Get ready for a wild game in Cleveland with a primetime Thursday Night Football matchup between two AFC North rivals. The Browns, bolstered by the return of running back Kareem Hunt, are coming off a solid performance against the third-ranked Buffalo Bills defense. The Pittsburgh Steelers are on a four-game winning streak. A preview of the game shows that despite early struggles, the Steelers are winning games in unique ways.
Pittsburgh found themselves in an unfamiliar situation early this season. After losing starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger early in the season, they managed just one win in the first five games. But this is the Steel City, known for its grit. With their backs against the wall, the Steelers responded. After the disastrous start, Pittsburgh has churned out four straight wins.
Now sitting at 5-4, they are just two games behind the AFC North-leading Baltimore Ravens and hold the second and final wildcard playoff spot. Coach Mike Tomlin’s squad is grinding for every victory, battling through injuries and major roster shakeups. How have the Steelers succeeded amid so much change?
Rough start for Rudolph
We can go inside the stats and use Pro Football Network’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM) to examine who is most responsible for the current winning streak. In using OSM, we can see who is playing a significant role in the production of an offense. The formula goes beyond traditional statistical analysis to show a player’s contribution to their team based on individual factors only that player can control. It is graded on a 100-point scale, though this is nearly impossible to achieve as it would mean a player threw the ball, then caught it and somehow also rushed with it simultaneously.
The Mason Rudolph era was ushered in unceremoniously when Roethlisberger was forced out of the Steelers’ week two game against the Seattle Seahawks. The injury would require surgery and Rudolph, a 2018 third-round draft pick, was inserted as the starter. In his first four games, Rudolph averaged just 161.5 yards per game with the Pittsburgh winning just once. In week five Rudolph was knocked out of the game after a nasty hit from Baltimore Ravens defender Earl Thomas III.
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Production from unlikely sources
The Steelers were forced to turn to third-string undrafted rookie QB Devlin Hodges in a week six matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers. Although Hodges led the Steelers to a victory with a very game manager-like 132 yards passing, it was the running backs that carried the team. Fourth-round rookie Benny Snell Jr. paced the team with 75 yards rushing on 17 carries, and James Conner led the team in receiving with seven catches for 78 yards and a TD. Conner also chipped in 41 yards rushing and another TD on the ground.
The time off did Rudolph good. He returned after the bye for a week seven matchup against a struggling Miami Dolphins team. Rudolph threw for 251 yards and two TD, with an OSM grade of 29.77, ninth-best among all QB’s that week. The news was not all good, however. Although Conner finally got things going on the ground, racking up 145 yards on the ground, he left the game with a shoulder injury and would miss the next two weeks.
In week 10 the Steelers once again used an unconventional combination of running backs on their way to their third consecutive victory. With Conner out, Pittsburgh turned to recent practice squad member Trey Edmunds. Against the Indianapolis Colts, Edmunds delivered a clutch performance with 73 yards rushing on 12 carries, good for 6.1 yards per carry. It was good for an OSM score of 30.29, third-best among RB’s in the NFL that week. Back up RB Jaylen Samuels led the team with 13 receptions out of the backfield.
Receivers stepping up
Last week Pittsburgh hosted the defending NFC Champion Los Angeles Rams at Heinz Field. The Rams front seven negated the Steelers running backs, but a pair of Pittsburgh receivers scored elite OSM grades. James Washington, looking for his breakout game of the season, led the team with 90 yards and a TD on six receptions. The effort earned Washington an OSM score of 42.83. Rookie Diontae Johnson had four receptions for 64 yards and an OSM score of 40.31. Rudolph was efficient again with 242 yards passing and a TD. The performance capped off a strong three weeks where Rudolph averaged 228 passing yards per game, up more than 66 YPG from his first four weeks.
Which brings us to the present: A divisional primetime game on the road in a frigid Cleveland on Thursday Night Football. It should be a slobber knocker of a game in blustery conditions with temperatures expected to be below freezing with winds at more than 10 mph. Despite the Steelers four-game win streak, the point spread has the Browns 2.5-point favorites at home.
Pittsburgh has been putting up points in an unconventional fashion. Their best wide receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster, has just 170 receiving yards and one TD during the win streak. A different back has led the team in rushing in each of the four victories. We’re watching the maturation of Rudolph in real-time.
While the Steelers offense may currently be maddening to fantasy football players, it’s working on the field. During the 1-5 start, the Steelers scored 19.8 points per game. During their current win streak, 23.5 PPG. The big question for the Browns to answer tonight is, who steps up for the Steelers tonight on TNF?
Travis Yates is a writer for PFN. You can find him @TheTravisYates on Twitter.