The great franchise of the Pittsburgh Steelers — who are, incredibly, still in the playoff hunt on the strength of their defense — will be turning to “Duck” Hodges this week under center, because that’s the state of the quarterback position in the NFL this year; and they will be turning to Duck against a 5-6 Browns team that is also now in the playoff hunt. Entering this week, the Steelers (6-5) are tied with the Raiders, Colts, and Titans for the sixth seed in the AFC — and with the Raiders playing the Chiefs this week and the Colts and Titans playing each other, the Steelers could potentially slide into a two-way tie with a win, while a Browns win could move them one step closer to their season telling a totally different story than it was telling a month ago. Thankfully, Myles Garrett and Mason Rudolph will both miss this contest, and these two teams will hopefully be able to focus on football.
We’ll start on the Steelers’ side of the ball, where they will have a matchup against a Browns team that ranks ninth in DVOA against the pass but only 22nd against the run — good news for Pittsburgh, as this team would very much prefer to win with a “run-leaning + defense” approach. If James Conner returns (which currently appears unlikely), he’ll be the likely engine of the offense in what is likely to be a low-scoring game — while another Conner absence would open opportunity for a backfield split that was much messier last week than the final numbers made it appear. While Benny Snell handled 22 touches last week, he played only 35 of 72 snaps, with Kerrith Whyte playing seven snaps (six carries), Trey Edmunds playing 12 snaps (two carries), and Jaylen Samuels playing 21. Samuels practically disappeared with only two carries and three receptions, but he’s locked into the pass-catching work on this offense, while Snell appears set to operate as the clear leader of a committee on the ground.
The Steelers passing attack has been largely unattractive all season long, and that isn’t likely to change in this spot with Devlin Hodges throwing passes against a Browns team that has allowed only three wide receivers to top 81 yards (with only one of those players scoring a touchdown to go with his yardage, and with no wide receiver topping 112 in this matchup), making a bet on the Steelers passing attack merely a “bet on outlier game flow” or “bet on a broken play” option. JuJu Smith-Schuster has apparently been cleared from his concussion, but he still missed practice Wednesday with a knee issue. JuJu has only topped seven targets once since Week 2 (and he’s topped five targets only once since Week 6), but he would operate as the alpha if he returns. If JuJu misses, Diontae Johnson (recent target totals of 6 // 4 // 6) and James Washington (7 // 5 // 7) would take the lead. Vance McDonald will continue to operate as an outlet in this offense that has led to him producing the second lowest aDOT in the NFL. This passing attack has produced only one game of 100+ yards this season, and only three games of 85+ yards. Washington — who has two of those three games (each coming in the last three weeks) — is the player in this group with the best shot of hitting. We’ve gotten used to young players developing quickly, and it’s easy to write off guys who struggle in their rookie season, but Washington has taken big strides in Year 2 and is likely to emerge as a legitimate difference-maker over the next couple years if the Steelers get their quarterback play back on track.
The Browns, meanwhile, will be going on the road with a Vegas-implied team total of only 20.75 against a Steelers defense that ranks third in DVOA (sixth against the run, fourth against the pass) while allowing the eighth fewest points and the seventh fewest yards in the league. Two weeks ago in this matchup, the Browns scored 21 points at home, and now they’ll have to face Pittsburgh on the road. Assuming the Browns come out of this spot with a win, they are likelier to get there through a hard-fought battle than through a stomp — pushing this concentrated but higher-priced attack into the tourney-only category. These are the only notable stat lines allowed by the Steelers defense all season:
8-100-0 Hunter Henry
While that doesn’t provide much incentive to chase Cleveland at their prices, Nick Chubb did have 27 touches last time vs the Steelers in a clock-killing role — and while he produced only 92 yards (3.2 yards per carry), he does have 20+ carries in six straight games (and eight of nine), and he is one of the more explosive players in the NFL, requiring only one play in order to hit. Kareem Hunt has touch counts of 11 // 12 // 10 since returning from suspension and is likely to hit that range again, with slim paths to more.
Through the air, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham will do battle with a Pittsburgh pass defense that just became the last unit in the NFL to give up a 100-yard game to a wideout — which required a jump ball to Tyler Boyd to get there. Volume is secure on these wideouts, with Beckham seeing 11 // 7 // 6 // 12 // 10 // 8 looks in his last six games, and with Landry going 5 // 10 // 13 // 10 // 7 // 13 in that stretch. As noted last week: in all but one game lately, one has seen his targets rise at the expense of the other, making it difficult for both to hit together. Landry (somewhat quietly) has 16 red zone targets on the year, while Beckham has six. Each player is a “bet on usage and talent over matchup” play in this spot.
JM’s Interpretation ::
While it honestly won’t surprise me if one player from this concentrated/talented Cleveland attack hits in this spot, there are just too many strong spots on this slate for me to be interested in an expensive guessing game, or in a low-wattage Steelers attack. Multiple price-considered duds should emerge from this game as well, making it a stay-away spot for me.
If going here — as noted above — the play I would actually be most interested in on the Steelers is Washington; while on the Browns side (with all pieces priced about equal to one another against their roles), it would be “picking the one you like the most for whatever reason” and hoping that the production on this team concentrates in that spot rather than being spread around.