Analysis

Sports Info Solutions: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns Preview

Njaee Harris

An AFC North rivalry between the Steelers and the Browns will take center stage for Week 3’s Thursday Night Football matchup. After losing to the Browns in the 2020 AFC Wild Card game, the Steelers responded by sweeping the season series in 2021.

This year’s matchups will look a lot different, as both teams have new quarterbacks under center and potentially different ones for each game. With both of these offenses working through early season growing pains, this matchup sets up to be a low-scoring defensive battle with the winner being the most dominant in the trenches.

There has been interesting movement on the spread for this matchup. The look-ahead line opened at Browns -2.5, passed the key number of -3, and climbed up to -5.5 on Monday before dropping back down to where it currently stands at -4.5 at FanDuel Sportsbook. The total has taken a dive from 40.5 to 38.5 in the same time span.

Steelers Offense vs. Browns Defense

Mitch Trubisky and the Steelers’ offense have gotten off to a rough start. The passing game is sputtering, as the Steelers currently rank last in yards per passing attempt at 5.1 and 30th in positive pass percentage at 34.7%. The rushing game is not much better, as it ranks 24th in yards per carry at 3.8.

A major question coming into this season for the Steelers was the offensive line play. However, it has surprisingly held up thus far, ranking 4th in pass blocking Total Points at 14.1, 14th in run blocking Total Points at 9.4, and 10th in pressure rate allowed at  25.6% of dropbacks.

To get the offense going, offensive coordinator Matt Canada will have to expand the playbook to get his team’s offense out of the cellar. Through two games, the Steelers are trotting out 11 personnel 82% of the time, the 4th-highest rate in the league. This grouping has produced an uninspiring 39% positive play rate, which ranks 29th. Additionally, the Steelers have run play-action only 10% of the time, which ranks 26th in the NFL. Predictable personnel and play calling have to change for the Steelers to improve offensively.

On the other side of the ball, the Browns come into this game allowing 7.9 yards per passing attempt, the 5th-highest in the league. However, factoring out the 4th quarter where the Browns have taken a lead into both of their games, this number improves to 6.4 yards per attempt.

Myles Garrett has certainly proved himself as a favorite for Defensive Player of the Year in the early going, posting 3 sacks and 7.1 pass rush Total Points, good for 3rd and 1st in the league, respectively.

Overall, however, the Browns only rank 28th in pressure rate as a unit. With Jadeveon Clowney and Chase Winovich ruled out already, the Browns will have to rely on Garrett to generate a pass rush and hope a few others step up, as well.

 

With a short week, it would be hard to see any major changes made to the Steelers’ offensive philosophy. More of the same should be expected, which certainly isn’t a sign of hope come Thursday night.

Browns Offense vs. Steelers Defense

With Jacoby Brissett under center until Deshaun Watson carries out his suspension, the Browns have gone to their bread and butter: running the football. The Browns rank 4th in yards per rushing attempt at 5.3 and have posted the 5th-highest EPA per attempt with 0.12.

The one-two punch of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are once again proving that they are the best running back duo in the league. Chubb leads the league in rushing Total Points with 11, with Hunt being not that far behind in 7th with 5.3.

With an offensive line that has gotten off to a slow start (20th in run blocking Total Points), both Chubb and Hunt have been able to create success on their own. Both of them rank in the top 10 in broken tackle plus missed tackles per attempt percentage and yards after contact per attempt.

From a passing perspective, the Browns rank 16th in adjusted net yards per attempt with 5.6 and are 13th in positive pass percentage at 46%. Running more play-action passes might help the Browns find more success in the passing game, as they rank 17th in play action usage with one of the most effective ground games in the league.

On defense, the Steelers rank 10th in yards per rush attempt allowed at 4.0 and 4th in positive run percentage allowed at 32.3%. The addition of Myles Jack to the linebacking core has helped turn around this run defense, which ranks 20th in run defense Total Points among linebackers.

Additionally, the Steelers will have to continue to figure out how to generate pressure without T.J. Watt. With Watt off the field last week, the Steelers were unable to register a sack against the Patriots. In 2021, the Steelers allowed -0.06 EPA per pass play with Watt on the field, but they allowed 0.17 EPA per pass play with Watt off the field.

Conclusion

This game has all the makings to be a hard-nosed, physical football game. Coming off the fireworks of last week’s Thursday Night shootout in KC, this game looks to appease those who cherish old-school football at its finest. 

With strength vs. strength on both sides and a Steelers offense still searching for a rhythm, it comes as no shock to see a total below 40 points.

James Weaver contributed to this report.

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