One of the big conversations in the week heading into the first meeting of the season between the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers is who will be under center for the home team in Ohio. The Steelers will have their Buckeye State native on the field in the form of Ben Roethlisberger, but who will be slinging the ball for the Browns?
Their starter is, of course, Baker Mayfield, the former first overall draft pick, but he has been dealing with some significant injuries this year, and missed the team’s most recent game last Thursday. He has a torn labrum and a fractured humerus—yet he’s practicing. That’s not the biggest thing the Steelers defense is concentrating on, however.
“I like Baker Mayfield. I think he’s a little better than Case Keenum. I think he has a little more arm strength”, cornerback Joe Haden said. “But besides that, they’re really a heavy run-first team. Their offensive line is unreal, and then their running backs behind them are amazing. They’ve been running the ball really well for a while now”.
It’s true that the Browns have been among the best rushing teams in the past couple of years, led by Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb, but the rebuilt offensive line has been the true catalyst for the entire offense, as well. And Pittsburgh understands the ground game is what sets up Cleveland’s passing game.
“The key thing to stopping the Browns is not just stopping Baker, standing back there dropping back to pass. When in first and second down, put them in third-and-long possessions”, he said. “But they don’t get in those possessions because they’ve been running the ball so well. I think our biggest thing is making sure we can stop the run, and hopefully get them into the pass”.
The Browns have a (pretty) strong third-down conversion rate, and their average distance on third down is certainly one of the reasons why that is. Their manageable possession downs are set up by a run game that consistently keeps them on schedule. So what is Haden’s job as a cornerback?
“It’s just really disciplined eyes”, he said. “Unless the receivers are crack blocking or start blocking you, our main goal is to make sure they don’t get over our heads. So the front eight is gonna be able to handle that. But just making sure, it’s eyes and keys”.
The thing is, the secondary, particularly Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick, has been the biggest concern this year so far with respect to tackling inefficiency. They can spy for the run game all they want, but it really won’t make a substantial difference if they’re not making the tackles they’re supposed to.