After both teams had to hurdle over health, personnel and cold-streak barriers over the course of the 2020 NFL season, the (11-5) Cleveland Browns and (12-4) Pittsburgh Steelers will face off in the postseason at Heinz Field Sunday evening at 8:15 p.m. EST.
The Browns, under first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski, were able to battle through a late-season COVID-19 outbreak and beat the Steelers in Week 17, 24-22, to lock in their first playoff berth since 2002.
The significant strength for Cleveland, over the course of the 2020 season, came from their dynamic rushing duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who combined to rush for 1,908 yards and 18 touchdowns on 388 combined attempts. In terms of overall rushing yards, rushing attempts and rushing touchdowns, Cleveland ranked third, fourth and fifth in the entire NFL, respectively.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield, despite averaging only 30 passing attempts per game, was able to capitalize off of the play-action created from the Chubb and Hunt combo, as the 25-year-old collected 26 passing touchdowns on 3,563 passing yards for an overall quarterback rating of 95.9, a career-high. The significant leap forward for Mayfield, however, came in his interception totals – Mayfield only lobbed eight picks as opposed to 21 the season prior.
Even with the lack of Odell Beckham Jr. (ACL) for over half of the regular season, the likes of Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, Austin Hooper and Harrison Bryant helped bring a nice blend of inside slant and end zone options for Mayfield. Mayfield’s passing efficiency was further enhanced by a stouter offensive line supplemented by offseason acquisitions in Jack Conklin (free agency) and rookie Jedrick Wills Jr., as Cleveland’s offensive line allowed the eighth-fewest sacks in the entire NFL (26).
Signs of explosiveness from Cleveland’s defense primarily came from their front seven, where the unit, led by Myles Garrett, Olivier Vernon, who is OUT Sunday, and B.J. Goodson helped clog up lanes in both the rush and pass. Cleveland’s rush defense allowed 110.8 rushing yards per game, which ranked ninth in the entire NFL. Cleveland’s secondary, meanwhile, left a bit to be desired, as injured players, including Grant Delpit and Greedy Williams, among others, led to the overall unit allowing 247.6 passing yards per game (22nd in the entire NFL).
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, started off the season 11-0 before losing four of their last five regular season games. Pittsburgh’s success primarily came from their nasty defensive front, where the likes of T.J. Watt helped shut down opposing quarterbacks and running backs, even though his teammate linebackers in Bud Dupree and Devin Bush Jr. both went down with ACL injuries as the season progressed.
Collectively, Pittsburgh on both defensive sides of the ball allowed 305.8 total yards per game on average, the third-least in the entire NFL.
Even when the Steelers’ defense bent, it still remained competitive.
Offensively, however, left a different taste in Steel City mouths. Despite veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger possessing a top-notch offensive line (their 14 sacks allowed were the least among all NFL teams), a surplus of big-name weapons and a quicker throwing release, the offense averaged 334.6 yards per game, tied for 24th in the entire NFL and third-to-last among all playoff teams (Chicago averaged 331.4 yards per game and Washington averaged 317.3). The significant weakness came on the rushing side, as the Steelers’ 84.4 rushing yards per game ranked last in the entire NFL.
The key storyline of the game will not just be the sheer rivalry aspect between the two AFC North foes, but the COVID-19 one, as well.
Cleveland, in particular, will be forced to play without two starting cornerbacks in Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson, in addition to starting offensive guard Joel Bitonio and head coach Stefanski himself, among others. As a result, Mike Priefer, Cleveland’s special teams’ coach, will take on the head-coaching helm for the game.
Credit has to be given to Cleveland. The franchise once labeled as a lovable loser has now found themselves in the postseason race, and should be able to return in future seasons. Despite the success, the collection of injuries and depth problems on the defensive end will be a severe detriment. While Pittsburgh’s significant strengths on both sides of the ball have been hurt by the injury bug as the season progressed, the team will still have a plethora of receiving options to throw to, which will lengthen Cleveland’s already weakened secondary.
Big Ben might not make it look pretty, but he will do just enough to send the Browns’ packing.
Prediction: Browns 17 – Steelers 24