The Browns offense will face its stiffest test yet as it attempts to extend its winning streak to five games for the first time in nearly three decades.
Cleveland has built its winning streak behind what could be one of its most talented offensive units in team history. The Browns have scored at least 30 points in four consecutive games for the first time since 1968, and their 31 points per game thus far is currently best in the AFC and their highest in franchise history. Oh, and the Browns' 188 rushing yards per game is also best in the NFL and highest since Jim Brown was Cleveland's running back.
The accolades for the Browns' success through five weeks of play have been nothing short of tremendous. Now, however, they'll attempt to stack their playmakers against one of the fiercest defenses in the league: the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"They rush with violence," coach Kevin Stefanski said Wednesday in a Zoom call with local reporters. "They have a very impressive, formidable scheme. They do a great job. The tape is very impressive."
As players and coaches went through the tunnel and into the locker room after their win, smiles and fist bumps were shared among players, and the 12,000 fans roared in approval. The Browns had pushed their record to 4-1 for the first time since 1994, but it was who they beat — and the way they won — that made the feeling special.
Just as the Browns have on their offense, the Steelers have a lengthy list of playmakers capable of wrecking an opponent's game plan in a hurry. Linebacker T.J. Watt is a sack candidate on every passing play. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick changed the entire outlook of the defense last season when he was traded from the Dolphins. Linebacker Bud Dupree is coming off a career-best 11.5 sack season and has 3.5 sacks so far this year.
Those are only a few of the guys who can do damage on any Sunday, and they can be swapped for other players such as Devin Bush, or Terrell Edmunds, or Mike Hilton, or — well, the point is clear.
The Browns must find a way to move past them and continue to showcase their own talents on offense. They did that last week against the Colts and posted 17 points in the second quarter to lead the rest of the game, but one solid quarter won't be enough to beat their AFC North rival Sunday.
"It's a great test for us," quarterback Baker Mayfield said. "They're another great defense. They bring the physical challenge. They'll hit you and try to impose their will, but that's what our division is all about. We have to play that ball and match that energy and then exceed it."
Mayfield is eager to redeem himself after his Week 5 performance, which he called his worst of the season. He certainly played a strong role in the Browns' win by throwing two touchdowns, but he wasn't pleased with his two interceptions the Colts could've exploited for a comeback.
Those mistakes could come at an even greater cost against the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, who thrives on extra opportunities and has long been a pesky opponent for Cleveland.
Getting a fifth straight win against a talented Steelers D would make it even sweeter.
"We're going to have ups and downs throughout this game," Mayfield said. "It's not going to be perfect, and we know that, but that's what comes with these challenges. We know that we have to do our jobs, and if something happens, good or bad, we have to move to the next play and do our job again."
Establishing the run game, which has been the Browns' biggest asset on offense, will be crucial, too — but it won't be easy.
Cleveland will play the top-ranked rushing defense in the league for the second consecutive week. Last Sunday, when the Colts owned the lowest opponent rushing yards per game margin, Cleveland still managed to total 124 yards on the ground, 72 of which came from RB Kareem Hunt. Now, he'll look to find big runs against the Steelers, who have allowed an average of 64 rushing yards per game.
Hunt is expected to continue taking the majority of snaps as fellow RB Nick Chubb remains sidelined for a knee injury suffered in Week 4, and he's ready for the challenge of facing another hard-hitting defense that has proven to be a bane for running backs in 2020.
"They have good guys up front," Hunt said. "They have guys who can get to the passer and guys who make it a problem to run on. We definitely just have to come out ready to play and do our one-on-one jobs."
The Browns certainly have the power to push Pittsburgh's defense for four quarters. Not many offenses have shown more efficiency than Cleveland's, but if the Browns can maintain their impressive start to 2020 against the Steelers, it might be time to dive even deeper into the record books to put the Browns' offensive talent into perspective.
Pittsburgh hasn't been a kind setting for the Browns in recent years. But if the offense does its job Sunday, that narrative might change.
"We're efficient when we need to be," Mayfield said. "When we need to be efficient, we've made the plays and we've made the conversions. That's why you're seeing this streak of wins. We have to continue to do that."