Thursday Night Football: Steelers need to stop Browns’ deadly ground game
Pittsburgh comes into Thursday night’s AFC North showdown at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium on a two-part mission. At his weekly press conference, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin stressed the importance of both limiting the Browns’ deadly ground game, while being more productive and effective offensively.
Cleveland’s Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are averaging over 200 yards a game on the ground through two weeks, and are still keeping opposing defensive coordinators up at night.
After struggling to barely knock off Carolina in the season opener, the Browns (1-1) let a late, comfortable, fourth-quarter lead slip away over the weekend against the Jets, and in rather shocking fashion.
Chubb posted 113 total yards (87 rushing, 26 receiving) and three touchdowns in the 31-30 loss, the third of which gave Cleveland a 13-point lead with just 1:55 to play, as rookie kicker Cade York misfired on the point-after attempt.
But then, with no timeouts remaining, a 66-yard touchdown pass from Jets veteran backup QB Joe Flacco to Corey Davis two plays and 33 ticks later cut it to six. Greg Zuerlein converted the ensuing onside kick before Flacco’s 15-yard TD toss to Garrett Wilson sealed the deal with 22 seconds to play, leaving Browns fans stunned.
Chubb took the blame for the defeat, saying, “I probably shouldn’t have scored right there. Honestly, looking back at it, it cost us the game.”
Hunt scored twice in Week 1 (once via the pass) while totaling 70 yards, and although he didn’t find the end zone against the Jets, he was still an important piece of the offense, finishing with 74 total yards on 15 touches.
The Steeler defense limited Chubb to 69 total yards in the first meeting in 2021, and 58 in the other, both Pittsburgh victories (Hunt didn’t play in either matchup, missing nine games due to injury).
Since Kevin Stefanski took over as head coach, Cleveland is 14-7 when Chubb and Hunt are both healthy, as opposed to 6-8 when one or both sat out.
Defensive tackle Cam Heyward knows how dangerous it can be to surrender big plays to the duo, and that it requires a group effort to get important stops.
“Usually, it’s not one guy tackling Chubb, it’s multiple guys,” said the Steelers’ captain. “We all have to be responsible for stopping this rushing attack. Everyone needs to stay in their gap.”
Tomlin referred to the backfield duo as “probably the most complete tandem in football,” and admits that his defense will have their hands full defending both, especially when they’re on the field at the same time (six such occurrences against New York Sunday).
“You’d better minimize Chubb and Hunt,” Tomlin said in Monday’s press conference. “They’re not 1 and 2, they’re 1 and 1-A. Both guys are capable, both guys are good in all schematic circumstances, be it the run game, the passing game, checkdowns, screens.”
One player the Steelers (1-1) won’t have to worry about — at least in the first meeting — is Deshaun Watson, Cleveland’s proposed eventual starting quarterback, who is suspended for the team’s first 11 games.
Former Brown Baker Mayfield is now the starter in Carolina, leaving the job up to Jacoby Brissett, who has filled in admirably under the circumstances. Through two games, Brissett has completed 40 of his 61 pass attempts (66 percent) for 376 yards, a pair of touchdowns and an interception, and he can make a play with his legs when he needs to.
Amari Cooper came over from Dallas to head up the wide-receiver room, and had a big game Sunday (9 grabs, 101 yards and a touchdown) after registering just 17 yards on three catches in the opener.
No. 2 receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones was targeted 11 times against the Panthers, but just once against the Jets.
On the injury front, Cleveland ninth-year guard Joel Bitonio (biceps) didn’t practice early in the week, but is expected to be ready for Thursday’s contest (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video). Also along the offensive line, tackle Jack Conklin (knee) has been limited this week, but is expected to give it a go.
Jadeveon Clowney, second on the team in sacks (1.5), is nursing an ankle injury and it’s been confirmed that he will not suit up.
Myles Garrett, who has recorded a team-high 3 sacks and 4 tackles for loss, has been dealing with a neck issue but is expected to play. Another defensive end, Chase Winovich, was placed on injured reserve Tuesday with a hamstring injury.
The Browns allowed over 400 yards of offense against Flacco and New York, and without Clowney, it could open things up a little more for the Steeler offense. Cleveland will also rely on linebackers Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (team’s leading tackler with 14) and Anthony Walker Jr., each with already 3 tackles for loss on the season.
Linebacker Devin Bush (foot) was the only Steeler listed this week, but was a full participant at Tuesday’s practice, was removed from the injury report on Wednesday, and is on track to play tomorrow night.
Turning to the Steelers, the biggest question from a fans’ perspective remains how conservative the play-calling will be. Will offensive coordinator Matt Canada make any adjustments, or will it be more of the same?
Will the offense try to utilize the middle of the field more on crossing routes? Will we see a pass play go for more than 20 yards? Will quarterback Mitch Trubisky have more opportunities to roll out of the pocket?
The Steelers have punted a dozen times — with six field-goal attempts and just a pair of touchdowns — in 24 offensive possessions thus far.
Trubisky, who recently revealed that he isn’t even yet fully permitted to call an audible whenever he wants, has taken it upon himself to make better decisions and be more aggressive with shots down the field. He added, “We’ve got to be smart about [throwing deep], and it’s all about completing it.”
Trubisky also admitted he can make more of an effort to look for athletic, playmaking rookie wideout George Pickens, who said he was open “90 percent of the time” but had just one reception on three targets against the Patriots.
“I think I can look for 14 (Pickens) more often, George,” said Trubisky. “He’s doing a great job for us, and I’ve just got to get these playmakers the football. Whatever route they’re running, I’ve just got to get them the ball.”
The Steelers’ lone scoring drive Sunday — 9 plays, 75 yards in 2:39 — had much more of an up-tempo, no-huddle look, and it would be wise to return to that way of thinking if things start to go stale offensively early on Thursday.
Based on players’ comments, particularly Sunday’s touchdown recipient, Pat Freiermuth, that would be the preferred style from here on out.
“When we go tempo and two-minute, that’s when we are really going,” the tight end said. “I think we can sprinkle in a little more tempo flow each drive to get us going.”
Trubisky agrees, and says he’s all in.
“Pace has been a positive component for us thus far,” he said, “so we’d like to continue to build off that, and hopefully it can become more a part of our offense, for sure.”
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh is still looking for its first rushing TD of the season. Najee Harris, who still doesn’t look to be fully recovered from a preseason foot injury, has gained just 72 yards on 25 carries (only 23 yards on 10 carries in the opener; 49 yards on 15 carries last week). Harris finished fourth in the league with 1,200 yards to go with his 7 scores as a rookie in 2021.
- The Steelers lead the all-time series against the Browns, 79-61-1, but are 0-2 all-time against them on Thursday games.
- As of Wednesday afternoon, the Browns are a 4.5-point favorite, according to Caesars Sportsbook (over/under 38.5).
- Pittsburgh will host Cleveland in the regular-season finale on Jan. 8.
- Pittsburgh’s next matchup against a division rival doesn’t come until Nov. 20 against Cincinnati.
- Six former Steeler greats were nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2023 on Tuesday — K Gary Anderson; LB Chad Brown: (UVA alum) LB James Farrior; LB James Harrison; NT Casey Hampton; Super Bowl XL MVP WR Hines Ward.
- Former Pittsburgh Pro-Bowl CB Joe Haden, who starred for both the Steelers and Browns, announced his retirement from football on Wednesday afternoon.