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'Monday Night Football' preview: What to watch for in Browns-Steelers

Cleveland Browns
2021 · 7-8-0
Pittsburgh Steelers
2021 · 7-7-1

8:15 p.m. ET (ESPN) | Heinz Field

There’s never any shortage of pride on the line when these longtime rivals face off. Slim playoff hopes also remain heading into the final Monday Night Football contest of the regular season. The Steelers, looking to avoid their first losing season of the Mike Tomlin era, need to win and then need another win and some help in Week 18. The Browns, no thanks to dropping three of their last four games, were eliminated from postseason contention on Sunday.

Here’s what to watch for Monday night when Pittsburgh hosts Cleveland:

  1. So what’s the playoff scenario? The best Pittsburgh can do for now is stay alive, which requires beating the Browns. A tie will end the Steelers' playoff push. The only way they can earn that sacred postseason bid is by also defeating the Ravens next week coupled with the Jaguars topping the Colts and the Chargers-Raiders game not ending in a tie. Cleveland has been reduced to possible spoiler for its final two games. It all marks a big step back for the AFC North counterparts, who faced off on Super Wild Card Weekend just 12 months ago. The Browns won big that day, which marks the franchise's high point this century. Their promising 3-1 start in 2021 was derailed by injuries and COVID complications, though that won't erase the sting of not reaching the postseason amid lofty preseason expectations. Pittsburgh was once 5-3, feasting on bad quarterback play from its opponents, but has dropped four of six while regressing on both sides of the ball. A Steelers win Monday would render their previous misfortune moot, at least for another week.
  2. Can Big Ben turn back the clock? Ben Roethlisberger recently acknowledged that this is likely his last home game. While his retirement has been expected for some time, the scene will surely be a sentimental one. The future Hall of Famer’s place in Steelers lore is cemented. But too often this year, he’s looked like he’s playing in cement. At 39 years old, he’s lost virtually all the mobility that, coupled with one of the game’s biggest arms, made him one of the league’s scariest QBs for well over a decade. His limitations are largely why Pittsburgh ranks near the bottom in scoring offense and big plays. It should be noted, Big Ben did have a throwback performance of sorts less than a month ago against the Vikings. That game was also on prime time, and it featured several downfield darts from the 18-year veteran. If anything, he proved he can still throw. The key variables are time and protection. When he doesn’t have them, he rates among the bottom of NFL starters. Thus, Pittsburgh is overly dependent on a quick-pass game that is often non-threatening and ineffective. It’s been a catch-22 for the Steelers for more than a year now. 
  3. Where do the Browns stand with Baker? Baker Mayfield's contract has been a topic of conversation all year. Last summer, his agent expressed confidence that an extension would be agreed to, while Mayfield expressed indifference. Browns GM Andrew Berry recently stated the team is taking a "big-picture approach" with the former No. 1 overall pick, supporting his efforts through an injury-riddled and forgettable fourth year. How Mayfield closes it out could leave a lasting memory. He’s particularly struggled down the stretch, completing just 56.1% of his throws for 908 yards with eight interceptions over his last five contests as Cleveland fell out of the playoff race. Per Next Gen Stats, opponents are blitzing Mayfield at a 37.3% rate since Week 11. Going back to Week 10, his passer rating is 44.6 under pressure. His 70.1 rating over that same span when not under pressure is the third-lowest among qualified passers. Browns brass couldn’t have predicted such a slide in the summer, given how Mayfield performed better in the back half of each of his first three seasons and he finally had coaching stability. Now almost 60 starts into his career, his inconsistency is to be expected. That could make for a fascinating offseason in Northeast Ohio.
  4. Who’s the NFL’s best pass rusher, Myles Garrett or T.J. Watt? The most appropriate answer might just be both. It’s a conversation that began in earnest two years ago and doesn’t figure to end anytime soon. They do it in different ways, but there isn’t a wrong choice between the All-Pros. Watt’s traditional numbers are a bit better, as he entered Week 17 tops in the NFL in sacks (17.5) and QB hits (31). That’s already the most single-season sacks in franchise history. His current sack rate of 5.7 is the highest mark since 2016 (minimum 200 pass rushes), per Next Gen Stats. Garrett isn’t far behind, tallying 15 sacks and 29 QB hits, while topping Watt in pass rush win rate despite facing more double teams. Both edge defenders will draw their fair share of attention Monday night, what with Big Ben and Baker especially vulnerable to pressure. The more effective rusher -- for what it’s worth, the Browns boast the superior offensive line -- will strengthen his case for Defensive Player of the Year and might be the game’s X factor.

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