The 6-3 Pittsburgh Steelers face the Cleveland Browns for their next challenge. They have the same record within the tight AFC North, making for a very important battle that Pittsburgh can hopefully win again (Week Two victory), and each squad on a two-game win streak. Let’s dive into the matchup.
QB is key in any matchup with the importance of the position, and this week is no exception. Cleveland’s battered injury news continued this week, with Deshaun Watson out for the season with a broken bone in his throwing shoulder, requiring surgery.
Next man up is rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson, which is a bit surprising as many expected it to be P.J. Walker, who’s started in relief of Watson most recently. Neither has performed well, including Thompson-Robinson’s 0/3 TD/INT ratio (one start back in Week Four), and Walker with a 1/5 ratio in three games with substantial snaps (two starts). Paging Pittsburgh’s splash-play defense, who tie for the league-lead in takeaways (18).
Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett is coming off his lowest yardage in a full game (126), leaning on a refreshingly strong run game, but was inefficient (61 percent) including decision-making and accuracy. The latter has unfortunately been an issue throughout 2023, seeing flashes but inconsistent and disappointing considering his reputation for accuracy.
Here’s a visual of QBs through Week 10, looking at completion and accuracy percentages:
Right away we see Pickett has one of the worst completion, and particularly accuracy rates among starting QBs, highlighted by the dot-sizes (attempts). His 61.3 COM ranks 32nd among 47 qualifiers (min. of 30 attempts), and his 70 ACC falls to 37th, each below average. Pickett’s improvements (or lack thereof) are critical, with the short passing game/less risk-taking he and Pittsburgh lean upon requiring efficiency.
Backup play has been rough for both teams. The visual sheds light on the Browns situation, with their healthy signal-callers in the bottom five in each percentage. Thompson-Robinson: 54.1 COM (third-worst), 62.5 ACC (fifth-worst). Walker: 49.0 COM (second-worst), 59.6 ACC (third-worst).
It will likely be a rough game for both passing attacks with Cleveland’s QB situation, and their stellar defense that gave Pittsburgh’s offense trouble in the Week Two win overall.
- An unfortunate gruesome season-ending injury to Browns Nick Chubb came in the Week Two matchup, requiring two surgeries. Since, Jerome Ford stepped in nicely, with 532 yards (13th league-wide). He had 106 rushing yards and a receiving touchdown in the last showdown, and is coming off his second 100-yard last week against Baltimore. Kareem Hunt was brought back by Cleveland post-Chubb injury as the primary backup.
Let’s look at time to the line of scrimmage (TLOS), average rush yards, and TDs for the dot sizes:
Impressively, Hunt leads the matchup with six TDs (T-sixth in NFL) despite the least opportunities. All of them have come in the red zone, so here’s to hoping the Steelers’ defense continues a strength of limiting those opportunities (ninth-least) and low red zone-scoring-percentage (fourth-lowest).
Ford has the second-longest TLOS among 47 qualifying RBs (min. 50 attempts), a similar result to Chubb’s utilization in the past. This highlights their patience in allowing quality blocking/schemes to set up, using a good mixture of gap and zone, leaning more to the former. Ford has averaged 4.3 YPC in the process (16th), and ties for a matchup low two TDs.
Jaylen Warren is that man, providing one of his TDs last week, making noise with forced missed tackles, as the running game has gotten it going. He is the only back above the mean in both: TLOS (22nd, slightly), and a matchup-high 5.1 YPC that ranks fifth league-wide, impressively.
Najee Harris has also been key in recent success, with his three touchdowns coming in the last four games, and his YPC climbing to 4.0 (25th) the last two weeks as the o-line improved. The run game will be huge for both teams, and hopefully Pittsburgh will step up on both sides of the ball.
- For Cleveland, the vast majority of opportunities have gone to Amari Cooper and Elijah Moore. The former leads the outlook with 72 targets (16th) and has 42.1 percent of the teams air yards (fifth league-wide). It will be interesting to see Pittsburgh’s coverage plans, and if rookie CB Joey Porter Jr. follows him. He excelled in that role against Titans DeAndre Hopkins (one catch allowed, five targets, 41.3 passer-rating-against).
If so, this visual highlights concerns that could create, highlighted by average cushion (distance between closest defender at the snap) and separation (distance between closest defender at the catch/incompletion):
Here we see Moore as the only player comfortably above the mean in both, with teams giving him the fifth-most cushion of 95 qualifiers (min. 25 targets), and has the third-ranked 4.2 separation in the NFL. Secondary receivers tend to go off against Pittsburgh, and wouldn’t be surprised if Moore plays well.
