A Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cleveland Browns matchup never lacks intensity, but this Week 8 clash between the AFC North rivals carries extra importance given the current shape of the NFL standings. In a loaded division, let’s break down the matchups for Steelers vs. Browns and then make a prediction for how this game could turn out when all is said and done.
Pittsburgh Steelers offense vs. Cleveland Browns defense
Pittsburgh’s offense rarely struggles against Cleveland’s defense when Ben Roethlisberger is under center. Since 2014, the only time that Cleveland held Pittsburgh under 20 points came in the infamous Thursday Night Football game where Myles Garrett hit Mason Rudolph on the head with his own helmet.
However, with the Steelers’ offense struggling in 2021, could we see that trend broken on Sunday?
Ben Roethlisberger vs. Browns defense
The 2021 season continues to see Ben Roethlisberger struggle as his career draws to an end. According to Pro Football Network’s Offensive Value Metric, which judges QBs based on their passing performance on metrics within their control, this has been his worst season since the metric began in 2016.
Additionally, more traditional measures of QB play also demonstrate Roethlisberger’s decline. He is below his career average in touchdown percentage (3.0%), yards per attempt (6.4), and passer rating (86.0). Pittsburgh’s passing game ranks 29th in yards per attempt and 27th in touchdown percentage.
Meanwhile, Cleveland’s defense has largely been good against the pass. Their defense is the fourth-best unit against opposing passers in terms of completion rate (61.1%) and ranks in the top half of the NFL yards per attempt (7.2).
However, with 16 passing touchdowns allowed on 229 pass attempts, their touchdown percentage (7.0%) is one of the worst in the league. Meanwhile, only six teams have a lower interception rate (1.3%).
The matchup between the Steelers’ 22nd-ranked red-zone offense (57.1% conversion rate) and the Browns’ 26th-ranked red-zone defense (72.7% touchdowns allowed) could be a key factor in deciding this game. Pittsburgh will likely need to score more than their 19.5 points per game average this season to win this game, and Roethlisberger will have to be a big factor in that achievement.
Steelers skill players vs. Browns secondary
Despite the loss of JuJu Smith-Schuster and the mixed performance of Roethlisberger, the Steelers’ skill-position players have generally performed admirably. Diontae Johnson leads the team with 50 targets, 376 receiving yards, and 3 touchdowns. He ranks among the top 20 WRs with 75.2 yards per game.
Chase Claypool has averaged 71.6 yards per game (24th) but has caught just 52.4% of his targets. That is similar to his rookie season, but the Steelers would have hoped for an improvement in his second year.
Najee Harris has supported the running game with 34 receptions, 244 receiving yards, and 2 receiving touchdowns on 46 targets. Despite his 10.9% drop rate, he has been a crucial part of Pittburgh’s passing offense and will test Cleveland’s linebackers and safeties in coverage. The absence of Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who has been superb in coverage, could be exploited by Harris.
The Browns’ secondary has produced mixed returns. All of their primary cornerbacks have allowed a completion rate below 66.7%. However, Greedy Williams and Troy Hill have each allowed 2 touchdowns in coverage with just 1 interception to show between them. Denzel Ward being out this week adds to the concerns for the cornerback position.
At safety, John Johnson has largely been impressive against the pass (55.6% completion rate and 1 interception). However, the combination of S Ronnie Harrison, LB Anthony Walker, and LB Malcolm Smith have all been exploited in coverage this year. The Browns may need to turn to the lightly used Sione Takitaki to assist in covering Harris this week.
Steelers offensive line vs. Browns defensive line
As feared, Pittsburgh’s offensive line has been one of the worst units in the league this year in our 2021 offensive line rankings, especially in the run game. Harris averages a mere 3.8 yards per attempt and is currently 39th among qualified backs in yards before contact (1.9).
This week, they face a Browns team whose defensive line has been one of the best in the league against the run game this season. Opposing offenses are averaging just 3.5 yards per attempt against them (second-best in the NFL). The Chargers and Cardinals did manage to rush for over 100 yards against the Browns front. However, their offensive lines are much closer to league average than the Steelers’.
In the passing game, Pittsburgh has been better. Their sack rate is in the top half of the league, but that’s due in part to Roethlisberger relying on a quick passing attack. He will need that fast passing game against a Browns pass rush that has the third-best sack rate in the league at 8.0%. Cleveland’s pressure rate (29.8%) and QB knockdown rate (12.7%) are also among the best in the league.
