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Steelers Vs. Browns Week 18 Pregame Stats Outlook

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been on a tear since the bye week, going 6-2 and improving their record to 8-8 on the season, impressively reaching a .500 record which seemed impossible not that long ago after starting 2-6. The Steelers look to keep their positive streak going in the season finale against the divisional opponent Cleveland Browns on Sunday, with a chance to punch their ticket to the playoffs and end the season with a winning record.

Let’s get into the matchup, starting with the quarterbacks. Here are the passing leaders for 2022 through week 17:

Both quarterbacks in the matchup are below the mean across the NFL. Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett has really stepped up, progressing in many ways especially with stellar play late in games. He has played in 12 games now, playing every snap in nine of them, which is important context to his result across the league. Pickett is now at 360 pass attempts which is 21st out of 39 quarterbacks on the graph, along with 2,209 passing yards that ranks a bit lower at 28th. His completion rate comes in at 64.4% through week 17, which ranks 23rd among the group which is on a downslide recently, as he has been increasing his depth of target since the bye overall. Pickett now has six touchdowns and nine interceptions, and really hoping he can achieve the multi-score passing game I’ve been asking for a while now, checking off another box his rookie year while continuing with a goose egg in the interception department. This of course would improve his -3 touchdown to interception ratio that still bottoms the league.

Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson just makes the chart, with 141 attempts and 872 passing yards. This points out the long suspension that caused him to miss much of the 2022 season, with five games played now and a record of 3-2. He definitely has been shaky after not playing for so long, including a 56.7% completion rate that ranks next to last. Watson has five touchdowns and three interceptions, and had his best game last week in this regard with three touchdowns and no picks. With Cleveland already eliminated from the playoffs, it will be interesting to see how they come out on Sunday.

Next, I wanted to look at the quarterbacks intended and completed air yard averages through week 17:

Here we can see both quarterbacks land in similar spots on the bottom left of the chart. Watson has a 7.5 intended air yards number that ranks just below Pickett at 26th, and pairs this with 5.7 completed air yards which ranks 22nd. In comparison, Pickett has the slight edge in intended air yards with 7.5 that now ranks 25th, but a lower 5.3 completed air yards number in the matchup that ranks 27th. He is trending positively coming off a great game where pushed the ball downfield as highlighted in my passing locations article, with a strong 9.2 intended air yards number along with 7.2 completed air yards that ranked ninth and fifth respectively. His slightly lower completion percentage is a small price to pay with the deeper elements he has gradually added with more confidence and experience.

One last thing for the position, I wanted to see how players have fared in air yards to the sticks (AYTS) and how it has compared to their time to throw:

Interestingly, both quarterbacks have longer TTT results, particularly Watson who has held the ball longer than any other quarterback at 3.2 seconds. Hopefully this plays into the hands of the Steelers defense, considering he has been sacked a whopping 13 times in limited action, with five coming last game. His scrambling ability does play a factor in this of course, and has at least 20 rush yards in each game, including an explosive run and a touchdown the last two weeks. Watson has an AYTS of -1.61 which ranks 30th, which highlights the shorter targets Pittsburgh’s defense will likely see, and very interesting to see the difference between he and Jacoby Brissett, who filled in much of the season and fared much better from a yardage perspective.

One of Pickett’s biggest improvements as of late has been extending the play, highlighted by his 2.98 TTT which is fifth longest in the NFL and looking to and making great throws on his scrambles. When he has taken off and run with it, Pickett has averaged 4.5 yards and provided 24 first downs, which impressively ranks 11th at the position, providing great value on sneaks in late down short yardage situations, along with eight 10+ yard runs and three touchdowns. Pickett’s lands slightly above Watson with -1.47 AYTS which ranks 27th, and here’s to hoping that number also continues on a positive trend in the finale.

Now for the running backs, which is always a key offensive factor against Cleveland. Let’s start by looking at rushing leaders through week 17:

Right away we see Browns running back Nick Chubb at the top right of the chart, getting context to yet another strong 2022 season for him and the Browns running game. He has played in all 16 games this season, has 290 attempts which is fourth out of 45 players on the chart, and has the second most rushing yards with 1,448. Chubb has 12 touchdowns on the year as well which ties for fourth, and is dominant in forcing missed tackles (79) which is second most in the league, in route to 998 yards after contact (third). He is also able to hit you with the explosive run, having at least one in 11 of his games including a double explosive 41 yarder, and leads the NFL in 10+ runs with 43. Another incredibly challenging task for Pittsburgh’s run defense this week, and of course the blueprint will remain the same, must stop the run first and foremost in hopes of victory.