Three Steelers have seen above-average cushion. Calvin Austin III leads the NFL with defenses respecting his speed, with Diontae Johnson also in the top five (fourth), along with Allen Robinson II coming in at 19th. Johnson leads Pittsburgh with 2.9 SEP at the NFL mean (43rd), emphasizing Moore’s stronger results given similar cushion. Pittsburgh’s play-calling has improved, and needs to continue to create more ideal situations for Pickett and the passing offense. With Johnson being one of the best route-runners in the NFL, want to see this with him in particular.
On the bottom left, we see Cooper and George Pickens, who have seen far more press coverage at the line. Pickens has the fourth-least cushion league-wide, and the least separation in the matchup (fifth-least). Quite impressive that he’ still 11th in YAC (6.4), along with healthy numbers from Johnson (4.6) and Austin (5.1), which will hopefully continue moving forward. Cooper has the edge for Cleveland with 4.0 YAC, while Moore has less than anticipated (3.7).
Browns TE David Njoku has been the highlight for them in this regard:
Njoku ranks first in the NFL with a whopping 8.5 YAC number, over a half-yard more than any other TE on 54 targets (ninth). The visual also highlights Connor Heyward, who now has 25 targets in 2023 (min. for the 30 qualifiers) in Pat Freiermuth’s absence. The latter is questionable after two full practices, and his presence could give the passing game a boost, hopefully over the middle of the field.
Looking at Heyward’s YAC (4.2, 21st) at a similar TAY (Heyward second-least, Njoku fourth-least) highlights Njoku’s impressive results. He is a handful, and is one of my main concerns in pass defense for the Steelers battered LB room that is lacking strength in coverage. Thankfully, Elandon Roberts and Mark Robinson should aid attempts to limit Cleveland’s run game, but hopefully Pittsburgh has a strong plan to help them in coverage.
Here are OL PFF grades:
Several Browns have the best-balanced grades. Two-time all-pro RT Jack Conklin tops the chart, but suffered a season-ending injury in the opener as the dots emphasize (snaps). Rookie Dawand Jones (70.4PBLK,49.6RBLK) has manned that side for the majority of the season, but missed last week’s game as well, and is questionable. James Hudson was next man up (49.8PBLK,45.5RBLK), whom Steelers EDGE T.J. Watt has dominated, and hopefully, history repeats itself.
Similarly, LT Jedrick Wills couldn’t go last week, and was placed on injured reserve since. Geron Christian replaced him (71.3PBLK,66.7RBLK), seemingly having a good game, but draws a tough matchup in EDGE Alex Highsmith. Hopefully, Pittsburgh’s duo can win these favorable matchups on both ends of the line.
Their interior is rather strong. RG Wyatt Teller (74.6PBLK,68.0RBLK), C Ethan Pocic (75.1PBLK,71.5RBLK), and LG Joel Bitonio (75.0PBLK,60.3RBLK) are a great trio that will be a critical battle with Pittsburgh’s d-line.
Pittsburgh’s guards have played well recently: Isaac Seumalo (67.7PBLK,64.8RBLK) and RG James Daniels (66.9RBLK,64.5PBLK), with the latter coming off a particularly strong performance. RT grades have been interesting from PFF, with Broderick Jones (60.9RBLK,57.0PBLK) grading low despite quality play. C Mason Cole (59.4RBLK,30.4PBLK) and LT Dan Moore (57.7RBLK,35.6PBLK) are trending upward after rough starts to 2023. Moore has struggled against stellar pass-rushers, and the primary matchup with Cleveland’s Myles Garrett will be critical.
Defense. The Browns’ defense is very stout all around, highlighted here by pass-and-run EPA:
Cleveland has the best balance on both sides of the ball, by far the top unit against the pass, and a top-three run defense as well. Scary proposition led by Garrett’s talents. Pittsburgh’s defense is above average in pass EPA (tenth), but have trended down the last three weeks, along with a below-average run EPA (21st). They have been excellent late game recently, particularly clutch red-zone interceptions including the last three games. Hopefully, it’s doesn’t come to that, but were victorious last game thanks to two defensive touchdowns. Splash plays and the ground game are paramount in hopes of crucial divisional victory.
Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments.