For the second straight week, it will be the Browns and the Steelers in the most important game of the 2020 season.
Last week, the Browns clinched their first playoff berth since 2002 with a 24-22 victory over the Steelers. In that game, the Steelers played without QB Ben Roethlisberger, Pro Bowl C Maurkice Pouncey, Pro Bowl DL Cameron Heyward and likely NFL Defensive Player of the Year, T.J. Watt. Nonetheless, the Browns did what they had to do to win the game and followed their very successful formula for winning in 2020 by getting off to a fast start and winning the turnover battle.
This week, we already know the Browns will be without head coach Kevin Stefanski, Pro Bowl G Joel Bitonio and others because of COVID-19. The team remains undeterred and focused on the task of beating a Steelers team that has lost four of its last five games after starting the season 11-0. They must follow their formula for success, play physical, limit big plays and control the point of attack.
I will expand on that even further in this week's playoff bonus four-part Winning Mix.
1. Get out to a fast start
In just one week, the dynamics surrounding this game have changed dramatically. In Week 17, the Browns were the heavy favorites and had all of the pressure to win on them given that their season was on the line and everyone expected they would prevail. This week, the Steelers have become the heavy favorites following the news that both Stefanski and Bitonio would miss this game. This time, the pressure of the expectations is squarely on the shoulders of the Steelers.
The Browns need to get out to a fast start to show the Steelers exactly what we know to be true, that this is a team that has and will overcome any and all adversity to continue to find ways to win this season. Put the pressure squarely on the Steelers to have to mount a second-half comeback with their season on the line and their Super Bowl window. The Browns are 10-0 this season when they have the lead at the half. They beat the Steelers when they held an early lead and they failed to win back in Week 6 when they got into a hole early. That fast start and halftime lead seems very important this week.
2. Win the turnover battle
By this point, I am sure those of you who read the Winning Mix are quite used to seeing this key to victory following the opening key. Well, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Just as the Browns are now 10-0 this year when leading at the half, they are also 10-0 when neutral or winning the turnover battle. Much like the first key, the Browns won the turnover battle in Week 17 and won the game against the Steelers. They lost the turnover battle in Week 6 and lost the game to the Steelers.
Pittsburgh leads the NFL in interceptions and takeaways per game, so the Browns will have to really emphasize taking care of the football. On defense, they need to find a way to get that one takeaway that can change the momentum, as they did when M.J. Stewart had a huge interception in the Week 17 win. One bit of good news is that since his opening interception against the Bengals in Week 7, Baker Mayfield has thrown just one interception the rest of the season while tossing 16 touchdown passes. That kind of incredible ball security and efficiency will be needed against the toughest defense for quarterbacks in the league.
3. Protect Baker Mayfield and win the point of attack
In the first meeting with the Steelers, Mayfield was under duress on 10 of his 23 dropbacks, and the Browns offense was completely stymied in all facets of the game. That can't be the case Sunday night, even though it will be difficult. The Steelers defense, led by Watt, ranks No. 1 in the NFL in the following categories: Sacks, Interceptions, Opponent QB Rating and Completion Percentage Allowed. They were the toughest team to throw the ball against in 2020, due in large part to their ability to consistently pressure the quarterback.
This will need to be one of the best performances of the season from the Browns offensive line, even without Bitonio. Jack Conklin held Watt without a sack in their only meeting this year, which is notable because it was the first time in Watt's four-year career he failed to register a sack against the Browns. Conklin and fellow tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. must maintain the edges against the aggressive Blitzburgh 3-4 scheme. On the interior, Wyatt Teller, JC Tretter and whomever gets the start at LG will have to contain Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, who had 10 sacks of his own this year.
In the two games against the Steelers, Mayfield's numbers are directly correlated to pressure. Without pressure, Mayfield completed 61 percent of his passes for 286 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a quarterback rating of 94. When under pressure, Mayfield completed 55 percent of his passes for just 29 yards and one interception. He was also sacked eight times on his 20 total dropbacks under pressure. That means on 20 snaps under pressure in two games against the Steelers this year, the Browns have been sacked eight times, thrown one interception and have negative passing yards. Keeping the pressure off Mayfield is critical to the team's offensive success Sunday.
4. Eliminate the vertical chunk plays in the Steelers' passing game
For the year, the Steelers have thrown for 4,130 yards and 35 touchdowns in a very productive passing game. Of those 4,130 yards and 35 touchdowns, a total of 865 yards and 12 touchdowns came on vertical passes of more than 20 yards in the air. As a percentage, vertical passing accounted for 21 percent of the team's total passing yards and 34 percent of their passing touchdowns.
In two meetings with the Browns this season, the Steelers have relied on the vertical passing game in a much more significant fashion. In Week 17 with Mason Rudolph at quarterback, the Steelers threw for 317 yards and two touchdowns. Nearly half of those yards and one touchdown came on four vertical completions, accounting for 49.5 percent of the yards and 50 percent of the passing touchdowns on the day. In Week 6 with Roethlisberger at quarterback, the Steelers threw for 162 yards and one touchdown. In that game, Roethlisberger racked up 91 yards (57 percent) and a the touchdown on three vertical completions. For the year, the Steelers averaged having 51 percent of their passing yards coming from the vertical game against the Browns, but less than 20 percent against all other opponents.
Even though the Browns only account for 12.5 percent of the Steelers games this year, they have been on the wrong end of 29 percent of their vertical passing yards for the season, and that has to stop Sunday night. Not only can the vertical passing game lead to game-changing chunk plays, it can also lead to field-shifting penalties. Steelers WR Chase Claypool has burned the Browns vertically in both games this year and also led the NFL with seven defensive pass interference penalties drawn on vertical throws. Hopefully, the Browns will have Denzel Ward back for this game, but no matter who is out there, the Browns have to contain the Steelers vertical passing attack.