Even with Ben Roethlisberger in tow, the Cleveland Browns were still regarded by the oddsmakers as the favorites to win the AFC North in 2019, over both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. While the Browns did manage to beat the Ravens, they are sitting at just 3-6 on the season and in third place in the AFC North, far from a playoff spot.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has gone 5-2 since Roethlisberger last played, and while that has largely been thanks to the exceptional play of the defense, the stability that Mason Rudolph has provided has been a meaningful factor as well.
And so as they get set to square off for the first time this season, we take a look at some of the things to watch out for in this significant divisional matchup, with the Steelers remaining in a vulnerable position. Even though they are currently lined up for a spot in the postseason, they don’t have any margin for error.
First and foremost, for me, is the return of James Conner. The running game has been like pulling teeth outside of an incidental 45-yard breakout run by Trey Edmunds two weeks ago since Conner went down. He’s not going to be at 100 percent, but they need him to give them something today.
I’ll also be looking at the play of the line as a whole. There were a number of penalties against them last week, including two holding calls on Alejandro Villanueva, who hasn’t been at his best at the moment. Today he gets Myles Garrett. Fortunately, Ramon Foster has worked his way back to help clarify that left side.
With Joe Haden coming down with an illness, you have to wonder how close to 100 percent he’ll be tonight, when he has to run with Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry. This is the sort of matchup, talentwise, for which the Steelers made sure to acquire a pair of corners like Haden and Steven Nelson, so it’s time for them to earn their pay.
Then there is the ground game, which is just getting Kareem Hunt involved. He only had four carries on Sunday, but was productive doing it, and he was on the field a lot, even blocking for Nick Chubb, who had 116 yards on 20 carries. The front seven really needs to slow down the run game today.
While I respect and appreciate Chris Hubbard, he represents a favorable matchup for T.J. Watt, who is playing at an All-Pro level. Greg Robinson on the other side has already been benched once this year. Bud Dupree didn’t get a sack on Sunday, but he put Andrew Whitworth on his butt multiple times.
Finally, one of the key themes of this season, and driver of the team’s success, has been their ability to produce turnovers. The Browns have been generous in this department, with Baker Mayfield having thrown 12 interceptions. Chubb has also lost three fumbles. On paper, this sounds like a game in which they should be able to steal some possessions, but this can always be a crapshoot. They’ve had multiple takeaways in eight straight games, but a streak has got to come to an end sooner or later.