Let Big Ben play his game if the Steelers are to beat the Browns
by Mike Pelaia
For New Pittsburgh Courier
The Pittsburgh Steelers just wrapped up a 12-4 season, winning the AFC North and earning the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs, which begin this Saturday, Jan. 9. As such, the Steelers will host the Cleveland Browns this Sunday night, Jan. 10, in a rematch of the season finale won by the Browns, 24-22.
The Browns are a much-improved team and are capable of beating the Steelers if they bring their “A” game. But the Steelers and their millions of fans must be feeling pretty good about the recent loss to the Browns considering the Browns were playing for their playoff lives and the Steelers essentially rolled out their JV squad.
After beating Cleveland, 38-7, in their first matchup and barely losing in their second tilt, Pittsburgh gets to host the third and most important game between these old rivals for the right to move into round two of the playoffs.
It won’t be an easy game. The Browns have a very solid offense, one that produced 2,374 rushing yards, led by Nick Chubb’s 1,067 yards and Kareem Hunt’s 841. It will be the primary focus of the Steelers defense to stop both Chubb and Hunt at the line, meaning the likes of Tyson Alualu, Vince Williams and Avery Williamson need to plug holes and pressure the Browns’ offensive line early and often. If the Steelers are able to stuff the run, or at least neutralize it, they can take away the Browns’ play-action and force the ball into quarterback Baker Mayfield’s hands.
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Mayfield is a solid quarterback and had a strong 2020 campaign. He threw for over 3,500 yards and 26 touchdown passes to only eight interceptions, but he can be forced into bad throws and mistakes.
The Steelers, who led the league with 56 sacks, tallied eight of those sacks against Mayfield in the two games they faced against him this season, accounting for 31 percent of the sacks on Mayfield all season. Rushing linebackers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith from the edge while bringing pressure (the Steelers led the league with a 33.8 percent pressure rate) with Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt will be the key to success against Mayfield. He’s a nimble athlete and can scramble a bit, but if the Steelers can keep him in the pocket, they’ll be able to put him on the ground and keep him from hitting Jarvis Landry down the side for any big plays. I look for the defense to add another four sacks this Sunday and really keep the Browns offense on edge all game long.
Offensively, I’m looking for Ben Roethlisberger to take over. He’s played in several big games in his career and the pressure shouldn’t get to him. I fully believe the team needs to run more no-huddle offense this Sunday and keep the Browns defense on their toes. Roethlisberger completed 65 percent of his passes this season with most being thrown for short-yardage plays, but he proved against the Colts in the second half of the game a few weeks ago that he’s indeed still capable of throwing deep. Offensive Coordinator Randy Fichtner needs to let Ben play his brand of football; otherwise this team will exit early.
Pittsburgh needs to take advantage of rookie Chase Claypool, who is a great jump-ball and deep-ball threat, along with Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster, obviously. But I firmly believe they must try to establish the run to set up play-action. The Steelers are far more effective passing the ball when they show some threat running it. James Conner needs to get the ball 20-25 times and average four yards per carry or more to really help elevate the Steelers offense. On top of that, mixing in Anthony McFarland with his quick burst of speed would be a nice addition to the offense, but perhaps most importantly, I would really like to see the offense sprinkle in some Josh Dobbs plays. Against the Browns on Jan. 3, Dobbs was able to effectively move the ball on a few plays and I believe he brings another element to the offense with his legs that neither Roethlisberger nor Mason Rudolph can.
Lastly, the Steelers must keep Myles Garrett away from Roethlisberger. Garrett is a fantastic pass-rusher and is no easy task to stop. Pittsburgh may want to consider bringing in extra help to chip him or add another man to block him, he’s that good.
If the Steelers can stuff the run, contain Mayfield, set up play-action and run the no-huddle offense, they will make quick work of Cleveland on Sunday night, Jan. 10, and advance to the divisional round of the playoffs. I think that is exactly what will happen with a Steelers victory of 30-17.
VINCE WILLIAMS and the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Cleveland Browns in the opening round of the NFL playoffs, Sunday, Jan. 10, at 8:15 p.m. on WPXI-TV (Channel 11). (Photos by Karl Roser/Pittsburgh Steelers)