We also see his running mate Kareem Hunt who has 119 attempts for 455 yards and three touchdowns, with the latter all coming earlier in the season when he got much more work, and since week 10 has taken more of a backseat with single digit attempts. He leads the position for the Browns as a receiver, with 37 targets and an 86.5% completion rate for 195 yards and a touchdown, and hopefully the defense is ready for that element tackling the catch.

Steelers running back Najee Harris and the run game have encouragingly been trending upward in recent weeks as highlighted by this success rate article, with his top five games in terms of rushing yardage coming after the bye, bringing him comfortably above the mean after a discouraging start to the season, when he never eclipsed 75 yards in a game. Harris is coming off his only 100 yard game of the season (111), and now has 249 attempts (sixth) and 13th in rushing yards with 954 on the year. Here’s to hoping he can have a similar game behind the improved offensive line, fingers crossed ending on a high note as a 1,000 yard rusher. Fellow running back Jaylen Warren is also coming off his best rushing total of 76 yards, and hopefully continues to be the perfect complement to him on Sunday and moving forward with his versatility. Harris leads the outlook as a receiver with 52 targets, 219 receiving yards, and three touchdowns, along with a 76.9% catch rate, and has six rushing touchdowns on the year which ties for 17th, with 51 missed tackles forced for an impressive sixth rank, and 695 yards after contact (10th). Encouraging stuff for Harris as 2022 progressed, but a big difference in the matchup is only explosive run on the year, and 19 10+ runs, which gives context to the different threat Chubb presents and how strong his season has been.

To highlight this, here is NextGen’s top five running backs in rushing yards over expected (RYOE):

Wow. Chubb has 366 rushing yards over expected, which is nearly 100 yards more than any other player. To add more context for this matchup, Next Gen’s RYOE model has Harris at the bottom of the list at -84, but has trended in the right direction with three positive numbers since the bye. Here’s to hoping he can add another in the finale against Cleveland’s run defense (more on this to come), as well as the Pittsburgh defense limiting another great rushing attack on Sunday.

Last thing for the position, I wanted to provide time to the line of scrimmage (TTL) and efficiency (measures north south rushers) numbers on the season:

Chubb tops another list here, highlighting the patience he has to allow his great blocking (more on this to come) to set up with the longest TTL of 3.1 seconds. They run a varied scheme that plays a big part in this as well, with more gap runs (156) on Chubb carries which is third most in the NFL, along with 122 zone runs which ties for ninth. While all three running backs in the outlook have a below the mean 3.83 EFF number, Chubb being close to it emphasizes him getting north and south very well once he sees the hole. In comparison, Harris has a much quicker 2.73 TTL that is 11th fastest, and has far more zone attempts at 163 (third most) than gap runs (79) that ties for 21st. His 4.19 EFF is fifth lowest in the league but has trended positively the last two weeks. Hunt’s 2.96 TTL is also fourth longest, pointing towards the Browns style in the run game, and lands below Harris in the ranks with 4.29 EFF. Here’s to hoping Pittsburgh’s defense can play gap sound and win the trenches with more to play for with the playoffs in reach, and win on both sides of the ball on the ground.

Switching to the wide receivers, here are the receiving stats leaders through week 17:

Browns wide receiver Amari Cooper leads the outlook in receiving yards with 1,109 which ranks 12th out of 86 players on the chart on 129 targets (13th). He impressively has nine touchdowns on the season which is fourth most in the league, and highlights a big element that the Steelers defense must be ready for. Cooper has played in every game this season, moving around the formation with 74.3% out wide and 25.5% in the slot, and has provided at least one explosive play in 11 games this season. He certainly will present a big challenge on Sunday that the Steelers defense will no doubt want to limit, which they have been successful at (Raiders Davante Adams most recently), but is coming off his best game with Watson with 105 yards on three targets and two touchdowns.

Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson leads the outlook with 137 which ties for sixth in the NFL, and while he has improved throughout the season, has the lowest yards (844) of players with at least 120 targets. One element that has aided his improved yardage is increased slot snaps, with 20% or more in three of the last four outings (only games this has occurred), though last week lacked the desired results the others did, catching only two of his six targets for 35 yards. Johnson is yet to have a 100 yard game, along insane storyline I’m sure many of you know by now is he is still without a touchdown, and hopefully both is all put to bed in the finale, particularly with a trip to the end zone on Sunday. The Browns do have a good secondary but could be without cornerback Denzel Ward (questionable) who did not practice all week. That will be a key factor for Cleveland, who will be looking to keep this trend going and place him in the undesired record books, and can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

Cleveland wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones is the final player above the mean in both data points in the outlook, with 92 targets and 797 yards along with three touchdowns. He has played in every game this season as well, and two of his three touchdowns have come from Watson, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he has a good game with everything else the Steelers defense will be looking to limit. Peoples-Jones has moved around the formation even more than Cooper this season (70.7 wide and 29.1% in the slot), with his splits being more varied as of late, so it will be interesting to see if this is the case against the Steelers.

