BROWNS // STEELERS OVERVIEW
We are at the point in the season where we begin to see repeat matchups, with the 3-2-1 Steelers and the 2-4-1 Browns squaring off in Pittsburgh after their sloppy-weather Week 1 tie in Cleveland. This is a different Browns team, with Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb in the backfield, and we know more about each team than we knew in Week 1 (with guys like James Conner and Denzel Ward reshaping our perceptions of each squad), but ultimately, this game is just like any other on the slate — with two teams that will be looking to exploit each other’s weaknesses in a battle for a still-wide-open AFC North.
Unsurprisingly, Vegas has given the nod to the home Steelers — installing them as eight point favorites, with the fourth highest Vegas-implied total on a slate that is packed with potential offensive fireworks. Each team plays fast — with Pittsburgh ranked 12th in pace of play, and with Cleveland really separating themselves from the pack with the second fastest pace of play in the league. Pittsburgh leans on the pass (fourth in pass play rate), while Cleveland ranks 16th in pass play rate — but they rank ninth across their last three games. Neither team has a substantial edge in drive success rate (Cleveland ranks seventh in the league on defense, but Pittsburgh ranks 12th on offense), but the one clear advantage belongs to Pittsburgh in the red zone, where they rank third in the league in touchdown rate, and will take on a Browns defense that ranks a middling 20th in red zone touchdown rate allowed. This is a spot where Pittsburgh should be able to put together some long drives and punch in scores close to the end zone.
BROWNS PASS OFFENSE
If we take away runs by quarterbacks and wide receivers, the Steelers have been absolutely savage defending the run this year — allowing running backs to average only 3.57 yards per carry (basically turning every NFL running back into Alex Collins), while allowing the fourth fewest rushing yards and the fewest receiving yards to the position. This has forced teams to attack Pittsburgh through the air (only four teams have faced fewer rush attempts than the Steelers — yet even with the early bye, only 10 teams have faced more pass attempts), and this is an approach we should see the Browns lean on, as their 65.7% pass play rate over the last three weeks would rank seventh in the NFL on the season.
This is going to expose Baker Mayfield to a massive mismatch against a Steelers defensive line that ranks fourth in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate. No team in the NFL has taken more sacks than the Browns, who rank dead last in adjusted sack rate. The Steelers sacked Tyrod Taylor seven times the last time these teams faced — and with the Steelers mixing up blitzes and trying to force teams to throw deep (by design, the Steelers have faced the second deepest aDOT in the NFL — making up for this by allowing the third lowest YAC per reception rate), there should be plenty of opportunities for the sack parade to continue. This is not the sort of offense that is going to try to turn to a dink-and-dunk attack in order to mitigate the rush. Only the Bucs, Chiefs, and Texans have a deeper average intended air yards than the Browns this year.
When the Browns do dump off the ball, the main beneficiary will be David Njoku, who has a pristine matchup vs a Steelers team that has been hammered by tight ends — facing the most targets per game and allowing the most receptions per game in the league. This is not a fixable issue for Pittsburgh, as their attacking style simply filters short-area targets to the tight end — a matchup that even this Browns coaching staff will be able to exploit. Njoku has target counts across his last four games of 7 // 10 // 12 // 6.
Wide receiver numbers against Pittsburgh look glossy because of the 10 passing touchdowns they have allowed, though they have been merely a middling matchup in terms of yards and receptions allowed.
The best way to attack Pittsburgh with wide receivers is on out-breaking routes and passes over the middle (especially the deep middle). These are routes that all three of Jarvis Landry, Antonio Callaway, and Damion Ratley (or Rashard Higgins, if he returns) can run — so we should expect Landry to continue operating as the alpha, coming off recent target counts of 14 // 10 // 11 // 10 // 15. Inefficiency continues to be a problem for Landry in this miscast role (he has caught only 50% of his 82 targets), but even a 50% catch rate in this spot with little in the way of YAC should yield something like a 6-70-0 line, with clear upside for more.
Mayfield threw a season-low 34 pass attempts last week, but it was still concerning to see Callaway and Ratley at only five combined targets. Each guy has the downfield skill set to post a big game on only one or two catches, so don’t count them out as large-field upside plays (these are the sorts of guys you can throw onto a few rosters if multi-entering, taking them as a low-owned value play alongside an otherwise well-thought-out team, recognizing that if you “guess right” and catch a big play or two, your low-owned value could shoot you past the field). Expect only three or four targets apiece for these guys, but recognize that they could get more. Of course, Callaway has connected on only 41% of his targets this year. Ratley has caught nine of 11 looks across the last two weeks.
