Throughout the Pittsburgh Steelers season, I will be doing a weekly piece on an intriguing matchup to watch for each game. The focus will be on choosing an important battle for the upcoming game and give you some background information that could be something to keep an eye on come game time. For example, it could focus on key players on each team that will be going head to head or how a defense will try to stop a specific player. Let’s get into it.
The Steelers will take their first swing at an AFC North opponent this year with the 4-1 Cleveland Browns coming to town. Record-wise this will stand as Pittsburgh’s first true test against a quality opponent. With it being a rival battling for the top spot in the division it makes this game that much bigger.
The media will run rampant during the games lead up with it being Myles Garrett’s first game against the Steelers since the helmet swing at Steelers’ then-starting quarterback, Mason Rudolph. The Browns teammates have gone on record saying that they’re playing this game for Garrett. Most recently, Cam Heyward, was quoted saying that the Steelers plan to ‘inflict good punishment’ on Baker Mayfield & make him think about his sore ribs that he’s currently recovering from hits he sustained against the Colts last Sunday. This is all adding fuel to the flame of what is one of the biggest Steelers and Browns games in recent memory.
The Steelers are coming off a game where they were able to pull of a win against the Eagles due in large part to their offense bailing out a defense that allowed 10 3rd down conversions and 29 points. Now with a Steelers defensive back unit that was viewed as one of the team’s biggest strengths is plagued with question marks including clear communication issues that you wouldn’t expect to see from a veteran group. That’s why our matchup of the week entails the Steelers pass defense against the Browns play-action pass game.
In Sunday’s game against the Colts, 13 of Baker Mayfield’s 37 passing attempts were accompanied by play-action (35%). Last year, Mayfield’s completion percentage increased by 10% to 66% on play-action passes compared to non-play-action dropbacks. Now, fast forward to this season that brought in former-Vikings offensive coordinator, Kevin Stefanski, into the fold to replace Freddie Kitchens as the head coach. Many view it as a perfect match for Mayfield. Stefanski was known for high play-action usage in his offense and used it on 31% of the Vikings pass plays last season.
Taking that a level deeper the Mayfield is even more successful on play-action rollouts. If you’ve watched many Browns games since Mayfield has entered the league you can tell he likes being out of the pocket, oftentimes unnecessarily drifting out of it and getting himself into trouble. But, when plays are designed as rollouts his completion percentage jumps to 65.2% on 23 attempts.
Coupling the play-action with the Browns’ strong run game this season creates a dangerous duo. It makes defenses have to be extremely disciplined with their eyes and be on the same page communication-wise in the backend or Cleveland will make them pay.
Against the Colts all 13 play-action plays for the Browns came from under center often in 12, 21, and 22 personnel. On one of the first plays against the Colts the Browns are lined up in 21 personnel and Mayfield fakes an outside handoff before rolling out. The rollout gives him ample time to set up and survey the field. You can see he has options here to hit Jarvis Landry (80) on the outside release post with the single-high safety following the rollout or Odell Beckham Jr (13) on the crosser. He chooses Landry and he comes down with it for the big gain.
While this play isn’t a rollout, it’s a great design. You can see the trips to one side and they essentially run a flood concept. A flood concept traditionally is hwere WR1 runs a seam, WR2 runs and out, and then WR3 runs a flat. Except they dress it up with a corner from 1 and a post corner from 2 and finally the chip-release flat from the tight end. An almost impossible concept to defend with a cover 3 look and Mayfield makes the easy throw to the post corner.
Another way the Browns like dressing up their offense is presnap motions. This is another situation where the defense must be on the same page, communicating who has what man post-motion. Here the Browns motion the tight end across the formation then motion Landry (80) across to fill his spot. He pretends to block down on the EDGE then leaks out into the flat in front of a bootlegging Mayfield. Landry can’t reel the ball in, but if he does he has a ton of green grass in front of him.
The one obvious thing about play-action is it takes more time to develop with the play fake as well as deeper route concepts downfield. So the obvious combatant is pressure.
The Browns come into week 6 with the highest-rated offensive line in the league per PFF with a pass-blocking score of 87.9 while the Steelers have the league-leading grade of 82.9. Strength against strength this week. If the Steelers can get pressure on Mayfield and disrupt the play-action game it’s going to take a lot of stress off of the defensive backs. Mayfield has been known to get rattled after being hit a few times, even more so now with his ailing ribs. Regardless, this is going to be a great game to watch as the teams matchup great across the board, should be fun!