For only the second time in 134 regular season meetings in this storied rivalry, the Browns and Steelers meet with winning percentages greater than .800 after Week 5. The Browns have accomplished a lot of historically significant things during their four-game winning streak and will look to add another, by winning at Heinz Field for the first time since 2003. The Steelers enter this game at 4-0 for only the fourth time in franchise history and are looking to get to 5-0 for the first time since 1979.
It is only fitting that such an important matchup between two great rivals pits the hottest offense in the NFL since Week 2 against a Steelers defense that is ranked first or second in an astonishing 15 statistical categories. You wanted a heavyweight bout between the Browns and the Steelers with great consequence for the AFC North standings? Well, you've got it.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski has found the winning formula for his Browns to go 1-0 in each of the last four weeks, so let's take a look at this week's winning mix.
1. Keep Baker Mayfield operating in a clean pocket
Priority No. 1 for any successful passing game is to keep the quarterback upright and operating in a clean pocket. The Browns have been one of the very best at doing so this season, ranking sixth in the NFL, allowing a pressure on just 24.7 percent of their dropbacks. When operating from that clean pocket provided by his excellent offensive line, Baker Mayfield has been sensational in 2020. He is completing 68 percent of his passes, has an eight-to-one touchdown to interception ratio and has a quarterback rating of 109.2.
There is no tougher challenge for an offensive line than slowing down the pass rush of the Steelers, however. The Steelers lead the NFL in sacks (20), sack yards (145), quarterback hits (50) and quarterback pressure percentage (49.5 percent). The Steelers are pressuring the quarterback on nearly 50 percent of the opponent's dropbacks, which is nearly 10 percent more than the second-best team in the NFL.
The Steelers already have four players on their roster with at least three sacks this season despite playing in only four games. That stat is even more incredible when you consider no other team in the NFL has more than two players with three or more sacks thus far. The Steelers blitz 46 percent of the time, the second-highest rate in the NFL thus far. They are even more aggressive on early downs, where they lead the NFL with a 55 percent blitz rate, per Next Gen Stats. They blitz their nickel back Mike Hilton on 20 percent of pass plays and he already has three sacks this year.
Avoiding hugely negative plays like sacks is obviously critical to offensive success. Against the Steelers, limiting that pressure will be very important for Mayfield's continued success. When under pressure this year, Mayfield's completion percentage falls to 42.9 percent, he has thrown one touchdown with three interceptions and his quarterback rating dips to 30.9. Continued great play from the Browns offensive line will lead to continued excellent play from Mayfield, which will go a long way to beating the excellent Steelers defense.
2. Take away the Ben Roethlisberger's 1st read
For much of his career, Ben Roethlisberger made his name shrugging off would-be pass rushers, holding onto the ball and making huge plays down the field. That has not been the case in 2020, as Big Ben has opted for a more short-area, quick passing game that has led him to the best start of his career. Roethlisberger has career highs in completion percentage (69.9), touchdown-to-interception ratio (10-to-1), and quarterback rating 110.4 through the first four games of 2014. He is throwing the ball in 2.37 seconds, per Next Gen Stats, which quickest in the NFL, and his air yards per attempt are just 7.0, eighth-lowest in the NFL.
The quick hitting passing game is why Roethlisberger has been pressured on only 16.8 percent of his dropbacks, third-fewest in the NFL. Even when pressure does get near him, it has not mattered, as Roethlisberger leads the NFL in completion percentage (68.4), yards per attempt (12.9) and quarterback rating (146.3) when under pressure in 2020.
So how do you disrupt Roethlisberger this season? Defensive coordinator Joe Woods is going to have to have his coverage very tight on the Pittsburgh pass catchers to force Roethlisberger to hold onto the ball a little longer than he would like. When forced to hold onto the ball for more than 2.5 seconds this year, Roethlisberger is completing just 53.3 percent of his passes and has a quarterback rating of 78, both of which are sixth-worst in the NFL among the 28 quarterbacks who have played 50 percent of their team's snaps.
Now, you never want to give up the big play on defense, but there could be some merit in forcing Roethlisberger to try to throw it more than 20-plus yards down the field. So far, he is just 4-of-18 on pass attempts of more than 20 yards in the air and his 22.2 percent completion rate on deep throws is third-worst in the NFL.
Forcing Roethlisberger to hold the ball will help Myles Garrett and Co. get home for big sacks, and it should lead to a less efficient passing attack for the Steelers, which would be great news for the Browns defense.
Check out exclusive photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers
3. Ground supremacy will be important to establishing dominance
This game is going to be an old-school, physical game between the Browns and the Steelers. The battle in the trenches will be key for both passing games, but it will also set the tone for the game on the ground. Something has to give because both the NFL's leading rushing team, the Browns, and the Steelers have out-rushed their opponent in every game they've played in 2020.
The Browns are the No. 1 rushing offense in the NFL at 188.4 yards per game and boast the league's fourth-ranked run defense, allowing just 87 yards per game. The Steelers are rushing for 138.8 yards each week, eighth-best in the NFL, and have the league's second=best run defense, giving up just 64 yards per game.
According to Next Gen Stats, the Browns are the most efficient running game in terms of both yards per carry (5.36) and Rush Yards over Expectation per carry at +1.47. Last week's opponent, the Indianapolis Colts, lead the NFL in what Next Gen Stats calls Defensive Rush Yards over Expectation at -0.92. The Colts held the Browns to a season-low 124 yards rushing on 3.8 yards per carry. The Steelers are second in DRYOE at -0.9 yards per carry, but the good news here is the Browns run defense is fifth-best at -0.69 yards per carry.
In other words, there may be no better strength vs. strength matchup in the NFL than the battle in the trenches we are set to see on both sides of the ball Sunday in Pittsburgh. The team that controls the line of scrimmage, gets the push in the run game and protects their quarterback in the passing game likely will be the team that wins. Conversely, the team that can make a game-changing play up front, like we've seen Garrett do four weeks in a row or like we know T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree are capable of, could tilt the game in their team's favor as well.
One fun bonus stat: The Steelers have a takeaway in 10 straight games, the fourth-longest streak in the NFL. The Browns have a takeaway in 12 straight games, the second-longest streak in the NFL.