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The Winning Mix

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The Winning Mix: 3 keys to a victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers

The Browns and Steelers face off in a big rivalry game

The 7-7-1 Steelers got the better of the Browns in the first meeting with a 15-10 win in Cleveland. Now, the Browns must return to what will be an electric atmosphere in Pittsburgh for future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's likely final game at Heinz Field. Much like last year, the Steelers are limping to the finish line, having fallen in four of their last six games. The Browns will hope to recreate the magic of last January's primetime playoff win as they look to start 2022 on the best possible note.

How do the Browns get the job done? Let's take a look in this week's Winning Mix.

*1. Clutch Up *

The time for talking is over, and for the Browns it now comes down to the doing. Too often this season the Browns have come up short in the critical moments and found themselves on the losing side of very close contests. In games decided by six points or less, the Browns sit at just 3-6 on the season, including 1-3 in the last four games alone. Turning just a couple of those close losses, including the 15-10 home loss to the Steelers, into wins could have already secured the AFC North for the Browns. However, that is all in the past and the chance to achieve the goal of winning the division is still alive and well. Now it is time to do the doing, to come through at the end of the game when we absolutely need it.

The Browns have shown the ability to do it at times this year, including running 6 minutes off the clock against the Broncos to secure a win. Then they held on to defeat the Lions, 13-10, and got a great fourth down stand by the defense to hold off the charging Ravens, 24-22, in Week 14. With the eyes of the football world watching the Browns in primetime once again, they must come through against their rival. I think we all expect this game to be tight, given the storied history of these two franchises, the stakes of the game and, well, frankly because the Browns have now played five straight nailbiting games.

The Browns are now as healthy as they can possibly be following two Covid-ravaged weeks and should have their full complement of players on both offense and defense. The lines on both sides are buttressed by the returns of Jedrick Wills Jr., JC Tretter, Jadeveon Clowney and Malik McDowell. You're as healthy and complete (assuming Kareem Hunt is ready to go,) so now is the time for executing at the critical moments, on the critical plays and in the critical situations that likely will determine this game. The Steelers are as battle-tested in these scenarios as anyone in the NFL. All seven of their wins have come in one-score games this year, and they are 7-2-1 in such contests (third-best winning percentage in the NFL this year). They will be more than ready in a tight game and will expect to be the team that comes up with the clutch win.

A clutch win for Cleveland would not only ensure that this season stays alive and that the Browns have the chance to go for the ultimate prize, but also could have snowball effect that could catapult the Browns forward with the confidence to become the team that gets hot at the right time. The Steelers will give the Browns nothing, so the Browns will have to take it themselves.

Check out exclusive photos from the practice fields at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus of the Browns preparing for their Week 17 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers

2. Score 20-plus and Hold the Steelers to 19 or fewer

If you throw out the Patriots game, the Browns defense has been playing at a championship level week in and week out. Since the loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 6, the Browns defense has held its opponent below 17 points five times and has allowed more than 24 once. In these last nine games, the Browns are allowing 19.7 points per game, and that's with the 45-point outlier surrendered to New England. Without that game, they have held their opponents to just 16.6 points per game, including 15 to this week's opponent. For the season, the Steelers are just 2-5 when they score 19 or fewer points and 5-2 when they eclipse the 20-point threshold.  

The numbers are even more stark when you look at the Steelers defense. When Pittsburgh has allowed 20-plus points, it is 2-7.  When the Steelers hold their opponents to 19 or fewer points this year, they are 5-0, including a win over the Browns. The Steelers are undefeated if you do not put up 20 points on them, so that must be a top priority for the Browns.  The offense moved the ball up and down the field against the Packers last week, but it was undone by the four giveaways. The Browns must get this offense going against the league's worst run defense, make the crucial plays in the pass game, take care of the football and just find a way to get to 20 points. In every two-score loss the Steelers have had this year, the opponent has topped 20 points and has posted an average of 31.7 points per game. In fact, in their wins, the Steelers are allowing 17.7 points per game juxtaposed with 33 in their seven losses. In their last six games, the Steelers are 2-4, and in the two wins, they've allowed 19 and 13 points, respectively. In the four losses, the opposition has torched the Steelers for 41, 41, 36 and another 36 last week against the Chiefs. The clearest path to victory is a scoring blitz against the Steelers, just like last year's playoff win that saw both the offense and the defense find the end zone in the Browns' 48-37 victory.

3. Get Out To A Fast Start

With so much pressure and so much riding on this game, it behooves the Browns to get out to a fast start and take the lead into halftime against the Steelers. Under Kevin Stefanski, the Browns are 16-2 all time in the regular season when leading at the half and have never lost a divisional game (4-0) with the advantage after 30 minutes of football. Conversely, the Browns are 1-10 overall and 1-5 in the division during the same period when trailing at the half, so a fast start is a must on the road in a hostile environment.  The same in many ways holds true for the 2021 Steelers, who find themselves undefeated this year when leading or tied at halftime with a record of 4-0. On the flip side, they are just 3-7 when trailing after the second quarter this year despite some valiant comeback attempts from big deficits.   

Think about the two games at Heinz Field last year between the Browns and the Steelers. In the first meeting, the Steelers opened the scoring with a defensive touchdown and raced to a commanding halftime lead and never looked back en route to a decisive win. In the Browns' Wild Card win, the Browns opened the scoring with a defensive touchdown of their own and raced out to a 28-0 lead that would prove to be insurmountable. The Browns defense has produced multiple takeaways in four of their last five games. Big Ben, himself, has six turnovers in the last five games, all of which have come in the three losses during that span. In his two clean games, the Steelers have won, so forcing an early turnover would be massive for the Browns, who have been a good opening-drive team on offense this season. Roethlisberger's early turnovers against the Chiefs last week put that game away before it really even got started, and while I expect a tight one, I would be more than fine with that.  

Ultimately and probably as it should be, it is going to take heart. It is going to take grit. It is going to take Raw Power, and it is going to take execution to propel the Browns to a colossal Monday Night Football win over the Steelers.

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