TONY’S TAKE – A PREVIEW OF STEELERS-BROWNS

CLEVELAND, OHIO – JANUARY 03: Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on during the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on January 03, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

Welcome to the 2020 NFL season’s Wild Card Weekend. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.

One of the AFC’s wild card games will take place at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as the Pittsburgh Steelers will face the Cleveland Browns. Here’s what you should know:

PITTSBURGH, PA – DECEMBER 08: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers in action against the Washington Football Team on December 8, 2020 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

DESPITE ISSUES ON OFFENSE, STEELERS SOLDIER ON

While some things have stayed the same about the Pittsburgh Steelers – namely on defense – other things have changed tremendously this year. Because of many factors, Pittsburgh’s offense looks much different than in recent years, but head coach Mike Tomlin and company navigated through those issues to finish 2020 with the third-best record in the AFC at 12-4.

Future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger still boasts a high football IQ, strong arm and elite accuracy, and his ability to extend plays both inside and outside of the pocket remains. But perhaps because of his age and this being his first season back at quarterback since undergoing elbow surgery last season, Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner is having his signal caller operate more like a point guard in basketball.

Roethlisberger is distributing the ball to his playmakers in a scheme that relies on his receivers running shorter routes like slants, shallow crosses, quick outs and hitches, and occasional deep shots down the field. The quicker passing game – usually out of empty sets with “01” personnel (no running back, one tight end and four wideouts) – has resulted in Roethlisberger connecting on just 6.3 yards-per-pass attempt, the lowest mark of his 17-year career, and was sacked just 13 times this season due to the ball coming out of his hands faster.

Pittsburgh’s pass catchers aren’t usually sent in motion before the snap, with Fichtner mainly relying on their talent to win at the line of scrimmage via basic isolation routes. A five-man crew consisting of versatile third-year man John “JuJu” Smith-Schuster, the shifty Diontae Johnson, rookie standout Chase Claypool, contested catch specialist James Washington and speedy tight end Eric Ebron, this group has all the talent in the world to be successful.

The Steelers have an underrated dual threat in running back James Conner, who operates behind a line that is particularly good at executing inside zone runs with split flow action. The excellent duo of guard David DeCastro and center Maurkice Pouncey are among the NFL’s best at their positions and they operate along with veterans Alejandro Villanueva, Kevin Dotson and Chukwuma Okorafor. The Steelers also like to make use of backup linemen as extra blockers in the running game and that bears watching as well.

Given their long history of being productive on the ground, one would expect Pittsburgh to be excellent in that area again this year. However, that hasn’t been the case. The Steelers were dead-last in the NFL in rushing and have had the least amount of running attempts in the league since Week Seven.

PITTSBURGH, PA – DECEMBER 08: T.J. Watt #90 of the Pittsburgh Steelers in action against the Washington Football Team on December 8, 2020 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH REMAINS “BLITZBURGH”

After a few down years on that side of the ball, Pittsburgh has morphed back in “Blitzburgh” – an aggressive, complex defense to figure out for any opposing offense and is once again elite due to their zone-blitzing scheme. In 2020 the Steelers had the most interceptions in the NFL, led the league in sacks and ranked as the third-best defense in yards allowed. They were also third in points and passing yards allowed and were 11th against the run.

The main catalyst for Pittsburgh’s transformation was the acquisition of versatile safety Minkah Fitzpatrick from Miami for a first-round draft pick last year. Capable of playing outside cornerback, nickel cornerback, centerfield as a single-high safety or in the box to help stop the run, Fitzpatrick has become the long sought-after replacement for Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu and is the perfect man to execute defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s preferred Cover One and Cover Three-robber pass defenses.

Fitzpatrick is joined in the Steelers’ secondary by former Cleveland Brown Joe Haden, who is still productive in his 11th season, and former first-round pick Terrell Edmunds (Tremaine’s brother) but questions persist about their depth at cornerback. Beyond Haden and slot blitzer extraordinaire Mike Hilton, Pittsburgh has relied on vulnerable veterans Steven Nelson and Justin Layne.

When Ryan Shazier suffered a career-ending spinal injury three years ago, it left a big hole in the coverage abilities of the Steelers’ linebackers. At first Tomlin, Butler and general manager Kevin Colbert tried to patch up that gaping wound by emphasizing packages involving three safeties (otherwise known as big nickel) but the drafting of Devin Bush from Michigan in 2019 and the improvement of Vince Williams allowed Pittsburgh to use more traditional nickel personnel.

Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, Bush is out for the season with a torn ACL. His absence will be felt heavily as the team will try to move forward with Williams and Avery Williamson – a run-stopping specialist acquired from the New York Jets at the trade deadline – inheriting the starting roles.

