Kickoff Sunday, Sep 9th 10:00am Eastern

Steelers (
22.25) at

Browns (
18.75)

Over/Under 41.0

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Notes

Key Matchups
Steelers Run D
17th DVOA/32nd Yards allowed per carry
Browns Run O
2nd DVOA/4th Yards per carry
Steelers Pass D
12th DVOA/9th Yards allowed per pass
Browns Pass O
6th DVOA/27th Yards per pass
Browns Run D
26th DVOA/12th Yards allowed per carry
Steelers Run O
12th DVOA/29th Yards per carry
Browns Pass D
21st DVOA/5th Yards allowed per pass
Steelers Pass O
21st DVOA/15th Yards per pass

STEELERS // BROWNS OVERVIEW

If you showed me the Browns’ roster, I would tell you they are a seven- or eight-win team. If you showed me the Browns roster and gave me a talented and creative coach — a Belichick or a Pederson or a Shanahan or McVay, or an Andy Reid, or a Matt Nagy…the list goes on — I would tell you this team could push for nine or ten wins. But with Hue Jackson and Gregg Williams, this team still has a long way to go. Having now added talented but widely-reviled offensive coordinator Todd Haley to the mix, the Browns have collected a who’s who of “coaches who have pissed off other coaches, players, fans, and the community at multiple stops.” Way to go.

We’ll start the season with a #fireHue (hey, it worked last year with Bevell; why not try it again?). And with that, let’s dive in.

STEELERS RUN OFFENSE

With Le’Veon Bell set to miss and James Conner stepping onto the field in his place, the original Steelers Run Offense writeup has been replaced with this:

Is James Conner A Must-Play?

(Note: That article is for subscribers only; but we have set up a Special Access account on the site for this week only that is completely free, and that will enable you to access that article and use the Game Notes feature on the NFL Edge. You can sign up for that right here.)

STEELERS PASS OFFENSE

Cleveland did not lack for talent in the secondary last year — and yet, they ranked 26th in DVOA against the pass and 26th in yards allowed per pass attempt. Only five teams allowed more passing touchdowns than the Browns.

The big area where the Browns “shined” is in forcing throws to the short areas of the field, as they faced the lowest average depth of target in the entire league last year. The confusing thing — the thing that makes me wonder how Gregg Williams still has a job — is that the Browns have the pieces for a difference-making pass rush. When you have a difference-making pass rush, you should take away the short throws in order to constantly put pressure on the offense — forcing them to make quick decisions toward difficult areas of the field. Instead, the Browns have a potentially elite pass rush, and then they play off receivers and give them tons of room underneath. (It’s really unbelievable…)

In any case, only three teams in the NFL allowed more YAC per reception than the Browns last year, while Antonio Brown is one of the best in the league after the catch. Last year in his only game against Williams’ failed scheme, A.B. posted an 11-182-0 line, on only 11 targets.

JuJu Smith-Schuster was below-average in YAC at nearly all areas of the field last year, but his skills make that seem more fluky than “forward-looking trend” to me. He is unlikely to be the focal point in this one, with Cleveland ill-equipped to take away A.B., but he has splash potential to go with his modest floor.

The Steelers’ passing attack rounds out with James Washington and (likely) Jesse James (filling in for Vance McDonald, who is not expected to be healthy in time for Week 1). Washington’s role in the Steelers’ offense (stretching the field and seeing a couple deep shots in the old Martavis Bryant role) does not match up well with a Cleveland D that is all about taking away the deep ball. James (or McDonald, if he plays), on the other hand, is set up nicely against a Cleveland D that boosted tight end production by over 27% last year compared to the league average — giving up the second-most touchdowns to the position. Tight end targets are never guaranteed in this offense, but James did go 6-41-2 vs Cleveland on opening week last year (paired with a less exciting 2-9-0 line at the end of the year).

BROWNS PASS OFFENSE

Last year, the Steelers quietly boasted one of the top pass defenses in the NFL — finishing the year first in the league in sacks, ninth in interceptions, and seventh in DVOA. The Steelers ranked eighth in fantasy expectations for quarterbacks, while holding wide receivers to 89.9% of league-average fantasy points on FanDuel and 87.7% on DraftKings. In spite of posting a 13-3 record (and regularly leading games), Pittsburgh faced the second-fewest pass attempts in the NFL last year, while holding opponents to the fewest plays per game in the league. Typically, these numbers plus “against the Browns” would scream “roster the defense,” but Tyrod Taylor is an excellent game manager — savvy when it comes to avoiding turnovers and negative plays. This makes it less likely (though not impossible) that the Steelers create some splash plays on defense — but even if they do not create splash plays, this is a tough spot for Cleveland.

