatches. Watch how the Steelers use a bunch set to force communication in the secondary as Ben holds and moves the safety with his eyes and pump fake for six points. We should see a few shots like this on Sunday.
KEY #2: Situational running
With that said, there will certainly be situations in which the Steelers will need to run the ball. James Conner has actually had some success in recent weeks, going 14 rushes for 57 yards and a touchdown in Weeks 16 and 17 (it's all relative, right?).
It's probably no coincidence that Conner's best runs last weekend came courtesy of Vance McDonald clearing the way. While he isn't a vertical threat in the passing game like Eric Ebron, McDonald is an impact blocker and has good hands for a tight end. I'd like to see him on the field in rushing situations.
Look at how McDonald gets to the second level and dominates the linebacker at the point of attack. This is the physicality that's been missing from the Steelers offense this season.
KEY #3: Pressure from the edge
Baker Mayfield is highly effective in two situations: when he is able to make quick, timing reads, and when he can roll out to throw on the run. The best way to combat this? Dominate the edge.
Mayfield is still prone to mistakes under pressure and doesn't feel comfortable in a muddy pocket. Last week, Alex Highsmith had some really impressive reps against first-round left tackle Jedrick Wills that made Mayfield uneasy.
Check out this nasty spin move that forces Baker to drop his eyes and go into survival mode. In Mayfield's first career playoff start, the more the Steelers can pressure him to ramp up the intensity the better.
KEY #4: Stars have to play like stars
When the lights shine brightest, your best players have to play like such. It's imperative that T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and of course Ben Roethlisberger leave their imprint on this football game.
When the guys up front are going like this, they're just about impossible to stop. If the defense can force a turnover or two, it will go a long way in securing victory for the Steelers.
KEY #5: No home runs
If there's one defining characteristic of the Browns, it's that they can run the ball. They're 3rd in rush yards per game, 4th in rushing attempts per game, and Nick Chubb is one of the most difficult players to tackle in the league. Cleveland has also done a good job of putting together a run scheme that plays well off of Mayfield's play-action game.
The Browns are probably going to have some success running the ball against Pittsburgh on Sunday. The key for the Steelers will be to bend and not break while avoiding allowing home runs like Chubb's 47-yard touchdown last week.
Not Minkah's finest moment. Poor angle. And Vince Williams has to fight off that block at the second level. But those are still two of the players we all feel best about this upcoming week- no doubt their physicality will turn up a notch in this spot.