Pittsburgh wide receiver George Pickens is fourth in the outlook with 78 targets and at the NFL mean of more targeted players with 729 yards along with three touchdowns in his impressive rookie season, showing he could handle and take on more of a workload as the team’s number two receiver and moving on from former Steeler Chase Claypool, a move that’s looking better each week. After seeing a more slot snaps in weeks 13 and 14, he has played predominately out wide again with an 86.1% season average. Pickens has been great in contested catch situations, making high difficulty grabs look routine, and a downfield weapon that Pickett can hopefully connect with at a higher rate as he did last week to close out the season and moving forward.

Speaking of connection, I wanted to provide catch percentages through week 17, along with percent of teams air yards to compare volume and connection with their quarterbacks:

Peoples-Jones leads the outlook with a 61.4% catch rate on the third most 26.7% TAY in the matchup. Pickens ranks second with a 62.8% catch rate that has improved nearly two points the last two weeks on a slightly lower 25.5% TAY. So as one would expect, the less targeted receivers fare better in catch percentages in the matchup, but as we can see from the dots of the rest of the NFL, is not a safe assumption across the board. Johnson ranks third in the matchup with a 61.3% catch rate that is on a down trend and has the second ranked 33.4% TAY that increased slightly the last two weeks but dropped a rank to 13th in the NFL. Cooper leads the outlook with a 39.4% TAY that ranks sixth in the NFL, but has the lowest 58.9% catch rate in the matchup as well as several players with a 30% TAY or above. Here’s to hoping that plays into the hands of the Pittsburgh defense.

Last thing for the position, here are the yards after catch (YAC) and separation numbers on the season:

Right away we see every wide receiver in the outlook is below the mean in both data points in comparison to the league, and the number one receivers separating themselves a bit in each regard. With the poor pun intended, Johnson leads the outlook with a 2.84 separation number that ranks 49th in the NFL and on the upswing. While he lands low on the chart with a 2.42 YAC number that is third in the outlook and fifth worst across the league, has encouragingly and positively trended throughout the season after being one of the few players with a negative YAC number early on. These metrics don’t match well with Pickens game as we sit here today, bottoming the outlook with 2.35 YAC which is also third lowest in the league along with a 2.37 in separation that is ninth lowest in the NFL. Cooper leads the outlook comfortably with 3.94 YAC, along with the third rank in the matchup in separation (2.44), with the former hopefully being limited with the attention primary receivers get from the Steelers defense. Peoples-Jones ranks second in the matchup with 2.8 YAC and 2.5 in separation, and can’t wait to see how Pittsburgh’s secondary fares against the two.

Transitioning to the tight ends, here are the receiving stats leaders for the season:

Both primary tight ends land above the mean, highlighting a strong matchup in the game. Steelers Pat Freiermuth continues to build on his strong second season, with 96 targets which is fifth most out of 29 players on the chart, along with 732 yards which ranks sixth in the league. He still has two touchdowns on the season though, with his last one coming against Baltimore in week 14, and really hope Pickett can connect with him in the end zone, which they have yet to achieve along with Johnson in the multi passing touchdown game I have my fingers crossed for.

Browns tight end David Njoku had his best game against Pittsburgh in week three in terms of yardage (89), targets (10), and catches (nine), along with one of his three touchdowns on the year which leads the outlook. On the season, he has 75 targets which ranks 11th in the NFL, along with 586 yards which ranks solidly at ninth. With the Pittsburgh linebackers struggling in coverage overall, as I highlighted in this recent article on the defense, Njoku could be in store for a good game.

Next, I wanted to provide separation and catch percentages for the position:

Right away Njoku’s high 72% catch rate jumps out, ranking seventh amongst this group which is impressive considering his above average targets and his lower 3.01 separation number we see on the chart, which ranks 23rd in the NFL. This highlights more of the challenges he brings to the table, being a reliable target for his quarterback despite getting open at a below average rate compared to his peers, and points to how important tackling the catch will be once again for the Steelers defense. Freiermuth lands on the far left of the chart, visualizing his second lowest 2.7 separation number at the position, with the tougher situations at the catch point affecting his 65.6% rate that is below the NFL mean. Hopefully he and Pickett can have a similar game in connection as they did in week 16 against the Raiders, catching seven of his eight targets.

