Game Overview ::
By Hilow >>
- Head coach/offensive play-caller Kevin Stefanski will be unable to coach in this game due to a positive COVID test; Browns have yet to practice as of Friday morning (hope is their facility will open later in the day)
- Mike Priefer will handle acting head coach duties and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will handle offensive play-calling duties
- Very interesting matchup between a Steelers team leading the league in sacks and pressure rate and a Browns offensive line ranked as the top pass-protection unit in 2020 by PFF (86.4 team rating, lightyears ahead of the second-ranked Packers’ rating of 79.9)
- Browns also boast PFF’s top-rated run-blocking offensive line, and the Steelers have been far less daunting against the run in the absence of Bud Dupree
- I was blown away coming away from this write-up feeling like Cleveland has a chance here, considering everything working against them
How Cleveland Will Try To Win ::
Obviously, the big news out of Cleveland is the once again widespread outbreak of COVID amongst the team, this time extending to the coaching staff as well. Head coach and offensive play-caller Kevin Stefanski will not be allowed to coach on Sunday after he was diagnosed with COVID early in the week, with left guard Joel Bitonio and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge set to miss as well, both on the COVID list. Lockdown corner Denzel Ward is tentatively expected to make his return from the COVID list in time for Sunday’s game, but pay close attention on Saturday for how his situation is ultimately handled, as his services will most definitely be needed. Filling in for Bitonio is likely to be Michael Dunn, who was one of the highest graded pass-blocking offensive linemen when he left the AAF for the NFL. Still, the absence of Bitonio, particularly considering the Browns have not yet been able to practice this week, is significant. Many will automatically assume the Browns will simply attempt to lean on the run game for as long as possible here, but over the last four weeks of the season they upped their pass play rate from 52% to 61% in games against the Ravens, Giants, Jets, and these same Steelers. With the team facilities closed up until Friday afternoon (21 minutes ago as of this writing), we have little in the way of beat writer expectations. Bottom line, there is a wide range of possibilities for how the Browns open this game looking to attack.
The absence of Bitonio is likely to be felt most in the run game as Dunn is a capable fill-in for the pass protection he brings. The matchup yields a below average 4.23 net-adjusted line yards metric, but the damage done to the Steelers on the ground over the last five weeks has mostly come through splash plays via the second level, an area the Browns excel at (first in the league in second level yards, fourth in the league in open field yards). Cleveland running back snaps typically range from the 40-60% snap rate range, split between Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and largely dependent on game flow. With a split backfield, a matchup that should lead to majority of running back value coming via splash plays (high variance), and unknowns surrounding expected run/pass rates, both Chubb and Hunt should be treated as high variance, low floor/high ceiling options.
Expect Jarvis Landry and Rashard Higgins to operate at the top two wide receivers, with Donovan Peoples-Jones expected back from a concussion in time to fill the WR3 role in the absence of Khaderal Hodge. The Browns have operated out of 11-personnel on only 38% of their offensive snaps over the last four weeks, with a whopping 47% of snaps over that time with at least two tight ends on the field (37% 12-personnel, 10% 13-personnel). This is likely to lead to a 75-80% snap rate for both Landry and Higgins and a 50-60% snap rate for DPJ. With Harrison Bryant set to miss on the COVID list, tight ends Austin Hooper, David Njoku, and Stephen Carlson should all see significant snap rates in an extremely difficult matchup for tight ends. Hooper and Njoku run routes on 82% of pass plays, with Carlson checking in at 77%. The matchup through the air is difficult all around, as the Steelers finished the season ranked first in completion rate allowed (56.65%), third in pass yards allowed per game (194.4), and third in yards allowed per pass attempt (5.9). One interesting piece of information I came across in digging into this matchup: the Steelers have forced/faced the deepest average depth of target in the league at 9.5, which is interesting to an almost counterintuitive level considering their high blitz rate. Since Odell Beckham, Jr. was lost for the season in Week 7, Jarvis Landry has commanded 7.75 targets per game (21.18% team target market share). When we remove the two “Cleveland wind games,” his targets per game jump to 9.17 without OBJ. With all the unknowns surrounding how the Browns are likeliest to attack here, consider the Landry the highest floor option from this side of the game.
How Pittsburgh Will Try To Win ::
The Pittsburgh linebacker corps has been absolutely decimated by injury, with all of Bud Dupree, Devin Bush and Robert Spillane done for the season. The biggest impact has been felt by the loss of Dupree prior to Week 13, after which the Steelers have gone 1-4 overall, surrendering no fewer than 23 points in any game over that span. This is still a top five defensive unit, but the thinned-out linebacker group has clearly been less effective overall. The strength of the Pittsburgh defense has without question been pressure on the quarterback, leading the league with an unreal 32.3% pressure rate over the course of the season (and leading the league with 56 sacks). Their 40.3% blitz rate has generated the second highest hurry rate and most quarterback knockdowns in the league. We know by now how the Steelers will approach games offensively. With one of the worst run-blocking offensive lines in the league and a quarterback whose arm strength is not what it used to be, the Steelers have built an offense designed around short throws and high percentage completions. Assuming Denzel Ward makes it back in time for this game, we should treat the overall makeup as a “strength” on “strength” matchup, reasoning being the Browns rank ninth in the league in opponent completion percentage allowed at 63.42% but have struggled with deep passing (ranked all the way down at 21st in the league in yards allowed per completion, but carry a respectable 6.8 yards allowed per pass attempt), and the Steelers have largely shown an unwillingness to attack the deep areas of the field. Basically, the Browns are good in the areas the Steelers are good in, and vice versa.
The Steelers’ run game is about as laughable is they come, generating only 3.78 adjusted line yards, 3.82 yards per carry, a 30th-ranked power success rate of 56%, 28th-ranked stuff rate at 18.9% and 31st-ranked second level yards value. Now we understand why the Steelers only use the run game to keep opponents at least somewhat honest defensively. This backfield can be summed up by saying “play James Conner as a low-cost variance piece that could fall into the end zone twice and return value at only $5,000.”
With the nonstandard wide receiver alignments utilized by the Steelers, I don’t expect Denzel Ward to shadow (assuming he makes it back for this game). The high rate at which the Browns are in zone coverage would tend to back that up, but there is at least a possibility he follows one of the perimeter receivers, likeliest Chase Claypool while he is on the field. Diontae Johnson and Juju Smith-Schuster have the most secure roles in this passing offense, but the game-to-game targets have largely flowed toward the path of least resistance. With Claypool/James Washington likely to see the most of Denzel Ward coverage, it also makes the most sense that Juju and Diontae are the likely paths of least resistance here. With eight games over and seven games under 40 pass attempts on the season for Ben Roethlisberger (and two games over 50 (!!!) pass attempts), the volume-boosted floor and ceiling for the top two pass-catchers for the Steelers in a given game are going to rival that of any wide receiver on a given slate, even more so on a small slate like this one. Likeliest scenario for Sunday is that those two wide receivers are Diontae and Juju (but remember, embrace the variance!). Tight end Eric Ebron was activated from the COVID list and is expected back. Likeliest scenario lands him in the seven to eight target range in a plus matchup. On a slate with not many true tight end options, he should be in consideration.
Likeliest Game Flow ::
IF the Steelers weren’t currently playing so poorly (lost four of their last five games), or IF the Browns didn’t have so much working against them this week, this game would be a lot more straightforward. But alas, 2020 had a hangover into 2021 and here we are. The bottom line is there are so many unknowns and variables surrounding this game that anyone saying they know how it is going to play out is full of it. With that said, this is the last game on the Sunday slate and should be used to create the most leverage. What I mean by that is this: late swap becomes increasingly important on small slates as a means of generating leverage. Although Jarvis Landry and Diontae Johnson carry the highest raw floor, there are many different ways this game could play out considering the vast number of variables in play here. By building our rosters in a way that gives us maximum flexibility, we can leverage the field from an ownership perspective and leverage the variance associated with this game, as opposed to shying way from it. Remember, the smaller the slate, the more variance we should be looking to embrace, and this game is the perfect example of that. (NOTE: apologies for leaving this section open ended like that, but I felt it was much more useful to discuss Game Theory here than it was to repeatedly say that this game is high variance.)
XANDAMERE’S SHOWDOWN SLANT ::
- The poor Browns have another Covid outbreak and haven’t even been able to practice this week. I’m not a “football guy” and I can’t quantify the impact of a week’s practice to prepare for and game plan around playing a specific opponent – but I have to imagine it’s meaningful. While the Browns actually match up reasonably well against the Steelers on paper (Hilow notes that their ridiculously good O-line offsets the Steelers’ elite pass rush), the lack of practice seems to me like it ups the odds of Cleveland significantly underperforming here.
- I’ve seen some pondering if the Steelers have been “saving” James Conner for the playoffs by intentionally going light on him over the past several weeks. I guess that isn’t impossible, but what I think is more likely is that the Steelers have recognized their run-blocking is absolutely awful and have skewed their play-calling to be much more pass-heavy intentionally (after all, it’s not like we’ve been seeing the backup RBs getting a ton of work – Pittsburgh has just barely been running the ball).
- This has, however, led James Conner to be awfully cheap for a home favorite running back with pass game involvement – and we’ve seen that pass game involvement increase in the past two games with 5 and 8 targets. Maybe I’m a sucker for Conner, maybe I’m a sucker for the “Steelers running back” situation that has been such a profitable place to attack in DFS over the years, but at his discounted price I like Conner. I don’t view him as a safe play but it’s a place I want to be overweight in tournaments.
- Outside of games in which he was hurt, one mid-game benching, and a week 17 game in which the Steelers rested some of their key guys, Diontae Johnson has seen 10+ targets every single week. They’re mostly shorter-area targets (as are almost all of the Steelers passes these days), which means a high catch rate. He’s the highest floor skill position player in this game and his ceiling is right up there with anyone’s.
