The Browns are riding a three-game winning streak and have been following the Winning Mix to a tee during their run. They will look to go 1-0 for the fourth consecutive week as they travel to Pittsburgh to take on the 6-5 Steelers for the second time in three weeks.
The Steelers are currently the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs if they started today, and the Browns are just one game back, looking to get to 6-6 on the season and right back into the playoff hunt. After a 21-7, decisive, physical victory over the Steelers and the aftermath of that game, you know everything is going be as intense as possible this Sunday.
In a reversal of recent Browns vs. Steelers trends, it will be the Steelers starting their third-string QB in undrafted free agent rookie Devlin "Duck" Hodges, while the Browns start their star and franchise QB Baker Mayfield.
It would be impossible to overstate the importance of this game for both teams, and what could be better than a Browns-Steelers game after Thanksgiving with playoff hopes hanging in the balance. It will have a playoff atmosphere and then some, which will make the winning mix not only involve physical execution, but also emotional restraint.
With that being said, let's dive into the three ways the Browns can ensure they sweep the Steelers for the first time in far too long.
Check out photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Steelers Sunday by team photographer Matt Starkey
1. Productive Passion
It is a rivalry renewed, no doubt about it. The Browns and the Steelers have been the talk of the NFL ever since the Browns won 21-7 on Thursday Night Football in Week 11. As you all know, the discussion did not center on the Browns win, but on the fight at the end of the game that saw three players get suspended, including Myles Garrett's indefinite suspension, and multiple others receive fines.
When you add that backdrop to the fact that this is a game that likely eliminates the loser from the playoff picture, it's just like adding gasoline to an already raging fire. This Sunday, Heinz Field will be the most hostile environment that most of these Browns have ever faced in their NFL careers.
There is little doubt that the Browns were the more physical and dominant team in the win over the Steelers two weeks ago. That is not something that the Steelers have been used to feeling in games against the Browns, so you can fully expect them to come out and try to reestablish their physical superiority.
When games have as much emotion as this one and you know that the physicality will be off the charts, the Browns will be faced with some tough, split-second decisions. In those moments, it will be simple, according to head coach Freddie Kitchens, as the choice will be self or team. Everything the Browns have preached since the dog days of a very physical training camp has been about the team. Sunday, they will have a chance to show their emotional maturity and their singular focus on doing their job and what is best for the team and the team only.
A game like this will be intense and will likely come down to some critical plays or decisions in the second half. The Browns can not make any emotional decisions that give the Steelers any benefits. They must avoid any retaliatory personal fouls that gift the Steelers 15 yards, extend a possession on a third down or wipe out a big play on either offense or defense. If the Browns avoid those kinds of pitfalls in an emotionally charged game and let their talent dictate the outcome, the Browns will win this game.
2. Protect the Ball on Offense
It is not a coincidence that the Browns' three-game winning streak has coincided with the team taking care of the football on offense. In those three games, the Browns have turned the ball over just once while generating six takeaways on defense (four of which came against the Steelers).
Mayfield has now thrown multiple touchdowns in each of those three wins with seven total touchdown passes versus only one interception. The Browns have also not lost a fumble in four straight games. Taking care of the ball will be key against this ball-hawking Steelers defense.
Since Week 3, the Steelers lead the NFL with 26 total takeaways. They lead the NFL with 16 forced fumbles, 12 fumble recoveries and are second with 14 interceptions. The Steelers have forced three or more turnovers in five of their last seven games. At one point, they had three-plus turnovers in five straight games before they were unable to take the ball away from the Browns in Cleveland's decisive 21-7 victory.
The Steelers defense boasts an elite turnover generator on all three levels of their defense. Pass rusher T.J. Watt leads the NFL with nine total takeaways, while safety Minkah Fitzpatrick is second with eight himself. Rookie linebacker Devin Bush rounds out the trio with seven takeaways, which is tied for fourth-most in the NFL through 11 games.
Limiting the takeaways, and especially the scoring takeaways, will go a long way to ensuring another Browns win. The Steelers have made a big habit of turning turnovers into touchdowns. The Steelers defense has scored in three of their last six games and they have won all three of those games.
It should also be noted that they are reliant on defensive scores to get to 20 points. Over the last six games, the Steelers offense has produced 20 points on their own just once (27 against Miami; Browns had 41 against them for comparison's sake) and they are averaging just 16 points per game as an offense. Over the last three weeks, the Steelers offense is averaging a whopping 11 points per game on its own. If the Browns keep the Steelers D out of the end zone, a race to 20 should be enough to topple Pittsburgh.
3. Prevent Big Plays
We have already laid out what must be avoided from a composure standpoint and how the Browns offense can't make any huge mistakes to the opportunistic Steelers. The final piece of the puzzle will be preventing any big plays by the Steelers on offense.
Last week against the Bengals, Hodges came in and completed 5-of-11 passes for 118 yards and one touchdown. The touchdown was a heave, catch and run to James Washington that went for 79 yards and was the lone offensive touchdown of the day for the Steelers. So, on his other 10 pass attempts against the Bengals, Hodges was just 4-of-10 for 39 yards.
In Hodges' lone start against the Chargers, no receiver or tight end had even 15 yards receiving in the game. All he did was check the ball down to his running backs, who finished the game with eight catches for 92 yards and a touchdown. The touchdown was a 26-yard catch and run to James Conner. Outside of the chunk play touchdown, Hodges averaged just 7.4 yards per completion on the day.
The Browns are taking on a young man from Samford who is playing by far the biggest game of his life Sunday. They can't let him get any confidence from a big play that results from a blown coverage or missed tackles. Force him to move this offense down the field and earn every yard and every point.
The Steelers offense has generated just four touchdown drives in their last 54 offensive possessions. The Steelers have punted or turned the ball over 35 times in the last three games alone on just 43 offensive possessions.
This is not the greatest show on turf, folks, so the Browns approach has to be simple. Make them earn every yard, harass Hodges, who will be without his starting center Maurice Pouncey (suspension), and be the defense that has six interceptions in the last two games alone. If they do that and avoid a slip-up that changes the game in a hurry for the Steelers, the Browns will shut this offense down.