Last thing for the position, I wanted to provide a yardage view comparing tight ends intended air yards in comparison to the YAC they created with the ball in their hands:

Freiermuth has been targeted further down the field on average, with an 8.05 IAY, achieving this goal he mentioned before the season started and currently ranking eighth in the NFL. Like many receivers on the Pittsburgh roster though, he is below average at the position in YAC, but much closer to the mean with a 4.67 number but on a down trend the past couple weeks. That’s ok in my opinion, with a bigger goal of more explosive passing being a higher priority we want to see from Pickett to close the season.

Njoku has a below the mean 6.73 IAY that ranks 20th, but is in a great spot on the other side of the coin with the seventh ranked YAC at 6.14. He had his best game in this regard against the Steelers in week three, with 57 of his 89 yards coming in this fashion. Allowing YAC has been a kryptonite for the Steelers linebackers, along with the last matchup being strong evidence which has me worried, but here’s to hoping that Pittsburgh can buck that trend on Sunday.

The offensive lines are always key to any matchup, and let’s see how the two teams have fared thus far with PFF grades:

The Browns strong run blocking grades really jumps out on the visual and in this matchup, with five of their offensive lineman being the only players above the outlook mean. Left guard Joel Bitonio tops the chart in both regards with an 82.8 run block grade along with a 79.4 as a pass blocker, and also ranks eighth in ESPN’s top ten win rates as a pass blocker this week. Center Ethan Pocic is the other starter that lands above the mean in both, missing time when forced to exit their week 11 game, and missed the next four games before returning in week 16. He has the second ranked 80.8 run block grade in the outlook along with landing fifth as a pass blocker (69.7), and is the only player in the matchup that made ESPN’s win rates as both a run (fourth) and pass blocker (fifth). Right guard Wyatt Teller lands on the top right as well, with the fourth rank in the outlook as a run blocker (71) and just below the mean in pass blocking at 65.3. This highlights the huge challenge they present on the interior, especially in the run game. Here’s to hoping the Steelers defense is up for the tall task on Sunday, and particularly hoping for another strong game from defensive lineman Cameron Heyward, though he will likely be doubled quite a bit and the linebackers will really need to play well in hopes of victory.

The highest graded pass blocker (78.8) in the matchup is Browns right tackle Jack Conklin, who was ruled out for the game on Sunday. This is a huge loss indeed, and it was announced that James Hudson would start in his place. He has the third rank as a run blocker (77.8) in limited time this season, but bottoms the outlook by far as a pass blocker at 34. This should play very well into Pittsburgh’s hands considering edge rusher T.J. Watt will garner that matchup, and hopefully he eats as a pass rusher in particular. Left tackle Jedrick Wills has fared better as a pass blocker (69) and has the third lowest 55.2 run block grade. Steelers edge rusher Alex Highsmith will hopefully have a strong game as well, perhaps having more of a presence in the run game, and the Pittsburgh duo really needs to step up in my opinion with the tough interior matchup for the Steelers defense.

The only Steeler close the outlook mean is center Mason Cole, who has a 65 grade as a pass blocker and 64.2 as a run blocker which tops the team, and also returned to ESPN’s win rates with the tenth rank in pass blocking. Left guard Kevin Dotson has the top rank in pass blocking on the team with a 77.4, along with a 61.1 as a run blocker. Fellow guard James Daniels now has a 73.6 pass block grade which improved nearly three points the last two weeks, along with a 60.5 as a run blocker, and also climbed ESPN’s win rates from tenth to seventh as a pass blocker. Left tackle Dan Moore has improved as the season has progressed, now with a 69.3 pass block grade along with a 55.7 as a run blocker with both on a positive trend. Right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor is coming off a rough performance particularly as a pass blocker (30) with his season grade coming down to a 64 which is worst on the team, along with a 54.8 run block grade that is also on the down slide. Browns edge rusher Myles Garrett has played mostly on the right side this season, which would match of with Moore if history repeats itself, but it will be interesting to see if he moves around a bit more considering the recent comments from fellow edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney making it likely for him not to play in my opinion.

