The Arduous Wait Has Ended. A Breakthrough Season Derailed by COVID in Cleveland?

The Cleveland Browns get to dance. Sunday night at 8:20 a playoff game will kickoff in Pittsburgh. The Browns will take part. For the first time in 18 years the disjointed, woebegone franchise, run amok for so long by poor management and neophyte leadership, will co-star alongside their rival, a game considered the jewel of wild card weekend by the NFL and its television partners. The team seems to have peaked a month ago, yet we will write the obituary of the 2020 season at a later date. The city of Cleveland and their fan base deserve the week to celebrate a return to relevancy that was never certain to occur. 11 wins and a playoff appearance mark this season a success, regardless of the outcome at Heinz Field this weekend. They are no longer a punch line.

Still, winning is the thing. The victory total is the highest since 1994, the last time the team won a playoff game. The Steelers have struggled since an 11-0 start, and despite the state of Pennsylvania set to allow fans on Sunday night (crowds in Pittsburgh during the regular season only included family and friends of the players and members of the organization), the number permitted in is unknown. Home field advantage in Pittsburgh and across the league barely exists, however. The Jet loss and Sunday’s performance were disheartening, removing the shine from a punishing victory over Tennessee and a razor thin loss to Baltimore. Can a Browns team bereft of any meaningful playoff experience and slumping defeat a model NFL franchise chaperoned by a Hall of Fame coach and quarterback?

Now COVID hits. Kevin Stefanski, reason number one for the turnaround this season, won’t be on the sideline this weekend. Gone are his leadership abilities, the team’s offensive play caller, and a formidable game day manager. Pro Bowler Joel Bitonio will miss the game. Third wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge won’t suit up. Denzel Ward’s status is questionable. The team’s facility was closed on Tuesday and will remain so on Wednesday. How many others will test positive? Can the team even practice this week? The NFL will ram this game down the gullets of the public on Sunday night at 8:20. They refuse to disrupt the playoff schedule. What will this team even look like by Sunday?

The Mason Rudolph-led offense deployed last Sunday in Cleveland didn’t attack the Browns defense as Ben Roethlisberger will this weekend. Rudolph isn’t a good quarterback. He struggles to read the field and has no touch on short and intermediate throws. Relying on the deep ball, Rudolph leaned on the talents of his wide receivers, throwing long to Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Diontae Johnson, counting on them to win one-on-one match-ups against Cleveland’s secondary. They nearly made enough plays to win. With Roethlisberger under center, he’ll attempt to throw short and quick, allowing his wideouts to make plays on the move. The Steeler pass offense ranked 15th in passing yards per game on the season (250), but only 25th in yards gained per play (6.1). Pittsburgh throws a ton, but they dink and dunk. Big Ben is 38 and cannot move in the pocket as he once did. The offensive line struggles run blocking; they own the worst ground attack in the league. But by releasing the ball from his hand fast, Roethlisberger avoids sacks (2.09% sack percentage is lowest in the league). The Steelers game plan will be to slow the Browns pass rush (the strength of the defense) and put pressure on Cleveland’s back seven (its weakness). Pittsburgh has struggled over the last month because defenses are taking away their rhythmic passing offense. Unfortunately for Cleveland, they don’t possess the talent at linebacker or in the secondary to force Roethlisberger to throw deep. A nightmare match-up for the horrid Browns defense.

Baker Mayfield played disjointed on Sunday and has for two weeks. Kevin Stefanski deserves blame, calling more straight drop backs for his diminutive passer when it’s obvious he thrives on the move and in play action. Alex Van Pelt, offensive coordinator and Stefanski’s play calling replacement, must return to using Baker’s strengths for the Browns to win Sunday. It’s irresponsible to expect Cleveland’s defense to hold Pittsburgh’s offense down. The Steelers averaged 26 points per game this season (12th) despite their one dimensional attack. Olivier Vernon, Cleveland’s best defender since the midway point of the season, is out for the playoffs with a ruptured Achilles. Denzel Ward’s playing status is unknown. Myles Garrett has yet to return to form since returning from COVID, logging only 2.5 sacks and 4 quarterback hits in the five games he’s played. With such uncertainty hovering over their three best defenders, expecting anything from the defense is foolhardy.

