3TFO: Steelers @ Browns, Week 12
If left tackle Joe Thomas and cornerback Joe Haden play to their potential, the Browns could be spoilers against a Steelers team filled with injuries.
3TFO: Steelers @ Browns, Week 12
After last Sunday night’s close loss at home to the Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers know they can ill-afford any more slipups, especially with a return date in Baltimore coming up next week.
For the Cleveland Browns, their record doesn’t do justice to how some of the team has performed. However, poor execution and some critical mistakes have cost the team at least three wins this season. They represent a tough opponent, however, that will have the chance to play spoiler.
While this game doesn’t have the playoff implications that any game between the Ravens, Steelers or Cincinnati Bengals would, it’s still a divisional clash and the Browns would love nothing more than to dent the Steelers’ playoff hopes. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the key areas to focus on.
Steelers Pass Rush vs. Browns Offensive Line
While the Steelers’ defense has limited opponents in terms of how many points they score, there has been a sincere lack of pass rush. Former Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, limited by injury, has managed just two sacks, three hits and eight hurries from 155 snaps as a pass rusher, giving him a Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP) Rating of just 7.0. Lamaar Woodley has been more productive opposite Harrison, with a PRP Rating of 11.6 coming from four sacks, seven hits and 13 hurries from 164 pass rushes.
At left tackle for the Browns, Joe Thomas has been at his best in pass protection. Giving up just two sacks, two hits and eight hurries from 394 passing plays, his Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE) Rating of 97.6 percent trails only Ryan Clady among all offensive tackles. Rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has had a fairly solid season, with just a couple of blips along the way. His PBE Rating of 94.9 is 32nd at the position, allowing three sacks, eight hits and 15 hurries from the same number of snaps as Thomas. Given the way the Steelers play defense, with Harrison and Woodley almost exclusively on either side, it sets up for two individual battles that will play a huge role in determining the outcome.
Steelers Wide Receivers vs. Browns Cornerbacks
With Antonio Brown likely out for at least another week, and Jerricho Cotchery now out for the forseeable future, the Steelers have added Plaxico Burress to their roster. It also means Emmanuel Sanders is in line for another start alongside Mike Wallace. Sanders has performed admirably in Brown’s absence, averaging 1.45 Yards Per Route Run (YPRR) this season. That’s below the 1.54 YPRR average of Wallace, but he has had his own problems with four drops and two fumbles in 10 games. The added injury to Cotchery should mean that Burress sees time on Sunday, with David Gilreath also likely to see some extra snaps.
The good news for the Browns is that cornerback Joe Haden remains on track to return to the lineup. This was supposed to be the season that Haden stepped up into that elite bracket of cornerbacks and, while that hasn’t happened with him missing time through injury and suspension, he remains one of the best corners in the league on his day. That doesn’t mean opposing quarterbacks are afraid to test him and, with an average of a pass thrown into his coverage once every 5.4 snaps, look for Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch to test Haden’s health. Sheldon Brown is having a solid season opposite Haden, notwithstanding being torched by the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. With a pass thrown into his coverage on average once every 5.8 snaps, quarterbacks are going after him slightly less than they are Haden.
Who Carries the Load?
With the Steelers now down to their third-string quarterback, an even bigger focus on the running game is likely. Fortunately, running back is not a position where they are struggling. Rashard Mendenhall and Johnathan Dwyer are likely to see the bulk of the carries, with Dwyer coming off a strong performance in the second half against the Ravens. That strong second half added to his performance over the past month, with Dwyer rushing for 340 yards in his past four games. With an average of 3.21 yards after contact per run and nine missed tackles forced as a runner, his Elusive Rating of 45.9 indicates he should perhaps see the bulk of the carries.
Mendenhall, however, continues to work his way back from injury and his Elusive Rating of 28.4 shows he can get the job done when healthy. Rounding out the top three, and probably seeing less snaps than he deserves, is Isaac Redman. With an Elusive Rating of 74.2 coming from 26 forced missed tackles as a runner and receiver, and from his 2.82 yards after contact average, he has been the Steelers’ most elusive runner. Regardless of who sees the most carries, the Steelers are definitely in safe hands if they opt to run the ball all day long.
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Gordon McGuinness | Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst
Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.