It’s been a ‘long’ wait for Pittsburgh Steelers fans. Today marks the team’s first postseason game in a little over three years, having last qualified during the 2017 season, missing in both the 2018 and 2019 seasons—even though had the postseason format of this year been adopted two years earlier, they would have been in the tournament in those years as well.
Of course, the Steelers’ wait had not been nearly as long as their opponents, as this is the Cleveland Browns’ first postseason game since 2002. And their previous postseason game before that came in 1994. Both of their past two postseason games resulted in their losing to the Steelers.
This will be, by the way, the Steelers’ 22nd postseason game since the Browns’ most recent, which needless to say, is a stark contrast, and they will be playing it without their first-year head coach, Kevin Stefanski, who tested positive for Covid-19 during the week leading up to the game.
The virus, of course, will have its stamp on this game. The Steelers will be without Joe Haden because of it. The Browns will, most notably, be without Joel Bitonio, their Pro Bowl left guard, and the real concern here is that their top two backups, Chris Hubbard and Nick harris, are not available due to injury.
This will be a key matchup in the game as Cameron Heyward, coming back from a week off, gets to face a first-year player who pretty much does not have prior playing experience. And T.J. Watt, also coming off a week off, will perhaps be facing Jack Conklin at right tackle, who is battling an illness and is listed as questionable to play.
Pittsburgh is down some starters, but they are at least getting Robert Spillane back at linebacker, who took over a starting spot after Devin Bush was injured. They have certainly missed him in his absence, and he should hopefully help to solidify a running game that has struggled without him.
That will be one of the keys to the game with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt hungry for some postseason success, particularly the former, who has solidified himself as one of the very best true runners in the NFL, and made a difference last week. Keeping Baker Mayfield contained but also under duress will be the other factor, defensively, as they struggled with that last week.
Of course, the offense has to do some work, as well, and perhaps the biggest question is whether or not the deep passing game is going to be there. The Steelers seemed to rekindle that spark over the course of the past six quarters, but can they carry that into the playoffs?
The absence of Denzel Ward for the Browns can help. Kevin Johnson will also be out, on the Reserve/Covid-19 List, so Cleveland will be down a couple of key players in the secondary. This is where Ben Roethlisberger and company must exploit them.