Perfect time for the defenses, looking at passing and rushing yardage allowed this season:

Here we see that each team has had their strengths in one facet or the other, with the Browns faring well as a pass defense, allowing only 3,147 yards which ranks seventh in the NFL. In comparison, the Steelers are below league average with 3,606 which ranks 21st. On the flip side, Pittsburgh’s run defense has allowed only 1,704 yards on the ground which ranks seventh in the NFL and have played very well in this regard as of late, with Cleveland hopefully being their next victim. The Browns on the other hand have allowed 2,151 rushing yards this season for a lowly 25th rank, and fingers crossed this holds true on both sides of the ball with the ground game being the Steelers formula for success (or lack thereof) in 2022.

Wanted to share some team defense rankings for the season I gathered when studying the matchup as well. Neither team has been getting pressure at a high rate, with Cleveland having the edge, but the squads ranking a lowly 27th and 30th. If Clowney does not play, Pittsburgh can focus their protection to Garrett and hopefully quiet his effect on the game. In terms of the all-important Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt, Cleveland also has the higher rank (12th) with a 5.8 number, and the Steelers come in at 18th with a much-improved number from earlier this season at 6.1. Pittsburgh wins out in the points per game category, ranking 11th in the NFL and particularly strong since the bye, while the Browns rank 18th. Cleveland has been better at stopping teams on third down with a 10th rank, while Pittsburgh ties for 17th on the crucial down. In the red zone, the Steelers gain the edge once again, allowing touchdowns at the 12th lowest rate compared to the Browns at 17th. One other element Pittsburgh has fared well in is turnovers, particularly interceptions in route to their 21 takeaways on the year, while Cleveland sits at 19. So, each defense has their strengths and can’t wait to see how it all plays out in the finale.

Let’s look at the defenses from a player stats perspective to close, starting with Pittsburgh. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick is questionable for the contest but seems likely he will play. He is now impressively tied for the league lead in interceptions with six, with one of those going for an explosive 34-yard touchdown, second on the team with 86 combined tackles, along with 11 passes defensed, a tackle for loss, and a quarterback hit. Highsmith is now tied for ninth in the league with 12 sacks, also leading the team in forced fumbles with five, second with 17 quarterback hits and ten tackles for loss, along with 55 combined tackles and a pass defensed. Linebacker Myles Jack (questionable) still leads the team with 100 combined tackles despite playing only 20 snaps over the last three games while dealing with an injury, along with three tackles for loss, three passes defensed, and one quarterback hit. Heyward has the team lead in quarterback hits (18), tackles for loss (12), second in sacks (8.5), along with 66 combined tackles, three passes defensed, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.

Watt has now played in nine games, and is third on the team in sacks (five), quarterback hits (11), tackles for loss (eight), along with 36 combined tackles, five passes defensed, two interceptions, and a forced fumble. Really like his chances to pad the stat sheet on Sunday. Cornerback Cameron Sutton continues to play well, and has the team lead in passes defensed (14), tied for second with three interceptions, along with 40 combined tackles and one for a loss. Fellow cornerback Levi Wallace is second on the team with 12 passes defensed, and ties Sutton with three interceptions, along with 47 combined tackles. Linebacker Devin Bush barely played last week, and is now third on the team with 81 combined tackles, along with two passes defensed, two tackles for loss, and two quarterback hits, and it will be very interesting to see what the linebacker rotation looks like on Sunday, a critical component to the matchup in my opinion.

For Cleveland, Garrett leads their attack including his second rank in ESPN’s pass rush win rates. He leads the team and is fourth in the NFL with 15 sacks (next best only has three!), along with a whopping 24 quarterback hits, 16 tackles for loss, along with 53 combined tackles, four passes defensed, and two fumble recoveries. Safety Grant Delpit is strong at the position, leading the team with 103 combined tackles and four interceptions, along with ten passes defensed, and four tackles for loss. Fellow safety John Johnson completes the quality pairing and is second on the team with 94 tackles, along with four passes defensed, four tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, two quarterback hits, an interception, and a half a sack. Their linebackers have been hit with injuries, with both Sione Takitaki and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah on the injured reserve list, and leave a void in the middle as the teams third and fourth leading tacklers. Hopefully advantage Pittsburgh.

Ward leads the team with 14 passes defensed, tied for the lead with two fumble recoveries both going for touchdowns, second with three interceptions, along with 52 combined tackles, one for a loss and a quarterback hit. Fellow cornerback Martin Emerson is second on the team with 13 passes defensed, along with 59 combined tackles, a sack, tackle for loss, and quarterback hit. Ward would definitely be a huge loss to the teams strong pass defense, and if he is indeed out for the contest along with the information throughout the article, I like the Steelers chances to come out with a victory to end the season with an road to the playoffs incredibly possible.

How do you think the game will play out against Cleveland? Can Pittsburgh take care of business and complete their impressive end to the season and reach the playoffs? Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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