The Cleveland Browns end the longest playoff drought in the NFL with a Wild Card game against the division rival Pittsburgh Steelers. Ben Steele previews the game...
"The trio of Juju Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool were critical for Pittsburgh this year, accounting for 2,727 receiving yards and 25 touchdown catches while being targeted on nearly 60% of passes this season."
Steelers defence can restrict Mayfield once again
The final week of the regular season saw the Cleveland Browns hold off a late rally from the Pittsburgh Steelers to win 24-22 and secure their first playoff berth since 2002. Their prize for that victory is a trip to Pittsburgh to face the same opposition a week later, but the starting lineups will look very different. Having already secured a playoff spot long before Week 17, Pittsburgh rested a number of key starters including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and, perhaps most importantly, NFL sack leader T.J. Watt and his defensive line compatriot Cam Heyward.
With the big names returning to the lineup on Sunday night and Cleveland dealing with a coronavirus outbreak that will see Pro Bowl lineman Joel Bitonio and head coach Kevin Stefanski watch the game from home it could be a tough day for Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield. Led by Watt and Heyward, Pittsburgh's defence led the league in both sacks and QB hits and when opposing passers did manage to get the ball out of their hands they had to deal with a secondary unit who had the most interceptions this season.
Mayfield is a fierce competitor but even a fully fit Cleveland team have struggled against the Pittsburgh defence this season. The Bitonio acting as the cornerstone, the Browns offensive line allowed just 26 sacks this season but eight of those came in the two games against the Steelers and both of those games saw Mayfield throw for well below his season average of 233 yards per game. In fact in Week 6 Mayfield was benched as the Browns decided it was better to protect their quarterback from a further battering than try to mount a comeback.
With Cleveland undermanned both on the field and on the sidelines I'm expecting more of the same from a well rested Pittsburgh defence and backing them to hold Baker Mayfield to under 234.5 passing yards for the third time this season.
Chubb will have to carry the load
While Mayfield may struggle against a defence that seems to have his number to some extent his lead running back looks set for another big day. Nick Chubb rushed for 108 yards and a touchdown last week as he completed an excellent third seasonn in Cleveland. The former University of Georgia running back missed four games through injury (including the Week 6 thrashing by Pittsburgh) but still managed to break the 1,000 yard barrier and score 12 touchdowns as he teamed up with fellow running back Kareem Hunt to form a fearsome running back tandem who amassed over 2,000 total yards between them in 2020.
Hunt provides versatility, offering a solid pass catching option and a change of pace but it is Chubb who is the main man for the Browns in the running game. His success against the Steelers last week was no fluke either, Pittsburgh have struggled to stop the run at times this season allowing nearly five yards per carry and while they are top of the tree against the pass they are solidly mid-table in the majority of key run defence stats. There is no doubt that when head coach Kevin Stefanski will have worked with his coaches to devise a game script that Cleveland will work off to start the game that it will feature a lot of plays focused on Nick Chubb running the ball.
Cleveland's first playoff game since 2002 may not be shaping up quite as they, and their fans, would have hoped but their star running back looks set for another big game. The 25-year-old has scored a touchdown in his each of his last six games and rushed for 75 or more yards in four of those games and if the Browns are to have any chance of upsetting the odds on Sunday they will need more of the same from their star rusher. A Same Game Multi of Chubb to score a touchdown and have over 70.5 rushing yards in the game looks good value.
Three headed monster too much for Browns pass defence
After a brief Ben Roethlisberger back under center the Pittsburgh Steelers will be hoping that their vaunted receiving core can continue their outstanding season. The trio of Juju Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool were critical for Pittsburgh this year, accounting for 2,727 receiving yards and 25 touchdown catches while being targeted on nearly 60% of passes this season.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin will need to rely on all three of his pass catchers as for all their passing prowess the Steelers have found it incredibly difficult to build any semblance of a run game. James Conner is the leading rusher but as a team they have only managed 85 yards per game on the ground, worst in the league. The Steelers started the season 11-0 before a slump in early December saw them lose their grip on top seed in the AFC as teams seemed to have worked out how to limit their passing attack, however a comeback win over the Indianapolis Colts and an impressive fightback with their backups last week has revitalised their receivers and we can look for more of the same this weekend.
Backup quarterback Mason Rudolph was able to have success against the Cleveland last week, despite the fact both Cleveland pass rushers, Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon, were chasing him down and racked up over 300 yards. Vernon is another COVID-19 casualty for the Browns this week and with star corner Denzel Ward also struggling for fitness it could be a long day for the secondary.
Roethlisberger is nearing the end of his career and will want one more playoff run to add to his CV, look for him to connect with all three of his main targets as they all go over their receiving yards line in an entertaining game.
Ben Steele NFL P/L:
Staked: 59 points
Returned: 67.4 points
P/L: +8.4 points
Back Baker Mayfield to have Under 234.5 Passing yards in the game @ 5/6
Same Game Multi: Nick Chubb to have Over 70.5 rushing yards and score a touchdown anytime @ 3.0
Same Multi: Diontae Johnson to Over 63.5 receiving yards, Juju Smith-Schuster to have Over 56.5 receiving yards and Chase Claypool to have Over 48.5 receiving yards @ 7.32