The Browns followed the winning mix to a victory last Sunday over the Bills and are looking to string together back-to-back wins for the first time this season against the streaking Pittsburgh Steelers.
The 5-4 Steelers enter Week 11 on a four-game winning streak that has erased a very slow start and catapulted them into the sixth seed in the AFC if the playoffs started today. The winning mix for the Steelers during their turnaround has been quite simple: Trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick, let the defense dominate the game and avoid mistakes on offense.
Yep, the 2019 Steelers are a far cry from the scoreboard-torching killer B's of the past few seasons. QB Ben Roethlisberger is on injured reserve for the season, LeVeon Bell sat out a year and is now playing for the Jets and Antonio Brown is currently out of the NFL after one of the most bizarre offseasons in recent memory.
Instead they are taking a page out of the glory days of the Steel Curtain and punishing opponents week in and week out. The Steelers have at least three takeaways in five straight games for the first time since 1989. They have at least four sacks in three straight games for the first time in 15 years. Finally, the Steelers have scored a defensive touchdown in back-to-back games and three of the last four. It will once again be another very tough test for a Browns offense that seems close to breaking out following the return of RB Kareem Hunt and the improved play of QB Baker Mayfield.
1) Protect the Ball
This is true every single week, but when you are playing a team that is doing what the Steelers are week after week, it must be your top priority. Since Week 3, the Steelers have 24 takeaways, which is far and away the most in the NFL. To put that in some context, only two other teams in the NFL have even 20 takeaways on the season and a grand total of eight others have even hit 15 takeaways this year. In fact, the Steelers have 17 takeaways the last five games alone, which is more than all but four other teams in the league have all season. In case you were wondering, the Browns have generated nine takeaways all season long.
Since Week 3, the first game for the Steelers with Fitzpatrick, they lead the NFL in interceptions (14), forced fumbles (12) and passes defensed (49). Fitzpatrick, himself, has been directly involved in eight takeaways in only seven games as a Steeler, including five interceptions (one for a touchdown), two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery he took to the house. Fitzpatrick is also the first Steeler since Troy Polomalu with an interception in three consecutive games, a streak he brings to FirstEnergy Stadium this Thursday.
In other words, the Steelers are taking the ball away at a historic rate for a storied franchise. Their 26 takeaways on the year are the most in the Mike Tomlin era through nine games.
Even more impressive is they are converting these turnovers into big points. In the last four games, Pittsburgh has scored seven touchdowns directly off turnovers and added another two field goals for good measure. That's 55 points in all, or nearly 14 points per game directly off turnovers. No wonder they are 4-0 during that streak.
The Browns did not play their best game against the Bills, but they had a chance to win because they played a clean game and did not turn the ball over. In fact, the Browns have not turned it over in either of the last two games. They need to make it a hat trick to stop the Steelers, who have won the turnover battle in eight straight games.
Check out photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Steelers Thursday by team photographer Matt Starkey
2) Protect Baker Mayfield
In my Matchup to Watch article, I highlighted the importance of Chris Hubbard vs. T.J. Watt, but to think that the Steelers pass rush is a one-man show would be a folly of epic proportions.
Yes, Watt leads the Steelers with 9.5 sacks, but Pittsburgh enters Week 11 with 33 sacks, third-most in the NFL. Since Week 3, the Steelers are averaging four sacks per game, most in the NFL. During that span, they also lead the NFL with 60 QB hits (yes, that's an absurd 8.5 per game).
Bud Dupree has six sacks and nine QB hits, Cam Heyward has 5.5 sacks and 11 hits and Javon Hargrave has three sacks of his own. The Steelers are generating a sack on 10.3 percent of opposing quarterback dropbacks, the third-best rate in the NFL.
In other words, this defensive front of the Steelers can absolutely get after quarterbacks and disrupt the flow of opposing passing games. Just ask the Rams, who were limited to six offensive points and went 1-for-14 on third downs against the Steelers.
Every single quarterback in the NFL is better from a clean pocket than he is when under pressure. It's simple. It's obvious. It's always true. Mayfield is no exception to that rule. When under duress, his completion percentage drops by 24 percent, his accuracy drops by 20 percent, he throws 2.5 INTs for every touchdown and his QB rating falls 44.4 points.
Pressure also leads to turnovers, and if you made it this far in the article, you know what the Steelers have been doing in the turnover department. Keeping Mayfield clean through scheme, protections, staying ahead of the sticks and quick hitting action will play a massive role in the Browns ability to tame this Steelers defense.
3) Capitalize on the Steelers' mistakes
Close your eyes and open your dreaming ears. Listen to the dulcet tones of Jim Donovan as he regales you with a tale of Denzel Ward streaking down the sideline and into the end zone for a pick six. This needs to be not just a dream on Thursday night. It needs to be a reality.
The Browns have been a great bend-but-don't-break defense this year, but that one major play that single-handedly turns a game around has eluded them. The Steelers will give them a chance to generate takeaways and potentially game-changing plays.
The Steelers have thrown an interception in four of their last five games and seven of nine overall. They have fumbled the ball in every single game this year, losing a fumble in six of their nine games, including three lost fumbles the last two weeks alone. They have given the ball away multiple times in each of the last two games and three of the last five. If there ever was a time for the Browns to get back to their ball-hawking ways, this is it.
If the Browns can get after Mason Rudolph, I expect great things to happen for this defense. Rudolph has not thrown a touchdown, has two interceptions, multiple fumbles and is dead last in the NFL with a QB rating of 38.3 when under pressure.
This is going to be an old school AFC North slugfest. The team that makes the critical mistake will find it very difficult to come out of FirstEnergy Stadium with a win. The Steelers have been able to force more mistakes than they've made of late, but they do make plenty of mistakes. The Browns need to keep playing clean offensively and capitalize when the Steelers give them the chances to steal the ball and the momentum.