In Week 8, the Browns finally have their first AFC North game when the 3-3 Pittsburgh Steelers visit FirstEnergy Stadium.
For the first time since 1999-2000, the Browns are coming off back-to-back wins over the Steelers, including that impressive 48-37 win in Pittsburgh in the 2020 playoffs. The Steelers have not beaten the Browns in Cleveland since 2017, and the Browns definitely want to keep all of these streaks going. The Steelers are coming off their bye week and have won two games in a row, themselves, over the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks. Pittsburgh has struggled on offense this season, but it still has a lot of talent in QB Ben Roethlisberger, rookie RB Najee Harris and two excellent receivers Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool. The Steelers are led by Mike Tomlin and their excellent defense, which features Pro Bowlers up front in OLB T.J. Watt and DE Cam Heyward as well as in the secondary with CB Joe Haden and S Minkah Fitzpatrick.
This one might not be pretty but the gritty Browns need to find a way to grind out a huge win.
1. Contain T.J. Watt
Watt can be a flat out game-wrecker, and the Browns can't allow that to happen Sunday. For his career, Watt has terrorized the Browns, racking up nine sacks, 14 tackles for loss, 15 quarterback hits and one interception. Eight of the nine sacks were produced in Watt's six non-losses against the Browns, while just one sack was generated in the two Browns victories, including no sacks and no QB hits at all in the Wild Card win.
Since the start of the 2020 season, Watt leads the NFL in sacks (22), tackles for loss (30) and QB hits (54). He has 13-plus sacks in each of the least three seasons, the second-longest such streak in NFL history. With seven sacks already in 2021, Watt could join Reggie White as the only players in NFL history to have a four-season streak of 13-plus sacks in their NFL careers.
Watt's ability to single-handedly win a game for the Steelers was on full display in the Week 6 win over Seattle, when Watt became the first player (since sacks became an official stat in 1982) to ever have two or more sacks and a forced fumble in overtime. In the game, Watt would finish the day with seven tackles, three TFL, two sacks, two QB hits, one forced fumble and three passes defensed.
The Browns will rely on All-Pro RT Jack Conklin to handle Watt, which he did in dominating fashion in the Browns' playoff win. In fact, Conklin did not allow a single sack to Watt in either of their 2020 meetings, marking the first and second times in Watt's career he failed to register a sack against the Browns. Keeping Watt away from the quarterback again in Week 8 will go a long way toward a Browns win.
Check out exclusive photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers
2. 20 is the magic number
This game is all about the number 20 appearing, or not, on the scoreboard because it, alone, seems to be the biggest single tell of success/failure for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Under Tomlin, the Steelers' record when they score 20 points or more is 123-33-1 (78 percent wins). However, when they are held to 19 points or fewer, the Steelers' record is just 25-48 (34 percent wins). Twenty is also a magic number for the Steelers defense. When the Steelers limit their opponents to 19 or fewer points under Tomlin, they are 100-15 (87 percent wins). However, when the opponent is able to post 20 or more points against the Steel Curtain, the results get ugly, as they have a record of 48-66-1 (41.7 percent wins).
So far in the 2021 season, the critical number has been the absolute pivot point for Steelers wins and losses. The Steelers are 3-0 when they have scored 20 points this year and 0-3 when they have not. The Steelers are 2-0 when they have held their opponent to 19 or fewer points and 1-3 when they have not.
In the Browns' four wins this season, they have held their opponents to an average of 12 points per game. They will need another RAW POWER defensive performance like that to secure a huge win Sunday. It should also be noted the Browns are averaging 24.7 points per game on offense this year, 13th-most in the NFL. Hitting the average on offense and having a stellar defensive performance like we have seen in their victories this season should lead the Browns to a 5-3 start to the 2021 season.
*3. Win the turnover battle *
This one always seems to find its way into the Winning Mix, but against the Steelers it truly takes on an enhanced level of importance. Winning the turnover battle always starts with a clean sheet on offense, and the Browns are now 9-1 all-time under Kevin Stefanski when they do not turn the ball over. In the Browns' playoff win over the Steelers and in the Week 17 playoff clincher a year ago, the Browns had a clean sheet in both games and won the turnover battle plus-5 and plus-1, respectively.
Under Tomlin, the Steelers often go as the turnover battle goes. When the Steelers are neutral or win the turnover battle, they are 122-19! When they lose the turnover battle, they are 26-52-1. So far in 2021, the Steelers are 3-0 when they tie (2-0) or win the turnover battle and 0-3 when they lose it. In 2020, the Browns were 2–0 when they won the turnover battle against the Steelers and lost the only game in which they lost the turnover battle. Generating turnovers has been a real point of emphasis for the Browns over the course of this extended week of preparation, and hopefully some tight coverage against the Steelers quick passing game will lead to either an interception (or two) or force Roethlisberger to hold the ball so Myles Garrett and Co. can get home for a big sack strip fumble, which would be the team's first of the year.
The division games start now, and for the Browns, a critical stretch of the schedule has truly arrived. It is time to play a complete game on both sides of the ball and earn their third straight win over the Steelers to get to 5-3 on the season.