Cleveland Browns offense vs. Steelers defense
The health of Baker Mayfield will shape what this Browns offense looks like. Case Keenum did an admirable job on Thursday Night Football, but time and time again, we have seen that he is not a player who can provide value over multiple games.
Baker Mayfield vs. Steelers defense
When he has been on the field this year, Mayfield’s numbers have looked good. His 67.1% completion rate and 8.5 yards per attempt are both above his career average. His touchdown rate is down (3.3%), and while that can be blamed on the Browns leading the league in rushing touchdowns, Cleveland’s 23rd-ranked red-zone offense is a concern (56.0% conversion rate).
This matchup with the Steelers’ defense is very much an even situation. Pittsburgh ranks at the league average in yards per attempt (7.4), touchdown rate (5.2%), and completion rate (65.6%).
Against an average defense, Mayfield can put his stamp on the game with a strong performance. Additionally, the Steelers have managed just a 0.9% interception rate this season, so the risk of turnovers is relatively low for Mayfield this week.
This is an even matchup. A slight improvement in performance from Mayfield or the Steelers’ defense could turn this particular conflict their way.
Browns skill players vs. Steelers secondary
The performance of the Browns’ skill-position players has been frustrating this year. Odell Beckham has caught just 48.5% of his 33 targets for 226 yards. Austin Hooper has impressed in short spurts, while Jarvis Landry has been hampered by injury. Normally, Cleveland would just look to its running backs, but Kareem Hunt is on injured reserve, and neither Nick Chubb nor D’Ernest Johnson are viewed as passing-game weapons.
As such, the Browns have needed solid performances from Demetric Felton, David Njoku, Rashard Higgins, Anthony Schwartz, and Donovan Peoples-Jones at various times. While each has had their moments, Cleveland needs someone to put their hand up and command this offense from a pass-catching point of view.
The performance of the Steelers’ secondary has been mixed. Joe Haden is allowing a 70.8% completion rate and 9 yards per completion. Minkah Fitzpatrick has been a liability in coverage with an 81% completion rate and 2 touchdowns on 21 targets.
Even the players that posted better completion percentages have struggled elsewhere. Cameron Sutton is allowing 8.3 yards per completion and a passer rating of just over 100. James Pierre and Terrell Edmunds have allowed completion rates under 60% but have been beaten for 2 touchdowns each.
Neither side of this matchup is convincing in the slightest.
Browns offensive line vs. Steelers defensive line
Cleveland’s offensive line is an enigma. For as good as they have been blocking for the running game, they have had their struggles in the passing game. At 5.3 yards per attempt, no run game in the NFL has had better returns this year. Their prowess in run blocking was demonstrated last week. Even without Chubb and Hunt, the run game was still able to exploit the Broncos’ defense on the ground.
This matchup against a solid Steelers defensive line loaded with veteran savvy should be tougher. However, Cleveland’s line appears to be impressive enough to dominate even a good run defense on the ground.
The passing game is the problem for the Browns. Now, the line has not been helped by the performance of Cleveland’s pass catchers. Mayfield has been forced to hold the ball longer, putting extra pressure on the line. However, a sack rate over 8% is simply too high for a team that views itself as a potential Super Bowl contender.
Things do not get easier this week against Pittsburgh’s pass rush. T.J. Watt is one of the best at his craft in the entire league right now. As a unit, the Steelers’ pressure rate of 28.8% is the third-best in the NFL, and their hurry rate (15.9%) is second-best.
However, if the Browns can contain and neutralize Watt in the passing game, their offensive line can dominate enough in the run game to come away from this vital clash with a win.
Advantage: Browns (marginally)
Betting line and game prediction
This game has a feeling of a must-win for both teams. It may still be early, but the AFC North could have at least three teams with winning records this year. Therefore, these head-to-heads become crucial for tiebreaker scenarios.
The NFL odds for this Steelers vs. Browns game was always dependent on the health of Mayfield. With him, Cleveland is a comfortable favorite when you include home-field advantage. But if he’s unable to play, this game suddenly looks even.
This matchup between the Steelers and Browns will come down to two elements: 1) The battle of the trenches, and 2) Success in the red zone. The Browns have the marginal advantage in line play, but the Steelers have the upper hand in red-zone numbers so far this year. This one should be an absolutely fascinating contest.
Steelers vs. Browns Prediction: Browns 23, Steelers 20