The Cleveland Browns are fresh off their third win of the season, and are technically still in the playoff hunt. They can mathematically afford one more loss and still make the postseason as a wild card team, but that loss cannot come against one of the other teams in the hunt for a wild card spot.
One of those teams is the division rival Pittsburgh Steelers, who will face off against the Browns on Thursday night riding a four-game winning streak behind an excellent defense. It’s do or die for Cleveland under the Thursday night lights.
The Browns are likely the most disappointing team in the NFL this season. There was so much hype surrounding the organization in the offseason, from trading for Odell Beckham Jr. in March to Greedy Williams announcing Cleveland would be going to the Super Bowl upon being drafted by the team.
The offense easily marched down the field on their first drive of the season and scored a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans, and everything was great. The rest of the game was an absolute disaster, as Cleveland lost 43-13. The next week, the team easily handled the hampered New York Jets, as expected. They played the Los Angeles Rams very close, but came up short in the end.
Then, in Week 4, it looked as if everything had finally come together. Both sides of the ball put together a dominant performance over the Baltimore Ravens to win 40-25 and take sole possession of the AFC North lead. That excitement was short-lived, as the Browns were obliterated 31-3 on Monday Night Football by the San Francisco 49ers. Turnovers cost Cleveland games against Seattle and New England, and their 24-19 loss to the Denver Broncos and first-time starting QB Brandon Allen was just flat-out embarrassing.
Things weren’t perfect by any means last week, but they were good enough to stop the losing and get some momentum going. At 3-6, Cleveland is still in the hunt for a playoff berth, but their window is closing. Baltimore has the inside track to the division title, and the Steelers (5-4) and Bills (6-3) currently own the two wild card spots.
Denver (3-6), Los Angeles (4-6), Jacksonville (4-5), Tennessee (5-5), Indianapolis (5-4), and Oakland (5-4) are all ahead of the Browns. To make matters worse, Cleveland would lose tiebreakers to Buffalo and the Titans. It’s possible, but the Browns must finish 10-6 or 9-7, and get quite a bit of help along the way.
But none of that matters if they can’t beat the Steelers. Pittsburgh’s offense, led by Mason Rudolph, is nothing special, but they are getting James Conner back and Cleveland’s defense is missing some key pieces due to injury, and is under-performing in general.
Myles Garrett ranks near the top of league in sacks (11) and QB hits (15). The Steelers have a good offensive line, but left tackle Alejandro Villanueva has had a difficult time slowing down Garrett in their matchups. The secondary is missing a few players, but starting corners Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams have played well since returning from hamstring injuries, and should be able to make Rudolph think twice before making a risky throw.
Pittsburgh’s best offensive strategy would be to take advantage of the Browns sub-par run defense that has only worsened since Olivier Vernon went down with a knee injury. Rookie linebacker Mack Wilson has flashed, but his inexperience is something that offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner can expose.
The Cleveland offense may have eliminated turnovers over the past two games, but they’ll face a significantly better defense this week. The Steelers pass rush, led by T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, is elite. The Browns offensive line is certainly not, especially tackles Greg Robinson and Chris Hubbard, the two weakest links. If the line can’t protect Baker Mayfield, the Browns have no chance.
The addition of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick has been a godsend for Pittsburgh. His play recognition is elite, and he’s an absolute ballhawk, totaling five interceptions, one fumble recovery, and two touchdowns in seven games with the Steelers. If Mayfield is forced by the pass rush to throw the ball before he’s ready, Fitzpatrick will make him pay.
Pittsburgh’s defense is better at stopping the pass than the run based on yardage totals, but they still have the fifth-highest run defense grade in the league per Pro Football Focus. It will be difficult for Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to run the ball, but they’ll have to if Cleveland hopes to win. It’s just hard to see Mayfield having enough time to throw downfield to Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr.
Head coach Freddie Kitchens certainly has his work cut out for him from a gameplanning perspective, and he must also worry about improving in his situational playcalling and time management, two areas that have cost the Browns points, and perhaps wins, this season.
Divisional matchups on TNF are always entertaining, especially when they’re between two teams trying to keep their playoff hopes alive. It should be a great game, with the team who commits the fewest turnovers likely to win. The Steelers have the obvious advantage, but the Browns are talented enough to beat any team in the league. It’s just a matter of getting everyone on the same page. For Cleveland’s sake, that had better start on Thursday Night.