It’s largely true that every game for the rest of the season is ‘the biggest game of the year’. Even with that said, however, today’s game is the biggest game of the year for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who very much need a win over the Cleveland Browns to keep just ahead of the pack for a wildcard spot.
For starters, they are only ‘ahead’ of the pack by virtue of tiebreakers. At 6-5, they are, in fact, in a four-way tie for the second-best non-division-leading record in the AFC, along with the Oakland Raiders, the Tennessee Titans, and the Indianapolis Colts. And the Raiders have the same number of conference losses, which is something to keep an eye on.
To make matters worse, a loss to the Browns would put them even in the win-loss column, but permanently behind Cleveland because the latter will then own the season-long head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of sweeping the season. The only thing that could possibly change that would be for the Browns to win the rest of their games and the Baltimore Ravens to lose the rest of theirs to force a three-way tie in the division at 10-6.
So, yeah, this is a significant game, which losing would make it extremely hard to overcome this deep into the season. And, incredibly, so much of their ability to win is tied to the play of their third-string quarterback, undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges.
Hodges’ first responsibility above all else is to protect the football. He seemed to do that last week, when he opted to throw three of six incomplete passes away rather than try to put the ball in a dangerous position. At home and with a full week’s worth of first-team reps, however, I would anticipate him being a little less cautious this time around.
The ability to run the ball successfully was key last week, so it’s important that the line can help Benny Snell have another good game. The Browns are one of the worst run defenses the Steelers have faced this year, but they weren’t able to have success against them two weeks ago.
As has been the case much of the year, the onus will be on the defense to go above and beyond. They gave up multiple 40-plus-yard plays and failed to record a takeaway the last time they faced the Browns, which has been completely the opposite of what they have been doing for most of the season. They have to get back to their usual routine today.
The main thing? Don’t let Baker Mayfield out of the pocket. Both T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree have favorable matchups today, but they can’t overpursue and let the quarterback escape, because that’s how they got killed two weeks ago.
Steady communication is the other factor I would concern myself with, as well, which does tie into the rush lane integrity. But they can’t have any more open receivers like they did the last time around. They can’t allow the tight end to be continually open on third down.