The Pittsburgh Steelers will play their final regular season game of 2020 on Sunday afternoon on the road against the Cleveland Browns as they look to notch their thirteenth win after breaking a string of three consecutive losses last Sunday at home. Below are five key things that I believe the Steelers will need to do in the game to come away with a road win against the Browns to finish out the regular season with a 13-3 record and a sweep of the AFC North division.
Stop Rub-A-Chubb-Chubb – The Steelers didn’t have to face Browns running back Nick Chubb in the earlier season meeting between the two teams as he missed that contest with an MCL injury. For the season, Chubb has 959 yards and 11 touchdowns on 176 total carries. He also has a whopping 14 runs of 15 yards or longer on the season and that’s very impressive. The Browns will want to try to run quite a bit on the Steelers on Sunday and especially with the Pittsburgh front not having outside linebacker T.J. Watt and defensive tackle Cameron Heyward dressed. If the Browns can easily move the football on the ground Sunday against the Steelers defense, it could make for a long afternoon and a sure loss. Shutting down Chubb and the rest of the Browns running game on Sunday is the top priority. Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield must be made to beat the Steelers on Sunday with his arm.
Break The First Quarter Drought – The last time the Steelers offense scored a first quarter touchdown was in Week 10 against the Cincinnati Bengals. On top of that, the Steelers offense has produced just four first quarter touchdowns all season. Two came on runs by running back James Conner and wide receiver Chase Claypool and the two others were catches by wide receiver Diontae Johnson. On Sunday, backup quarterback Mason Rudolph will be tasked with the job of breaking that streak of six games without a first quarter offensive touchdown. It will be quite an accomplishment for him to do just that as well as the third-year quarterback out of Oklahoma State only had two such first quarter touchdown drives in the eight games he started in place of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger last season. If the Steelers can’t score early against the Browns and if Cleveland takes a two-possession lead by halftime, the second half might not be much fun to watch. This offense could really use at least one first quarter touchdown before the postseason gets underway.
Rader Of The Lost Running Game – The Steelers elevated tight end Kevin Rader from the team’s practice squad on Saturday and he’s guaranteed to dress and play on Sunday against the Browns. Rader might very well be the best blocking tight end on the 2020 Steelers and it’s time to find out if that’s indeed the case. The Steelers need to continue to attempt to get their running game somewhat functional on Sunday against the Browns. To do that, they might need to run some 12 and 22 personnel groupings that obviously include two tight ends. At worst, Rader hopefully should play at least 15 offensive snaps on Sunday against the Browns and in the process get to show what kind of run blocker that he is. It’s sink or swim on Sunday for Rader and it might be his one and only chance to prove himself in a real NFL game. Who knows, maybe he can help get the running game on track.
Situationally Sound – Beating the Browns on Sunday without Roethlisberger and several other starters will be quite a task for the Steelers. That task will be made easier, however, if the Steelers offense can be situationally sound throughout the game. While nobody expects the Steelers offense to be perfect on third downs on Sunday, anything under 5 yards must be converted on the money down and that includes third and one and third and two opportunities, which the unit has stunk at most of the season. For his career, Rudolph is 44 of 79 on third downs with four touchdowns and three interceptions. He’s also been sacked seven times on third downs. Only 28 times did he move the chains in those 86 third down drop backs to date. On third and 5 or less for his career entering Week 17, Rudolph is 13 of 29 with two touchdowns and no interceptions and he’s been sacked five times. Of those 34 third and 5 or less drop backs, Rudolph has converted just 12 times for 35%. All red zone chances must be converted into touchdowns on Sunday as there isn’t likely to be many of them. That’s another area that Rudolph has struggled in when he’s played. The Browns defense will be without several starters on Sunday due to COVID issues and that includes cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson and safety Andrew Sendejo along with B.J. Goodson and Malcolm Smith. The Browns top three team leaders in tackles entering Week 17 are Goodson, Smith and Sendejo. That helps even up the score some for the Steelers offense, who will be missing Roethlisberger along with center Maurkice Pouncey and tight end Eric Ebron on Sunday.
Stay Healthy, My Friends – The Steelers will sit several starters on Sunday and attempt to get several others out of the game sooner rather than later. Even so, a good chunk of the 53-man roster will need to play quite a few snaps on Sunday in what is essentially a meaningless game for the team. The worst thing that can happen on Sunday in Cleveland against the Browns is that injuries are sustained that result in a player or players missing the team’s first playoff game next weekend. The Steelers got out of their Week 16 game against the Indianapolis Colts relatively healthy. Here’s to them being able to do the same on Sunday in Cleveland against the Browns.