Inside Conditions: Is the Steelers defense up for the challenge?

by Aubrey Bruce
For New Pittsburgh Courier

The 2020 NFL postseason begins this weekend. The Pittsburgh Steelers are scheduled to play the Cleveland Browns on Sunday night, Jan. 10, at 8:15 p.m.

The Browns earned a playoff spot at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland barely squeezing by the Steelers, 24-22, last weekend. Although the Steelers rested several key offensive and defensive starters, namely quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and possible NFL Defensive Player of the Year, linebacker T.J. Watt, the Browns ended up only three points away from filling positions as couch potatoes for this year’s playoffs.

The upcoming rematch between Pittsburgh and Cleveland may come down to several elements: quarterback play, defensive line performance, the Browns running game and time of possession. Normally, most prognosticators (including me) would give the advantage of projected quarterback performance to the seasoned Ben Roethlisberger.

However, these are not normal times because the pass- and run-blocking of the Steelers’ offensive line has been substandard (that’s putting it mildly) for the majority of the 2020 season. They are less than stellar as pass blockers and more horrible run blockers.

The only reason that Ben Roethlisberger has avoided many possible sacks for losses is because he gets rid of the ball quickly. However, there are a few negative situations that may result of that quick release. First and foremost, it may be almost impossible to do a three-read progression on passing downs because of that quick release. Also, the Browns’ defensive backs may have a faster reaction time based on those quick throws.

Second, underthrows, overthrows, and just plain missed throws may be the result of rushed passes because of Roethlisberger’s lack of mobility. If there is a critical third-and-long that must be made at a crucial time and none of the Steelers’ wide receivers can get open, then based on his lack of mobility, there may be only four possible outcomes: punt, incompletion, sack or pick.
Expecting Roethlisberger to convert a third-and-long by running the ball may be wishful thinking.

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)

Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield can extend a pass play, run for a first down, or throw the ball away. Most important, he has two Pro Bowl-caliber running backs, Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb, along with a mean, nasty, big-bodied, zip code-sized offensive line that regularly opens freeway-sized holes for the aforementioned backs to zip through, oftentimes with minimum contact. There is no comparison when the Browns’ offensive line is compared with the Steelers’ offensive line.

As far as the defenses of both teams are concerned, the Steelers have lost a few key players to injury but they continue to be better than the Browns’ “D.” If the Steelers keep pressure on Baker Mayfield and Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler makes sure that a spy is assigned to Mayfield to limit him from running around improvising and extending plays, then defensively it may be advantage Steelers.

The Steelers must stop or limit the running attack of the Browns to decrease their time of possession, as well as limiting their first downs, which gets the Pittsburgh defense off the field. When the Steelers defense is on the field too long, they begin to stand around the line of scrimmage with their hands on their hips, obviously indicating that fatigue has set in. Pittsburgh cannot allow the Browns’ running game to gouge them for multiple first downs, tiring them out, because if they do, the fourth quarter will be a moot point…you dig.

Let’s hope that Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense doesn’t commit multiple turnovers or drop multiple passes, putting more pressure on their defense to bail them out. As far as time of possession is concerned, if the Steelers defense does not spend more than 30 minutes on the field, the men of steel will prevail.

My prediction: Steelers 24-17.

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