When Pittsburgh loads up the bus for the short commute across the border to Cleveland for their divisional matchup against the Browns, all eyes will be on the Steelers and how they come out after the disappointing defeat Cleveland gave them in the Wildcard Round of the playoffs last season. Pittsburgh is coming into this matchup relatively healthy outside of the losses of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Tyson Alualu for the season as well as the unknown status of when Stephon Tuitt may return. The Browns have been beat up in recent weeks but appear to be getting key players back with RB Nick Chubb and RT Jack Conklin resuming practice this week. Jadeveon Clowney is also nursing a slew of ailments but likely will play.
QB Baker Mayfield is a real question mark for Cleveland as he currently is dealing with a small fracture and a partially torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder. He missed last week’s contest against the Denver Broncos, but has resumed practicing this week, although it is currently up in the air as to whether he will be starting Sunday against Pittsburgh given his pain tolerance and possibility of worsening the injury. If Mayfield cannot go, backup Case Keenum will likely get his second consecutive start.
While the headlines may be on the QB situation for Cleveland, my eyes turn toward the actual engine of the Browns offense: the running game. HC Kevin Stefanski has taken a page out of the book during his time with the Minnesota Vikings and has built a dominant running game with a Top-5 offensive line coupled with a dynamic duo at running back with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt in the backfield. Hunt is currently on IR and Chubb is attempting to play Sunday after missing time with a calf injury, but all signs point to him being active Sunday.
While backup D’Ernest Johnson had a good showing last Thursday against the Broncos, getting Chubb back would be a huge boost to the Cleveland running game. Chubb has had his way with Pittsburgh in the last couple of matchups, showcasing his speed, strength, and explosiveness by ripping off big plays against what is normally a formidable defensive front. Here is one example from last season in the Week 17 matchup against Cleveland where Chubb gets the right corner after getting a great block by #78 Jack Conklin, making multiple defenders miss as he gets into open space and evades a poor tackle attempt by #39 Minkah Fitzpatrick for the long TD run.
Granted, Pittsburgh didn’t play several key starters like T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward in this matchup, but with the likes of Alualu and Tuitt out for Sunday’s matchup, Pittsburgh will be short-handed again against Cleveland’s top offensive weapon. Chubb made a similar impact in the playoff game against Pittsburgh both as a runner as well as a receiver. Here on this play, Chubb runs the slip screen as #64 JC Tretter gets out in front and picks up #98 Vince Williams to clear the way for Chubb who avoids an ankle tackle by another defender flying in and hits the jets for the score.
When watching the All-22 view of the play, you see several mistakes by Pittsburgh as Williams can’t fight off the block by Tretter at the second level as well as several missed tackle attempts as Chubb gets a wide-open runway for the walk-in TD.
It should be noted that LB #55 Devin Bush was not available in either of these games last season against Cleveland as he suffered a torn ACL and underwent surgery in late October last year. A full year removed from the injury, Bush has returned to the starting lineup, but his play thus far this season has been up-and-down. He has lost the green dot duties to LB Joe Schobert who was acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars this preseason and has been taken off dime packages in favor of LB Robert Spillane. Bush appears to be healthy this season outside of a groin injury suffered in practice that caused him to miss the Raiders game and reaggravated it in the Broncos game.
Since then, Bush played in the Seahawks game Sunday night and appears to be ready to roll against Cleveland. Granted, coming off ACL rehab and dealing with a nagging groin issue can hamper Bush, causing quality of play to drop off. However, he hasn’t appeared to be that same explosive run-and-hit linebacker he was prior to the knee injury. He appears to be playing more tentative, taking bad angles to the ball, getting locked up on blocks, and has been inconsistent as a tackler.
I highlighted these issues in Bush’s play several weeks back in the Bengals game, including this play below where he flows down the line on the zone run right into C #66 Trey Hopkins who picks him up and drives him out of the way to spring Mixon for his longest run of the day for 27 yards.
Steelers Depot’s very own Alex Kozora pointed out on Twitter after that game that not only Bush struggled to get off blocks, but he made some bad decisions when he attempted to get around the block. Watch this play as Bush takes the right angle to his gap in-between the LG and C, but once #67 Quinton Spain picks him up, Bush panics and tries to spin off the block, discontinuing his pursuit and shows his back to the play as Mixon his Bush’s gap for another successful run.
Still, there have been moments against the Bengals as well as in other games this season where you Bush flashes his elite athleticism as a sideline-to-sideline linebacker that Pittsburgh drafted to stifle the opposing running game. Here in the same game vs Cincinnati, #28 Joe Mixon takes the handoff on the outside zone run to the right. Bush recognizes the play and closes down on the line, keeping his shoulders square to the LOS as he reads Mixon and whether he is going to take it to the sideline or cut it back up field. Bush wraps him up as he tries to cut up the field, limiting Mixon to a one-yard gain.
When healthy and dialed in, Bush can be a bullet to the football, displaying phenomenal closing speed and effort to limit potential games on the ground or on checkdown passes like on this play Bush sniffs out back in 2019 against Cleveland. Watch as Bush flows with the fake handoff to #27 Kareem Hunt, but quickly recognizes that Hunt is coming back the opposite way as the pocket collapses to catch the dump off pass from #6 Baker Mayfield. Bush turns on the gas at shows great pursuit of the ball, hunting down Hunt (see what I did there) right at the LOS for no gain on the play.
It remains to be seen whether Chubb will officially be active on Sunday but given Pittsburgh’s recent struggles stopping the run last week in the second half against the Seahawks, the play of LB Devin Bush will be more important than ever if Pittsburgh wants to force Cleveland to pass. Should Pittsburgh limit Cleveland’s impact on the ground, chances are good that they will be in position to win the game and stay alive in pursuit of the AFC North crown. Bush has gotten plenty of criticism thus far this season, and rightfully so. However, coming off the bye and having extra time to rest and prepare, Bush has the chance in this important game against Cleveland to get back on track and make plays.
What are your thoughts on the matchup of the Cleveland running game against Pittsburgh’s run defense? Do you think Devin Bush is up for the challenge this week after having extra time to get his body right? What impact do you see Nick Chubb having in this game? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!