So they must score. If hot Baker Mayfield shows, they’ll stay close, but he cannot turn it over. The offense has stagnated. It needs a wrinkle against an opponent they’ve played twice in three months. Here are the snap counts from Sunday:

62 offensive plays run. Nick Chubb, 27 snaps. Kareem Hunt, 35 snaps. Chubb and Hunt are the two best offensive players on the team, each capable of housing it on any play. Each runs strong routes and has skilled hands. Get them on the field together. Line one in the backfield, the other in the slot. Put them both behind Mayfield. Whatever. The fact they shared the field for zero plays on Sunday is perplexing. Jarvis Landry is the heart and soul of the offense, and he’s a chain mover, but Landry isn’t a game breaker. Chubb and Hunt both are, and they’re each flexible enough to play in any spot. They’ll take attention from the other, too.

Pittsburgh’s pass rush is devastating. They sacked Mayfield 4 times Sunday without Defensive Player of the Year candidate T.J. Watt and Pro Bowler Cam Heyward. The Browns have to slow Pittsburgh’s pass rush (9.62% pressure rate and 3.5 sacks per game, both 1st in the league). Their weakest against the run (11th in the league, 111 yards per game). Though it seems obvious, playoff time isn’t when you get cute against a division rival. Run the ball, use play action, and bootleg Mayfield. It’ll slow the Steelers defensive line while playing into your strengths on offense. And keep your ball handlers on the field.

Pittsburgh’s struggles since Thanksgiving make them vulnerable, but Cleveland’s peak seems behind them, too. The Steelers strengths align with the Browns’ weaknesses, making for a bad match-up. But the Steeler defense has regressed from an otherworldly start to the season, and Big Ben’s age is showing. Beware a fast start for the Steelers. If the Browns can weather the first 10 minutes of the game, and their youth isn’t overcome by the moment and Pittsburgh’s experience, they’ll have a chance late. But expecting this group to shrug off the week they’re set to endure, in Pittsburgh, without their head coach and a Pro Bowler, with little practice time, is too much. This season marks the return of the Cleveland Browns as a franchise. If this hell week does anything, hope it builds their strength and character as they prepare for the 2021 season.

Pittsburgh 27, Cleveland 16

The Whip Around

Indianapolis-Buffalo The Bills are on fire. Indy’s won 4 of 5, yet Josh Allen and Buffalo’s offense are clicking. Don’t expect Phil Rivers to keep up.

Buffalo 38, Indianapolis 20

Baltimore-Tennessee The toughest game on this week’s schedule to call. The Titans’ upset of the Ravens in last year’s playoffs is fresh, but their defense in 2020 isn’t the same, giving up almost a touchdown more per game. Lamar Jackson has had to hear the noise after two straight early playoff bounces for too long.

Baltimore 31, Tennessee 27

Los Angeles-Seattle Russell Wilson’s late struggles are perplexing, and the Rams defense is stout, with the best bunch of defensive backs in the league. But Jared Goff’s status is uncertain and trusting John Wolford, or Goff, in a playoff game in Seattle, even without fans, is foolish. Seattle’s defensive improvement has mirrored Wilson’s swan dive. They’ll find a way at home.

Seattle 20, LA 16

Tampa Bay-Washington The Ron Rivera and Alex Smith stories are heartwarming, but Washington isn’t good. Tampa has yo-yoed throughout the season, but Tom Brady plays quarterback for them, and their defense pressures opposing QBs. That’ll be enough Saturday night.

Tampa 28, Washington 19

Chicago-New Orleans Pity the Mitchell Trubisky-led Bears slid into the tournament. At least Kyler Murray would’ve been entertaining. Though they’ve won 3 of 4, beating Houston, Jacksonville, and Minnesota isn’t a murderer’s row of opponents. The Bears offense is sad, New Orleans’ defense is one of the best in the league. And their offense will get Alvin Kamara back.

NO 34, Chicago 13

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

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