On Monday night, the Browns have a chance to play spoiler against their division rivals, as they travel to Pittsburgh for the final "Monday Night Football" game of the regular season. The Steelers need to win out against the Browns and Ravens and also get some help. It's important to take things one step at a time, though, and that means getting this win against the Browns on Monday night.
Will Pittsburgh get it done, or will Cleveland put a crimp in its rival's postseason plans? We'll find out soon enough. For now, let's break down the matchup.
How to watch
When the Browns have the ball
The Browns should finally be mostly healthy on offense for this game, after playing several weeks with injury and/or COVID-19 issues among both their offensive line and their skill-position corps. They'll have four of their five intended starters on the offensive front, could have both of their star running backs (Kareem Hunt is listed as questionable), and should have all three tight ends and their full complement of wide receivers.
This matchup actually sets up quite nicely for the Browns as well. The strength of their team is the run game. Even with both Hunt and Nick Chubb missing time this year, the Browns rank second in rushing offense DVOA at Football Outsiders. They've averaged 5.1 yards per carry on the season, and of the three backs (the two starters and D'Ernest Johnson) with 50-plus carries, Hunt's 4.9 yards per carry average is the worst among them. Both Chubb and Johnson are over 5.5 yards per tote.
Pittsburgh's run defense has been ghastly in recent weeks. Their 0.07 EPA allowed per rush attempt ranks worst in the NFL since Week 10. The Steelers have allowed three games of 200 or more rushing yards during that time. They have not held an opponent under 100 rush yards since Week 9, and have yielded 5.24 yards per carry during that span. They've even allowed 4.4 yards per rush when stacking eight or more players inside the box -- a ridiculous figure that ranks far worse than the 3.1 per carry average, according to Tru Media.
Pittsburgh's defensive front has been riddled by injuries all season, and even with T.J. Watt back in the mix, they can still be run on by an opponent committed to finding the right angles on the ground. If there is anything we know about this Cleveland offense, it's that it will find the right angles on the ground. The questions come when they have to turn to the air, and put the offense on Baker Mayfield's shoulders.
The Steelers have been somewhat more vulnerable to play-action passing than straight dropbacks, though, which could potentially put Mayfield in position to succeed. Cleveland builds its aerial offense around play-fake passes that are supposed to look just like their runs until the moment the fake occurs. Getting the rush to flow toward Chubb or Hunt before booting out to the other side for easy throws should be a big part of the game plan on Monday night.
When the Steelers have the ball
Pittsburgh's offense is anemic and occasionally embarrassing.
Ben Roethlisberger ranks 26th out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks in EPA per dropback, with only Jacoby Brissett, Sam Darnold, and four rookies (Davis Mills, Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields) behind him. Big Ben is "big" no more, preferring instead to throw short passes as close to the line of scrimmage as possible, almost all of the time.
His 6.8 air yards per attempt average is second-lowest in the NFL; he's thrown an incredible 61.6 percent of his passes to a target within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Even on those plays, he's not particularly effective. He has a negative EPA per dropback average. Just about the only time he's willing to throw the ball down the field is when he has a one-on-one matchup on the perimeter, and he can just loft a 50-50 ball into the air for Chase Claypool or Diontae Johnson to try and win. He'll almost never test the defense on deep throws in the middle of the field. He doesn't have the arm strength -- or the willingness to stand in the pocket and let the play develop, lest he take a hit.
As we've written previously, Pittsburgh's ground game is also ineffective. Najee Harris does his best to make things work, but the offensive line gives him almost no room to run, so no matter how many tackles he breaks, he's almost always limited to short gains. It should not be surprising that taking a running back in the first round did not fix Pittsburgh's rushing offense. That's not how the NFL works.
The Cleveland defensive front should be able to handle the offensive line with relative ease, bottling up Harris and forcing the game to rest on Roethlisberger's ability to make a big play with his arm. Given the state of his game at the moment, it's tough to see that happening all that often.
Prediction: Browns 20, Steelers 17