Cleveland appears set to feature Jarvis Landry as heavily as the Dolphins did the last few years, and it should not surprise us if he sees nine to 11 targets in this one. Notably, Pittsburgh was second-worst in the league last year in YAC per reception — which needs to be balanced with the fact that Pittsburgh does not allow a ton of plays, or a ton of receptions…but it does create a slim tournament case for Landry. Josh Gordon will likely play around 30 or 40 plays, but we should expect the Browns to proactively feed targets to him when he is in there, so volume should not be a major concern; I think we can safely expect six to eight looks, making him a risk/reward option in a difficult matchup.

Pittsburgh was also nails against the tight end last season, ranking ninth in receptions and first in touchdowns allowed to the position. David Njoku was a near every-down player in the preseason and appears set for a significant weekly role, but he’s purely a “bet on talent” play in a difficult matchup.

BROWNS RUN OFFENSE

Pittsburgh was much more generous to running backs last year, boosting production by more than 6% over the league-average rate on FanDuel, DraftKings, and FantasyDraft, while ranking 18th in DVOA and 27th in yards allowed per carry. Touchdown expectations should not be especially high in this spot for Carlos Hyde after the Steelers ranked seventh in the NFL last year in points allowed per game, but Hyde ranked fourth in the NFL in 2017 in avoided tackles on the ground, per PFF — behind only Kareem Hunt, Melvin Gordon, and Le’Veon Bell. He had fewer carries than all those guys, and he should get a “two-down starter’s workload” in this one: somewhere in the range of 15 to 20 carries, with two to five targets mixed in. His receiving and scoring upside are lower than fellow value back Burkhead, but his guaranteed workload is higher.

This backfield rounds itself out with one of my great DFS crushes, Duke Johnson. He should find his way onto the field for a good 25 to 30 snaps in this one, between third downs and late-game “catch up” play. As always, he is explosive with the ball in his hands and could post a strong point-per-dollar day on his limited touches; but with so much value available this week, it would be mathematically sub-optimal to take on his obviously-low floor.

JM’S INTERPRETATION

Antonio Brown should be considered one of the clear top plays on the slate, while Ben Roethlisberger and Juju Smith-Schuster are both strong tourney elements to consider. Le’Veon Bell is tempting, but with no discount on his price tag and an uncertain workload, he doesn’t actually make sense unless his ownership projects to be extremely low.

Over the last couple weeks, I have noticed several people mentioning Tyrod Taylor as a strong value play this week, but the numbers don’t really back up that sentiment in one of the toughest matchups a quarterback can have. It will not surprise me if he posts a solid score, but with pricing loose in Week 1, it just doesn’t seem to make sense philosophically to target a “solid score” when it’s pretty easy to make it up to the small number of guys who could genuinely get you 30+ points if things break the right way. Spiked weeks matter.

I do like Hyde quite a bit. He’ll cost you under 10% of the salary cap on all three sites, but the best deal is on DraftKings, where he requires you to spend only 9% of your available money. Burkhead, Hyde, and Barber are all in play for me as salary savers with 15- to 20-point potential.

*UPDATE: SEPTEMBER 8 // Full “Updates” List
Weather in Cleveland projects to be an absolute mess, turning this into a tourney-only game. Slight bump down to Carlos Hyde. Bigger bump down to James Conner. Antonio Brown retains his upside, but his chances of reaching that upside are far lower.

However: here is a counter-point to the meteorologist I quoted in the pod. This is from DFS ace meteorologist Kevin Roth:

PSA on the CLE game. I’ve seen some stuff circulating on Twitter about 7 inches of rain, and that’s not at all the case. We’re looking at maybe an inch of rain, not some torrential monumental downpour.
The winds (20mph, gusts 30mph) are still an issue, but no ark needed.

If we get to Sunday morning and that still appears to be the case (an inch of rain; 20 MPH winds; gusts up to 30 MPH), I’m still calling A.B. one of my favorite plays on the slate. Hyde will rise above Conner for me in my assessment at that point (including in cash games), but all three guys will be very much in play.

I’ll send out a final update on my thoughts here to subscribers with my Sunday Morning Update email, which you’ll find in your inbox about an hour before kickoff.

I dig into these thoughts a bit further in the Week 1 #OWSChatPod at the 1:11:29 mark:

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