At outside linebacker, Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt – the younger brother of Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt – have become one of the most disruptive pass rushing tandems in football and can also cover and stop the run at a high level. But like their counterparts at defensive back and inside linebacker, the Steelers are also dealing with injury here as Dupree tore a knee ligament in Week 12 and is done for 2020. Playing in front of Watt and backup Alex Highsmith are defensive linemen Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt – both combine great technique with high-level quickness and strength – and nose tackle Tyson Alualu.

As well as the Steel Curtain has performed this season, their success should be taken with a grain of salt. Facing a rather soft schedule in 2020, Pittsburgh has gone against just three teams in the top 10 in scoring (the Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts).

CLEVELAND, OHIO – JANUARY 03: Quarterback Baker Mayfield #6 hanks off to running back Nick Chubb #24 of the Cleveland Browns during the third quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium on January 03, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Browns defeated the Steelers 24-22. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

BROWNS’ OFFENSE AN IMPROVED UNIT

The Cleveland Browns were surrounded by loads of hype heading into the 2019 season and rightfully so. The additions of many well-known players over the offseason, an improved record in 2018 and the development of quarterback Baker Mayfield had some feeling as if the Browns could challenge for the AFC North’s crown.

It didn’t happen that season, but the hiring of Kevin Stefanski from the Minnesota Vikings as head coach has brought out the best in the Browns and they have reached the postseason for the first time since 2002. He has implemented an offense learned from veteran coordinator Gary Kubiak last year – a ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams from sideline to sideline rather than vertically, this version of the West Coast offense features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket, especially on bootlegs, rollouts and play-action. The system will also have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages, and also aligns wide receivers close to the offensive line in order to give them more space to operate and to block on running plays. Their passing game makes excellent use of intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts, crossing patterns and flood concepts with pass options at the deep, short and intermediate levels.

Mayfield is a savvy, accurate signal-caller who does very well when put in play designs that allow him to capitalize on his strengths – namely mobility and bold decision-making, and Stefanski knows how to get the best out of him. In 2018 Mayfield had a record-setting rookie year, completing 64 percent of his passes for 27 touchdowns – breaking the league record for first-year players shared between Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson – and tossing 14 interceptions in 13 starts. After a sophomore slump last season, Mayfield bounced back in 2020 with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 26 to eight, and the amount of run-fakes in Cleveland’s offense creates defined reads and throws for him to exploit.

According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “(Mayfield) extends plays with his feet, but only when necessary, relying first on his outstanding timing and accuracy, especially on seam balls and underneath throws from spread formations. More impressive are the passes Mayfield does not make; he has a veteran’s sense for getting off of bad reads. And when he does get fooled into the occasional turnover, he continues to be aggressive.”

Cleveland’s rushing offensive system relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders horizontally on outside zone stretch plays while leaving cutback lanes for running backs. Countless tailbacks have had success in it and executing these blocks are guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller, center JC Tretter and tackles Jedrick Wills and Jack Conklin (Bitonio will miss this week’s game as will Stefanski because of COVID-19 – offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will call the plays in Stefanski’s absence).

The Browns’ offense makes liberal use of multi-tight end sets, and Austin Hooper, David Njoku and Harrison Bryant have benefited from it. At wide receiver, Jarvis Landry is one of the NFL’s better slot receivers and Rashard Higgins is adept on dig and corner routes. Donovan Peoples-Jones has filled in for one of football’s elite talents in Odell Beckham Jr., who is out with a torn ACL.

The duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt at running back – a combination of speed and power – is one of the NFL’s finest. They’re so good, in fact, that they helped Cleveland end 2020 as the third-best rushing team in the league. Blocking for them is fullback Andy Janovich.

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE – DECEMBER 06: Myles Garrett #95 of the Cleveland Browns plays against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on December 06, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

CLEVELAND’S DEFENSE IS SO-SO

The Browns’ defense does have some pieces to work around but they aren’t getting a lot of positive results against the pass. They are, however, good against the run – ranking ninth in the league in that category.

Myles Garrett had a 12-sack season (his third straight double-digit sack campaign) but the big, quick defensive end from Texas A&M doesn’t have much help in getting after the quarterback. Veteran bookend Olivier Vernon, the former Miami Dolphin and New York Giant, will miss Sunday’s game due to injury and will be replaced by Adrian Clayborn. They are joined on the defensive line by Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi.

At linebacker, the athletic B.J. Goodson is flanked by thumper Mack Wilson, former Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith, Jacob Phillips and Sione Takitaki. The Browns’ pass defense is built around zone coverage and they perform well in it along one of pro football’s best cornerbacks in Denzel Ward – who specializes in matching up with smaller, quicker wideouts – and Andraez “Greedy” Williams, who typically gets assignments against bigger targets. Ward, however, is out for Sunday’s game after being placed on the team’s COVID-19 list. Cleveland’s starting safeties are Andrew Sendejo and Karl Joseph – neither have much range on the back end.

Posted by Tony Fiorello

Anthony Fiorello has been a regular contributor for fromthe300level.com since the beginning. He focuses on the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres.

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