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Matchup to Watch: Browns tackles vs. dangerous Pittsburgh pass rusher T.J. Watt

Back in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Steelers decided to bolster their pass rush late in the first round with the selection of T.J. Watt. Watt made his debut right here at FirstEnergy stadium against the Browns and started his career in spectacular fashion, much to the chagrin of the Orange and Brown faithful. In that game, Watt notched two sacks, two TFLs and an interception, something no other player had done in their Week 1 NFL debut since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.   

Watt began his career as a Browns harasser on that September day and has not stopped. Watt has at least one sack in every career game against the Browns and has recorded eight sacks in his four career games against Cleveland to go along with 32 tackles and the aforementioned interception.  

In 2018, Watt was matched up with former teammate and new Browns RT Chris Hubbard for the first time in his career. In Week 1, he terrorized the Browns with four sacks, 11 tackles and a blocked FG for good measure, wrapping up the AFC Defensive Player of the Week award for his efforts. In the second meeting of the season, Watt finished the day with one sack but harassed Baker Mayfield with six total pressures as the Steelers held the Browns to 18 points.

The Browns won last week after a missed field goal by the Bills in the last minute. Flip through photos of the post game celebration.

To be fair, Watt has been doing this to everyone he has faced in the NFL, so the Browns absolutely need to pay him some extra attention on Thursday night. Since entering the league in 2017, Watt has accumulated 29.5 sacks, best among all linebackers and seventh overall in the NFL. His 11 forced fumbles since 2017 also lead the NFL (tied with Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald). This season, his 22 QB hits lead the NFL, he is second with four forced fumbles and his 9.5 sacks rank fifth. In other words, Watt is a game wrecker and one of the NFL's truly elite pass rushers. 

Watt also enters Week 11 on a real heater. He has a sack in six straight games, multiple sacks in three straight games and has three forced fumbles in the last three games as well.

Per Pro Football Focus, Watt rushes almost exclusively from the defense's left side and against the opponent's RT (98.6% of the time). His 47 total pressures when rushing from the left are second in the NFL, trailing only DE Danielle Hunter of the Minnesota Vikings. That means it will be up to Hubbard and the help he will get either from the TEs or RBs in pass protection to slow down Watt in prime time.

To his credit, PFF shows that Hubbard has allowed only one sack in his last seven games and has not surrendered a QB hit all season. He has given up 15 hurries in the last five games and that kind of pressure can disrupt an offense if they come at the wrong time. As a point of reference, Mayfield's QB rating drops more than 30 points when he is under pressure versus when he is kept clean, so keeping pressure to a minimum is critical.

No one in the NFL will be asked to handle Watt one-on-one for an entire game, so it will be interesting to see what kind of help is shifted Hubbard's way. With the Browns likely to use their two-RB look with both Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb on the field together, they will have a natural chip situation with the back on Watt's side. The other way to slow down Watt will be to run their power scheme right at him and to keep him honest with screen passes to the backs on his side. The Browns could also elect to deploy a TE to Watt's side of the formation to help with chips and double team situations.

No matter what, slowing down Watt must be a focus of the Browns game plan and their success in executing it will go a long way to getting the team's second consecutive win.