- Juju is what he always is, an extremely short-area receiver who needs a ton of volume or (maybe AND) a touchdown to be relevant.
- Claypool is still priced as if he were playing a nearly full-time role, but he hasn’t been. And, he’ll have the toughest matchup of the Pittsburgh WRs. I’m mostly off of him. James Washington has a similarly tough matchup but is just $1,400 vs. Claypool’s $8,600, which is much more enticing to me.
- My old pal Eric Ebron is absolutely in play against a Cleveland defensive scheme that has been worse than average against tight ends for years.
- On the Browns’ side it’s really the wide receivers I want. Landry is the highest floor option but he’s priced pretty closely to Diontae, who I think is the superior option. Higgins is priced a just $5k which feels inexplicable to me and he stands out as a very strong play at that price, while Peoples-Jones is just $2k – he’s a high-variance option who could easily score under 5 points but could also get you 15-20.
- The Cleveland tight end situation is hard for me to be interested in when they’re in a 3-way timeshare and playing a Pittsburgh defense that is hard to attack that way. I’ll have exposure in MME but I will mostly want to mix and match “Browns TE” around a core I’m more comfortable with.
- Nick Chubb falls in the “probably only in the captain spot” bucket for me – he’s too expensive for his timeshare role and can probably only get there if the Browns win the game by controlling it start to finish, and in that case he’s probably the highest-scoring player.
- Hunt is more interesting at just $6,400 as we’ve seen his role become significant when Cleveland is in catch-up mode. Assuming they fall into that mode here, and with the Pittsburgh pass defense being so strong, he could find his way into quite a few targets.
DFS+ Interpretation ::
Wild Card Special!
Willing To Lose
- CLE will be without head-coach and play-caller Kevin Stefanski (this didn’t go so well for DET vs TB a couple of weeks ago)
- No QB has thrown for 300+ yds vs PIT this year
- Only the Rams have allowed fewer DK pts/g to QBs than PIT
- Baker only scored 20+ DK pts four times all year
- 8 WRs have finished with 80 or more rec yds vs PIT: Slayton (102) // Cobb (95) // Fulgham (152) // AJ Brown (153) // Snead (106) // Higgins (115) // Brown (85) // Sims (92) // Diggs (130)
- PIT has allowed the 2nd lowest success rate to WRs
- CLE receivers since emerging from the stretch of heavy wind games::
- Landry: 8:143:1 // 8:62:1 // 6:52 // 7:61:1 // DNP // 5:51
- Higgins: 1:15 // 6:95:1 // 6:68:1 // 4:76 // DNP // 2:55
- Hooper: 2:31:1 // 2:24 // — // 5:41:1 // 7:71 // 4:37:1
- PIT has allowed the lowest success rate to TEs
- Only NOR has allowed fewer DK pts/g to RBs than PIT’s 5th ranked rush eff def
- Chubb career vs PIT: 18:65 // 27:92 // 16:58 // 14:108:1
- Chubb has scored 20+ DK pts five times this year, and needed 2 TDs in three of them
- Hunt has just one double-digit score since Chubb returned (29 in shootout with BAL)
- PIT has allowed the fewest RB rec yds
- This will be Ben’s first playoff game in 3 years
- After a rough few weeks, Ben had his best game in a while with 341 yds, 3 TD in a second-half comeback vs IND (plus got to rest in Week 17)
- CLE has allowed the 8th most QB DK pts/g (22.0)
- Ben threw for just 162 yds, TD in first CLE matchup, but PIT won 38-7
- CLE has allowed the 9th lowest success rate to WRs and should get back CB Denzel Ward this week
- Top scoring PIT WRs in games with Diontae::
- 24.9 (JS) // 23.1 (DJ) // 29 (DJ) // 13.7 (JS) // 21.3 (JS) // 26.6 (DJ), 22.7 (JS), 21.6 (CC) // 26.1 (DJ) // 17.7 (JS) // 21.1 (DJ) // 17.5 (JS) // 19.9 (DJ) // 24.6 (JS) // 24.1 (CC)
- Top scorer count: Diontae (6) // Juju (6) // Claypool (1)
- The only games Diontae has played until the end in which he didn’t receive at least 10 targets were the first matchup vs BAL when he was banged up early, the BUF game when he was benched early, and the CLE game that Ben didn’t play
- PIT WRs vs CLE::
- Diontae: DNP // 3:96
- Juju: 2:6 // 6:65:1
- Claypool: 4:74 // 5:101:1
- Washington: 4:68:1 // 0:0
- CLE has allowed 10 TE rec TDs
- Ebron’s only games below 5 targets all year were his first game, the Week 6 blowout of CLE, and his 15% snaps game vs CIN when he left hurt early
- CLE has allowed the 8th fewest RB DK pts/g
- PIT has been one of the worst run-blocking teams in the NFL
- Conner vs CLE: 20:101:1, 1:1 // 9:37, 5:25
- Conner has one game over 40 rush yds in the last 9 weeks
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