The Thursday Night Football Week 3 edition features AFC North’s old school rivalry as the Cleveland Browns host the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both of these teams suffered a humiliating defeat a week ago after scoring victories. in the last moments of the first week.
The Browns lost a double-digit lead in the last two minutes of the game against the Jets, while the Steelers barely moved the ball all day against the Patriots. Each of these teams is aiming to get back into the winning column and jump, if only momentarily, to first place in the division and hopefully build some sort of foundation for a playoff run.
Which of them will return to their victorious ways? We’ll find out soon enough. Before we talk about the match, here’s how you can watch the match tonight.
How to watch
Date: Thursday 22 September | Time: 8:20 pm ET
Location: FirstEnergy Stadium (Cleveland)
Stream: Amazon Prime Video
To follow: CBS sports app
Chances: Browns -4.5, O/A 38.5
When the Steelers have the ball
Pittsburgh is in big trouble. Over two games, the Steelers only gained 510 yards, 30th in the NFL. In terms of number of games, they actually rank 31st. They are ranked 26th in points per drive, 29th in EPA Tru Media per game, and 22nd in Football Outsiders offensive DVOA.
Most of the problems start from the offensive line, where things are quite deplorable. They just can’t generate any kind of push in a running game. They have one of the highest first downs in the league (50 percent) and average just 2.9 yards per rush on those plays. Despite facing eight-man pits in only 18 percent of runs, the Steelers averaged just 1.30 yards to contact per try. In pots where Nadji Harris was the player (as opposed to Mitchell Trubisky, Jaylen Warren or Chase Claypool), that figure is even worse at just 0.44 per try.
But Harris, who suffered a Lisfranc injury during training camp and hurt his leg again in week one, just doesn’t look healthy. Of the 44 players with at least 15 rush attempts this season, he ranks 32nd in tackle percentage avoided and 31st in rush yards per attempt. Last season, he ranked seventh in tackle slips and 21st in yards after contact among 53 players with 100 or more carries.
This season, the Browns have only conceded 3.77 yards per rush and a ridiculous 0.33 yards to contact. The idea of the Steelers hitting the ground running this game, given how far things have gone this year, seems pretty far-fetched. And it puts the game in Trubisky’s hands, which is… not very good.
Trubisky is 42-of-71 (59.2 percent) for 362 yards (5.2 per attempt), two touchdowns and one interception this season. This is despite below-average pressure (28 percent) and one of the lowest blitz rates in the league (20 percent). According to NFL.com Next Gen Stats, 22.5% of his passes hit a narrow window, while 16.7% of his shots, according to Tru Media, missed the target. He failed to connect with explosive rookie George Pickens, who was on the field for 78 percent of the team’s attacks but was only attacked five times. His record with other pass catchers isn’t much better, with Claypool having eight receptions for just 44 yards on 12 targets. Diontae Johnson is trailing by a career-low 8.6 yards per reception. Pat Freiermuth’s catch decreased to 52.9% (from 75.9% a year ago).
This is an untenable offensive situation and there is no reason to expect it to improve anytime soon. Pickett’s time will come, perhaps tonight if Trubisky fights. With a little goodbye ahead of the team’s Week 4 game against the Jets, there’s probably no better opportunity to switch.
If Trubisky (or Pickett) can figure out a way to try and push the ball down the field, he might actually have some options. Cleveland has allowed more 20-plus yard completions than any team in the NFL except the Jaguars, despite playing against Baker Mayfield and Joe Flacco. However, it usually takes time in the pocket to get the ball in the outfield, and the more time in the pocket, the more opportunities for the defense to build up pressure. Cleveland has the seventh-highest pressure in the NFL this season, with Miles Garrett in the lead. Trubisky has long been wildly susceptible to pressure and would rather get rid of the ball quickly and in short sections than risk rushers in his face. For these reasons, he seems much more inclined to continue targeting bottom shots and thus create few, if any, explosive plays.
When the Browns have the ball
As expected, the Browns threw the ball early and often, and with great success. The duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt is one of the best in the NFL, allowing the Browns to gain 5.28 yards per carry despite facing eight-man boxes with the second most in the NFL (33 percent carries, according to Tru Media). They have the best 12 runs of 15 yards or more in the NFL, which equates to a league-record 15.8% of total carries.
The ability to generate explosives in a run game is especially important because the passing game is currently more like a ball-based unit with chain movement, with Jacoby Brisset in the center. Pittsburgh has done well on the run this season, but has also played against two relatively weak offensive lines (Cincinnati, New England) compared to the one it will face Cleveland on Thursday night. Without T.J. Watt, the Steelers might be more receptive to ground attacks than they have been until now, now that they are tasked with taking on one of the league’s best attack-blocking units.
Of course, the Steelers are way ahead—even without Watt. They still bring Cameron Hayward, Tyson Alualu, Larry Ogunjobi, Chris Wormley, Alex Highsmith and even Malik Reed to the table. They can still chase the quarterback and knock him to the ground or just keep him in his pocket where he will have to face a lot of pressure.
The Browns will no doubt try to get Jacoby Brisset in motion with the concepts of game action and counterfeiting as they only have one major bottom field perimeter at the moment – Amari Cooper. Tight end David Njoku, an elite athlete, has seen his shooting prowess rise after earning a big off-season deal, but he has yet to become significantly more involved in the passing game. It’s tempting to say it’s going to be a good week to finally get him moving, but he might have to deal with Minka Fitzpatrick for most of the evening. Fitzpatrick has had a great start to the season with two interceptions in as many weeks and he covers as much of the field as any safety in football. Any Brisset pass to his deep half can be picked if he misses the target far.
At the end of the day, this game seems to come down to a matter of trust, in which the offense can have any measure of success in moving the ball. Given the relative strength of Cleveland’s play compared to any aspect of Pittsburgh’s offense, that’s exactly what we should be building on.
Prediction: Browns 20, Steelers 13