The stage is set.
It is the 10-5 Cleveland Browns against the 12-3 AFC North Champion Steelers on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium with a chance to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002. The formula for the Browns is simple: Win and you're in the 2020 playoffs. When I asked Kevin Stefanski what it would mean to win this game, he simply replied, "it means we get to keep playing." You have to love that singular focus from your head coach, and there is no doubt he is correct. The playoffs have come early to Cleveland, as the stakes could not possibly be higher.
On the other side of the ball, the Steelers have clinched the AFC North and are locked into the 3-seed (at worst) in the AFC playoff picture. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has already announced he will be sitting QB Ben Roethlisberger and C Maurkice Pouncey as well as defensive stars T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward. More of the top Steelers could be getting the day off as the week progresses, but, frankly for the Browns, this game is all about them. The Browns need to come out fast and execute to secure the all-important reward for a wonderful season with a playoff berth.
How they achieve that can be found below in this week's Winning Mix.
1. Get out to a fast start
In the first meeting against the Steelers, the Browns threw a pick-six on their opening possession and quickly found themselves in a double-digit hole. As this week's Matchup to Watch illustrated, the turnover battle has a direct correlation to the Browns' success in 2020. A quick start in the first half also has a direct correlation to the Browns' propensity to come away victorious this season as well. The Browns have not lost a single game when leading at the half this year and are 9-0 when they take the lead into intermission.
This week, the Steelers will play the Browns, but they are clearly focused on the postseason with many key starters for their team getting the game off. Help them all turn their attention to the postseason early in the game by executing and taking a nice, big lead early. Give Tomlin the reason to have a quick hook on the remaining key pieces for a potential Pittsburgh postseason run by showing, without a shadow of a doubt, they have no chance to beat the Browns in this game. There is not a team in the NFL that has been more effective than the Browns when they get off to a fast start, and this is the week to do so emphatically. Punch the Steelers in the mouth early and punch your ticket to the playoffs.
2. Protect Baker Mayfield and win the point of attack
While the Browns will not have to deal with the odds-on favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year, Watt, who leads the NFL in sacks, quarterback hits and total pressures, they still have to deal with an aggressive Pittsburgh defensive scheme that aims to harass quarterbacks and control the line of scrimmage. No Watt, no Heyward and no Bud Dupree (out for the season) for the Steelers defense is a bonus, but it does not mean the Browns will have it easy. The good news is it appears as though the team will have its full offensive line for the first time in weeks as both LT Jedrick Wills Jr. and RG Wyatt Teller appear to be on track to play.
In the first meeting with the Steelers, Baker Mayfield was under duress on 10 of his 23 dropbacks, and the Browns offense was completely stymied in all facets of the game. The Steelers will be aggressive, and you can bet their game plan will be to once again put pressure on Mayfield, who has been among the most efficient quarterbacks in the NFL from a clean pocket with 23 touchdowns, four interceptions and a quarterback rating of 110. Playing Browns football means running the ball, getting push at the line of scrimmage and protecting Mayfield so the team can operate like the top-5 offense they have been over the last six weeks — excluding the game in which they did not have their entire receiving corps. A good offensive performance almost certainly guarantees the halftime lead and big win over the Mason Rudolph-led Steelers.
3. Pressure Rudolph relentlessly
Rudolph is 5-3 in eight games as the starting quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. In those eight games, he never threw for more than 251 yards and only threw for multiple scores three times. As defenses got some tape on Rudolph, his play really suffered. In his final three starts, the Steelers averaged just 13.3 points per game, and he threw two touchdowns with five interceptions. No one crushed Rudolph like the Browns, who sacked him four times, recorded four interceptions and held Rudolph to a career-worst quarterback rating of 36.3.
The Steelers enter Week 17 with the worst running game in the NFL, and they will have to throw the ball to score Sunday. The Browns defense, led by the 20 combined sacks of Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon, must pressure Rudolph relentlessly to stymie the Pittsburgh offense and help ensure a huge victory. As a starter, Rudolph was fairly efficient from a clean pocket, completing 71 percent of his passes at 7.5 yards per attempt with 12 touchdowns, four interceptions and a quarterback rating of 105. When he was pressured, however, he struggled. Under pressure, Rudolph completed 44 percent of his passes at 3.7 yards per attempt with one touchdown and five interceptions while posting a quarterback rating of 35.6. In the Browns' 2019 domination of Rudolph, they pressured him on 50 percent of his pass attempts. If they can hit that number again Sunday, they should be able to completely control this game on both sides of the ball and earn that all-important playoff berth.