BROWNS RUN OFFENSE
Nick Chubb has a locked-in role in this backfield now, though as hypothesized last week: his box score will mostly come down to touchdowns. He won’t always end up with zero catches (last week, we gave him a projection of one to two catches for 15 to 20 yards; and he did see two targets), but big receiving games will be outliers in his role — which means that on weeks in which he fails to score, he’ll likely disappoint. As noted above, this is one of the toughest run defense matchups in the NFL.
Naturally, Duke Johnson did not see a major spike in work last week, either — catching the same four passes he had caught in two of his previous three games, and taking only one carry on the day. Duke has the ability to pop off for a good game any time he touches the ball, but this is a disciplined defense that tackles well, and that has sealed off running back receptions on the year, making this a difficult spot for him to find much breathing room for upside.
Can I interest you in some Steelers offense?
This is one of my favorite stats on the year:
Only one team has faced more rush attempts this year than the Browns.
Only two teams have faced more pass attempts this year than the Browns.
Obviously, the Browns have faced the most opponent plays per game — and while four overtime games has something to do with this, there would only be seven teams that had allowed more plays per game than the Browns if we took away OT (and if we wanted to play that game: two of those teams have had overtime games, which would bump the Browns ahead of them). Any way you dice it, this fast-paced Browns offense is allowing plenty of opponent plays per game. With the Steelers giving 70.1% of their total offensive touches to Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and James Conner, there should be a good chunk of work to go around. Pittsburgh already ranks eighth in plays per game at 66.8, and they project for a slight boost in this spot.
On a per-play basis, Cleveland has been tough through the air, allowing the second lowest catch rate in the NFL and even cleaning up their YAC allowed problems — leading to the fifth lowest yards allowed per pass attempt. Cleveland tries to make opponents fight for every catch, which makes volume a necessity. Wide receivers in particular have had a tough time on a per-play basis, catching only 56.0% of passes thrown to them.
The good news for AB and JuJu is that volume is very much on their side. Through six games, AB has fallen shy of nine targets only once, and he has 11 or more targets in four games (with 16 targets the last time these teams met). JuJu has four double-digit games of his own, with only one game below eight targets. He has 42 receptions on the year, to 40 for AB. Each guy should see a decent amount of Denzel Ward, but each should also see plenty of looks — providing a solid floor on each guy, to go with whatever they can do after the catch.
The easiest position to hit against the Browns has been the tight end, as Cleveland has allowed a 62.9% catch rate to the position, facing the third most targets and allowing the seventh most receptions. It should be noted that Cleveland has tackled well after the catch against tight ends, ranking down at 13th in yards allowed, in spite of all the catches. Vance McDonald and Jesse James continue to “split time,” but neither is really eating into the workload of the other, with each playing 51 snaps a couple weeks ago (out of 73 total offensive plays). Vance is the better bet for a big play or two. James is the better bet for an end zone target. Each should see a handful of targets in this one.
In the backfield, Conner is coming off a 90.4% snap share in Week 6, and he has touch counts of 25 and 23 in his last two games. Cleveland ranks 20th in fewest yards allowed per rush attempt and 28th in fewest rushing yards allowed per game, with the second most rushing touchdowns allowed in the NFL. As noted at the top, Cleveland ranks 20th in red zone touchdown rate allowed, while Pittsburgh ranks third in red zone touchdown rate — a great recipe for running back touchdowns. Running backs have scored more touchdowns against Cleveland than wide receivers and tight ends combined — one of only three teams in the NFL for which this is the case. (Arizona and Miami are the other two.)
This is the first of the higher-scoring games I have written up (I’m writing this game on Tuesday, but most of the higher-scoring affairs have to be saved until Wednesday as I wait for injury news), so I’m not quite sure yet how the rest of the slate shapes up. But there are a few plays in this game that really stand out to me after digging through the research:
The Steelers’ DST unit should be able to pile up sacks in this spot, with a couple turnovers in play as well. Somehow, they cost under 5% of the salary cap on DraftKings and FantasyDraft, and they are one of the lower-priced units on FanDuel as well.
Njoku should pile up targets again, making him a strong floor/ceiling play at a perpetually thin position, while Vance McDonald and even Jesse James carry nice ceiling (with obviously iffy floors).
James Conner really pops in this spot for me, with guaranteed involvement (he has not settled back into that 30+ touch Le’veon-like role that he showed in Week 1 vs these Browns, but the only times he really fell out of the game plan came when the Steelers’ opponent jumped out to a big lead — something that should not concern us in this spot), and with a strong shot at a touchdown (with multi-touchdown possibility), same as we noted a couple weeks ago against the Bengals.
Landry, JuJu, and AB all belong on my early-week list as well. None of them jump off the page, so I won’t be surprised if they get bumped off down the road; but all three have big upside and solid floor — in spite of being in below-average spots.