The Week 3 edition of “Thursday Night Football” features an old-school AFC North rivalry as the Cleveland Browns host the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both teams suffered disheartening losses a week ago, after taking victories in the last moments in week 1.
The Browns blew a double-digit lead in the final two minutes of their game against the Jets, while the Steelers barely moved the ball against the Patriots all day. Each of these teams is trying to get back in the victory column and jump, at least temporarily, to first place in the division, and hopefully build some kind of foundation on which to run to the playoffs.
Which of them will return to their winning ways? We’ll know soon enough. Before we break down the game, you can watch tonight’s game here.
How to watch?
Date: Thursday September 22 | Time: 8:20 PM ETLocation: FirstEnergy Stadium (Cleveland)Stream: Amazon Prime Video Watch: CBS Sports App Odds: Browns -4.5, O/U 38.5
When the Steelers have the ball
The Pittsburgh attack is in big trouble. In two games, the Steelers have only racked up 510 yards, 30th in the NFL. They are actually ranked 31st per game. They rank 26th in points per ride, 29th in Tru Media’s EPA each and 22nd in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA.
Most problems start along the offensive line, where things are pretty dire. They just can’t generate any push in the run game. They have one of the highest first-down run rates in the league (50 percent), and on those plays it averaged just 2.9 yards per rush. Despite dealing with eight-man boxes on only 18 percent of runs, the Steelers averaged just 1.30 yards for contact per attempt. In games where Najee Harris was the ball carrier (as opposed to Mitchell Trubisky, Jaylen Warren or Chase Claypool), that figure is even worse — only 0.44 per attempt.
But Harris, who sustained a Lisfranc injury during training camp and re-injured his foot in week 1, just doesn’t look healthy. Of the 44 players with at least 15 rush attempts this season, he ranks 32nd in tackles avoided and 31st in yards on contact per attempt. Last season, he was seventh in tackles avoided and 21st in yards after contacting 53 players with 100 carries or more.
The Browns have put in just 3.77 yards per rush so far this season, and a ridiculous 0.33 for contact. The idea that the Steelers are rushing to success in this game, given how things have gone so far this year, seems rather far-fetched. And that puts the game in Trubisky’s hands, which isn’t great.
Trubisky is 42 of 71 (59.2 percent) for 362 yards (5.2 per attempt), two touchdowns and one interception so far this season. That’s despite a below-average pressure rate (28 percent) and one of the lowest blitz rates in the league (20 percent). According to the NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats, he has been thrown into a tight window on 22.5 percent of his passes and is off target with his throws 16.7 percent of the time, according to Tru Media. He has failed to link up with explosive rookie George Pickens, who has already been on the field for 78 percent of the team’s offensive snaps but has only been targeted five times. His numbers with the other passcatchers aren’t much better: Claypool has eight receptions for just 44 yards on 12 goals. Diontae Johnson is 8.6 yards per reception lower in his career. Pat Freiermuth’s catch rate has fallen to 52.9 percent (from 75.9 a year ago).
This is not a sustainable situation for a violation, and there is no reason to expect it to get better any time soon. Pickett’s time is coming, maybe tonight when Trubisky is struggling. With a mini-bye for the team’s Week 4 game against the Jets, there’s probably no better chance of making the switch.
If Trubisky (or Pickett) can figure out a way to try and push the ball across the field, there just might be opportunities. Cleveland has allowed more completions on throws over 20 air yards than any team in the NFL except the Jaguars, despite playing against Baker Mayfield and Joe Flacco. However, getting the ball into the field usually takes time in the pocket, and the more time in the pocket, the more opportunity for the defense to generate pressure. Cleveland is seventh in the NFL in terms of pressure so far this season, with Myles Garrett leading the way. Trubisky has long been extremely sensitive to pressure and would much rather get off the ball quickly and in short areas than take his chances with rushers in his face. For those reasons, he seems much more likely to keep aiming under throws, thus making few – if any – explosive plays.
When the Browns have the ball
Unsurprisingly, the Browns have played the ball early and often, with great success. The Nick Chubb/Kareem Hunt duo are some of the best in the NFL, taking the Browns to 5.28 yards per carry, despite having the second-fastest speed in the NFL with eight boxers (33 percent of carries, according to Tru Media). They have an NFL-best 12 runs from 15 yards or more, accounting for a league-high 15.8 percent share of their total carry.
The ability to generate explosives in the run game is especially important, as the pass game at the moment is more of a possession-based, move-the-chains unit, with Jacoby Brissett in the middle. Pittsburgh has done a good job against the run so far this season, but also played against two relatively weak offensive lines (Cincinnati, New England) compared to the one against Cleveland on Thursday night. Without TJ Watt, the Steelers could be more sensitive to the ground attack than before, now that it’s tasked with taking on one of the league’s best run-blocking units.
Of course, the Steelers aren’t lanky up front — even without Watts. They still bring Cameron Heyward, Tyson Alualu, Larry Ogunjobi, Chris Wormley, Alex Highsmith and even Malik Reed to the table. They can still go after the quarterback and get him to the ground or just keep him in the pocket where he will face some heavy pressure.
The Browns will definitely try to get Jacoby Brissett moving with play-action and bootleg concepts, with the only major downfield perimeter they have right now, Amari Cooper. Tight end David Njoku, a top athlete, has seen his pace increase after being handed a major contract this off-season, but he has yet to get significantly more involved in the passing game. It’s tempting to say this would be a good week to finally get him going, but he might be dealing with Minkah Fitzpatrick’s focus for much of the evening. Fitzpatrick has had a great start to the season with two interceptions in as many weeks, and he covers as much of the back of the field as any safety in football. Any Brissett pass to his deep half of the field can be plucked if it is far out of bounds.
Ultimately, this game seems likely to come down to a matter of trust, where a foul can have some measure of success in moving the ball. Given the relative strength of Cleveland’s run game compared to every aspect of Pittsburgh’s attack, that’s the way we should lean.
Prediction: Browns 20, Steelers 13