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Matchup to Watch

Matchup to Watch: Browns tackles Jedrick Wills, Jack Conklin vs. Steelers pass rushers

Protecting Baker Mayfield will be key against the leading sack generating defense in the NFL

In 2019, there was no better pass rushing tandem in the NFL than Steelers OLBs T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, who combined for 26 sacks and 12 forced fumbles. So far in 2020, it has been more of the same for the duo, which has already combined for 7.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one interception through the first four games of the season. 

Watt and Dupree are the driving force behind a Pittsburgh defense that is averaging five sacks per game, most in the NFL. It really is stunning to think about the fact that the Steelers lead the NFL in sacks (20) and sack yardage (145) despite playing one fewer game than all but three other teams in the league.  

The Steelers have been able to dominate their opponents with the pass rush so far in 2020 and have raced out to a 4-0 start. They just have not faced an offensive line like the Browns yet, nor have they dealt with a tackle tandem like Jedrick Wills Jr. and Jack Conklin. 

Through five games, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield has been sacked seven times, tied for sixth-fewest in the NFL. Per Pro Football Focus, the Browns have the third best pass blocking line, having allowed only 23 pressures on 165 pass plays. Among tackles, Conklin, who has surrendered just four pressures this year, ranks 11th overall in terms of pass blocking efficiency. Wills has given up seven pressures this year and ranks a solid 31st overall in pass blocking efficiency. In regards to PFF's pass blocking grades, Conklin ranks sixth overall while Wills grades out as the 17th best tackle in the league. The Browns are the only team in the NFL with their tackle tandem to be both ranked in the Top 20 of PFF's pass blocking grades thus far.

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.

The Browns' talented duo will have its hands full with Watt and Dupree, who are tied for fifth among all edge defenders with 23 pressures each. Per PFF, they rank second and fifth, respectively, in pass rush productivity, so they are high volume, high efficiency pass rushers. In fact, on a pressure per game basis, only Myles Garrett is producing more pressures each week at 6.6 per game than Watt and Dupree, who are each generating 5.75 per game. The weekly combination of 11.5 pressures per game from Dupree and Watt is more than the 11 combined pressures that Conklin and Wills have allowed this entire season.   

Watt and Dupree are one of the main reasons the Browns decided they had to upgrade the tackle position this offseason. After all, over the last two years against the Browns, Watt and Dupree have combined for 9.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Conklin will be matched up with Watt, who rushes against the opposing right tackle 96 percent of the time. In their lone career meeting back in 2017, Conklin held Watt without a sack or a single quarterback hit. If Conklin can repeat that, it will end a six-game streak for Watt of recording a sack against the Browns and a three-game streak of recording at least one sack in 2020. 

Dupree has a three-game sack streak of his own, and it will be up to Wills to put an end to it Sunday in Pittsburgh. One way the Browns can try to slow down Dupree is to run right at him. He has the sixth-worst tackling grade among all edge defenders per PFF and is 50th out of 68 in terms of run defense.  

Protecting Mayfield will be essential to the Browns' success on offense against the Steelers' No. 3 ranked defense. After all, from a clean pocket this year, Mayfield has an 8-to-1 touchdown to interception ratio and a quarterback rating of 109. When under pressure, Mayfield has thrown one touchdown with three interceptions and his quarterback rating falls all the way to 30.9. 

The Browns handled the dominant defensive front of the Washington Football Team back in Week 3, and they will have to do the same on Sunday against the Steelers. It will all start with the new tackle tandem of Conklin and Wills against the edge rushers Watt and Dupree, in a strength versus strength battle that will play a huge role in determining the outcome of this AFC North showdown.

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