The Cleveland Browns’ improbable loss on Sunday will be fresh on everyone’s minds when they get set to host the rival Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday in a battle of 1-1 AFC North clubs.
Both passing games have struggled with consistency through two games, and it’s entirely possible that there will be two different quarterbacks starting when they meet again in Week 18. But for now, it's Mitchell Trubisky versus Jacoby Brissett.
It’s a big game. Despite the Browns beating the Steelers twice in the 2020 season, including in the playoffs, this has been a one-sided rivalry in favor of Pittsburgh since the 1980s. And with the stench of Sunday’s utter collapse still hanging over FirstEnergy Stadium, the best way to waft it away is by beating Cleveland’s most hated opponent.
Here's four things to watch for when the Steelers visit the Browns on Thursday night on Prime Video:
- Quarterback uncertainty. Mike Tomlin said he has “liked a lot” from Trubisky, but that the offense just isn’t scoring enough, calling it a “collective” effort. That’s all fine and good, and there’s absolutely truth in what Tomlin is saying. But the Steelers simply are not getting enough out of their passing-game weapons. On a team with Dionte Johnson, Chase Claypool, George Pickens, Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris, the longest reception through two games is 32 yards -- by backup tight end Zach Gentry -- on a screen pass. The downfield shots just have not materialized so far. There’s likely blame with the protection, the receivers, the play-caller, and perhaps even the ball boy. But Trubisky is a big part of this, too, and it’s possible he’s pressing some with first-round pick Kenny Pickett breathing down his proverbial neck. A QB change might not be that far off if things, you know, don’t change with the results. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada has rightfully taken some blame for the Steelers’ scoring woes, and getting off to a better start is key. The Steelers haven’t scored an opening-drive TD since Week 5 last year and have averaged 10.7 yards on their 11 opening drives under Canada since then. And these are the scripted plays? The plays they theoretically like most?! It wouldn’t be shocking for Canada to dial up an early vertical shot to test a Browns secondary that was torched by the Jets in the fourth quarter last week. As for the Browns and Brissett, he's likely the guy through November -- and he’s been fine. Amari Cooper and the other weapons will have to make the most of their opportunities with Brissett as QB, starting with this key game.
- Run game could hold the key. The Browns are averaging a nuclear 200.5 rushing yards in the first two games of the season. Only one team (the 2019 Ravens) has averaged more than 200 rushing yards for a season, so keeping this rate up feels unlikely. Part of the reason is because of the limitations of Brissett and the passing game, but Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are as good a one-two RB punch as there is in the NFL. They’ve scored 54% of the team’s points so far and gained 51% of the team’s yards from scrimmage. If they’re not the team strength right now, then the offensive line (even with some injuries) is. The Steelers are a different defense without T.J. Watt, and they’ll have a big conundrum in this game. Stopping the Browns’ run game might not be as simple as loading up the box. Why? Well, once Watt hurt his pec in Week 1, Pittsburgh has shifted to fewer light boxes. The problem: According to Next Gen Stats, the Steelers’ defense ranks in the bottom 10 teams in the league in rush yards before contact, rush yards over expectation and RYOE average when using seven or more defenders in the box. Both Chubb and Hunt are hard to tackle, but especially Chubb. The Steelers’ tackling against the Patriots was better than it was in Week 1 against the Bengals, but it might not exactly be considered a strong suit. Pittsburgh will have its hands full.
- Both teams banged up, but the Browns more so. Watt isn’t the only big-name defender who could be out on Thursday. Browns star Myles Garrett (neck) will play, but Jadeveon Clowney (ankle) and Chase Winovich (hamstring), who backs up both ends, will be out. Left guard Joel Bitonio (biceps) will suit up, but he likely won't be at 100 percent. Even Brissett suffered an ankle injury last week, although he’s said he’s fine. For Pittsburgh, Watt is the most notable potential absence, along with linebacker Devin Bush, who is dealing with a foot injury he suffered against New England. But Bush has been rotating with Robert Spillane, so the Steelers should be fine if Bush can’t go.
- It all could come down to the fourth. Fourth quarters have been an adventure for both teams so far. In Week 1, the Browns led the Panthers, 20-7, entering the quarter but had to hang on for dear life in a 26-24 final. Then in Week 2 against the Jets, the Browns went down three points in the fourth, only to take a 13-point lead with fewer than two minutes left … and lose! In regulation, no less! The Steelers’ fourth quarters have been only slightly less chaotic, nearly losing to the Bengals (before they blocked an extra point and won in overtime) and then watching the Patriots control the ball for 12 minutes 19 seconds of the final quarter in a bitter loss. The Steelers beat the Browns both times last season, pulling away in two battles of attrition in the fourth quarters. Late turnovers killed the Browns both times, and they were one of the worst fourth-quarter teams in 2021, outscored by 50 points. This season, Cleveland has been outscored 34-19 in the two fourth quarters. Can Stefanski’s squad finish a tough game against a division rival? Garrett called out the Browns fans who booed at the end of last week’s meltdown. The best way he can prevent that is by making a game-changing play -- and preferably late in the game.