Burning Questions

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Burning Questions for Week 18 vs. Steelers

The biggest questions the Browns face in their final game of the season

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The Browns are looking to end their 2022 season on a winning streak.

It would be just the second one they've had in a year that's contained disappointing results and won't end with a trip to the playoffs, but the Browns can still find gratitude Sunday if they're able to knock the Steelers out of the playoffs, too. A Browns win would also give Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin his first losing record in 15 seasons as their coach and complete Cleveland's first season sweep of Pittsburgh since 1988.

Here's the biggest questions the Browns face in achieving all of those feats and ending the season on a good note:

1. Will offense keep building momentum?

The Browns saw the big steps they've been looking for in QB Deshaun Watson and the offense last week in the second half of a 24-10 win over the Commanders, but there's still plenty of room for improvement in the final game of the year.

Now, the Browns want to see consistent production through four quarters. Watson's three passing touchdowns were impressive last week, but they all came after a first half where he went 3-for-8 with 23 passing yards. The Browns trailed the Commanders 7-3 at halftime but turned things around in a dominant way in the final two quarters.

"Execution I think was the biggest thing," offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said. "Guys made plays in the second half. Our third-down conversions and our efficiency. We ran the ball well in the second. We ran it well in the first half, too – we just didn't have a lot of cracks at it. That was the biggest thing.

"We went in the locker room, and it was kind of a strange locker room. It was very quiet. It was different. Challenged the guys to come out and play their best football in the second half, and they did. We really did everything we wanted to do in that second half until we put on the brakes."

The Steelers rank 20th in the league against the pass and have allowed 225.4 passing yards allowed per game.

There will be plenty of attention on Watson in his first game against the Steelers as the Browns QB, but Cleveland will still look to generate plenty of production on the ground, too. RB Nick Chubb rushed 23 times for 113 yards and one touchdown in Week 3, and replicating that total will be tough against a defense that now ranks seventh in the league against the run and has allowed 106.5 rushing yards per game.

Check out photos of players and coaches working to prepare for the teams regular season game against the Pittsburgh Steelers

2. Can O-line contain T.J. Watt?

For Watson to have his best shot at playing well, the Browns offensive line will need to keep him clear of All-Pro edge rusher T.J. Watt.

Watt has 14.5 career sacks in nine career games against the Browns and has tallied at least one sack in eight of them. His biggest performance was a four-sack day on Week 17 last year, when Watt had his way going against then-rookie OT James Hudson III.

Jack Conklin (ankle) was ruled out Friday, so Hudson is starting against Watt again. The 2021 fourth-round pick has reviewed the film from his last game against Watt plenty of times and has an opportunity to show a lot of growth in his game if he's able to contain him.

"Just seeing exactly what I did wrong in that game," he said. "Just seeing, on the plays he beat me on, exactly what he did to beat me around the edge or beat me to the inside. Just picking up on those little things as to why I didn't succeed that day.

"The biggest thing with him is his get-off. He's a smart player. He watches the cadence. He uses that to his advantage. He has great length, great speed and great hands. He's the whole package."

Hudson will start his first game since he started the first two games of the season. He played well in Week 1, helping the Browns hold Panthers Pro Bowl edge rusher to zero sacks. Hudson earned a 76.0 overall grade from Pro Football Focus in the game, but he dropped off a bit in Week 2, allowing three QB pressures and being given a 49.9 overall grade.

Head coach Kevin Stefanski has been pleased with Hudson's progress in Year 2 and believes he's ready for the challenge.

"Last year is last year," he said. "He's done a very nice job this season. That's a tough task. We understand how good their defensive front is – obviously, No. 90 – but they have a bunch of really, really good players. That is a very good defense."

3. How does defense fare in 1st matchup vs. Pickett?

When the Browns beat the Steelers 29-17 in Week 3, Mitchell Trubisky was the QB for Pittsburgh. The Steelers didn't score a passing touchdown in the game.

Since Week 4, Trubisky has been replaced at quarterback by first-round rookie Kenny Pickett, who has orchestrated game-winning drives in the last two games to keep the Steelers' playoff hopes alive and has thrown just one interception in his last seven starts.

"A very good young player," Stefanski said. "Athletic. Can make all of the throws. Has played well in big moments. They are a little bit different than the last time we played them because he is just a little bit different. A really, really good young player."

The Browns defense hasn't allowed more than 23 points in the last six games, while the Steelers haven't score more than 24 points in their last six games.

If those trends continue — and the Browns offense picks up where it left off last week — then the Browns should have what it takes to end the season with a win.

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