It’s getting harder to write about hollow wins for this football team.
The Pittsburgh Steelers limp into week 10 against the Cleveland Browns down two franchise players in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Le’Veon Bell. There have been whispers that Roethlisberger might play, but don’t buy into that for a single second – he’s not playing against the Browns. This means that, again, for the fifth time this season, the Steelers will have to turn to another quarterback to start under center. Landry Jones gets his second career start against a Browns’ defense without its starting cornerback and safety. This could point to wide receiver Antonio Brown having another video game-type day.
This is a game that, had Roethlisberger played, would’ve been a disaster on all fronts for the Browns. Not only would they be down their starting cornerback in Joe Haden — a player that Brown has routinely made his whipping boy, but that’s beside the point — the Browns’ defense is incapable of stopping the run. This is the game in which not having Bell in the backfield may show through the most. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m anticipating another massive game from running back DeAngelo Williams, as he has shown to be a top-10 NFL running back to this point, but again, lacks the talent and ability of Bell.
This is where the key matchup in this game lies offensively.
Key Matchup to Watch for Offensively
Running back DeAngelo Williams vs. the Cleveland Browns’ run defense
The Browns’ run defense currently ranks dead last in football in stopping the run, allowing an average of 147.6 yards per game. Williams just ran for 170 yards with two touchdowns against the Oakland Raiders run defense, ranked in the top 8 in football averaging 96.9 yards per game.
The offensive gameplan for the Steelers is a simple one: take the ball out of Landry Jones’s hands and put it into Williams’s. This isn’t a knock on Jones, however. Williams might be playing the best football of his career, and he’s 32 years old. Allowing him to run the ball efficiently against a Browns defense not only wears out a talent-depleted front seven, but it effectively sets up the play-action deep ball to Brown. This is a secondary that struggles to stop the pass, allowing over 250 yards per game on average. Mentioned previously, this is a defense down two of its starting defensive backs.
For the second week in a row, I’m going to dish out some free fantasy advice: start Brown.
Back to Williams. This is a defense that invested in their defensive line, taking defensive tackle Danny Shelton in the first round and he has not lived up to the billing. While not playing overly poorly, the young tackle struggles with pad leverage and gets moved off of the ball with ease. The interior of the Steelers’ offensive line should be able to dominate the line of scrimmage, allowing Williams to rip off consistent runs throughout the game.
Expect another big game from Williams.
On the other boundary opposite Brown is receiver Martavis Bryant, a player poised for a true breakout game since returning from suspension. The good news for Bryant is he seemingly has chemistry with Jones, scoring all of his touchdowns on the season with the third-year passer under center. I would expect to see a number of deep shots to Bryant this game, taking advantage of a porous secondary.
Tight end Heath Miller and receiver Markus Wheaton have been quiet with Jones under center and this is a trend I expect to continue. Wheaton was recently quoted in saying his dip in production can be attributed to his lack of chemistry with Jones and quarterback Michael Vick, and while there is validity in this, he has also been unproductive with Roethlisberger on the field. Assign whatever reason you’d like, but I wouldn’t expect Wheaton to be a major part of the gameplan on Sunday. Miller, for perhaps similar reasons, is in the same boat. The lack of chemistry between Jones and Miller has shown through, and Jones has not been able to find the always-reliable Miller underneath. The quick strike offense that Haley has implemented has made Miller the third and fourth read on most offensive plays and is most productive when Roethlisberger extends the play and finds him to move the chains. Jones lacks the ability to get out of the pocket and keep the play alive. As such, expect the veteran tight end to be effective in the run game but not much else.
The gameplan for the Steelers is fairly simple in theory. Williams needs to be allowed to pound the ball to set up play-action and allow Jones to work with simple reads. Jones needs to be allowed to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers. Brown, Williams and Bryant can shoulder the load against a defense struggling to find their identity.
Key Matchup to Watch for Defensively
Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt’s Gap Control
Ryan Shazier vs. Johnny Manziel
There are two things I’d like to highlight here, but they fall under the same banner: the Steelers defense needs to keep quarterback Johnny Manziel in the pocket. The Steelers’ defensive line maintaining gap integrity, forcing Manziel to make throws from inside the pocket is the key to shutting down an anemic Browns offense. Manziel has struggled to make simple reads and throws from inside the pocket and has burned teams that allow him to get outside the pocket and make plays down the field with both his legs and arm. Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt have both played exceptionally well this season and have proven to be dominant in the pass rush, but this game calls for gap integrity to perhaps take priority. Getting the second-year passer on the ground is, of course, important, but forcing him into hurried throws against complex formations is the name of the game. This is a game in which the Steelers secondary may have an advantage. It may be the only game in which this is the case.
Ryan Shazier plays a key role in forcing Manziel into the pocket as well. Similarly to how Shazier was lined up in a spy against quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the Steelers linebacker must keep Manziel from ripping off big plays with his legs against a defense that has struggled with mobile quarterbacks in the past. Shazier’s speed is an asset that this defense was lacking for a long time, but this is where it can be best utilized.
Score Predictions and Parting Shots
This is a game in which the Steelers cannot lose. For that reason, I don’t put much, if any stock into the “playing down the competition” worry amongst Steelers fans right now. It’s hard to play down to the competition with your franchise quarterback and running back out to injury.
Steelers 27 – Browns 14.