The Week 3 edition of “Thursday Night Football” features an old-school AFC North rivalry, as the Cleveland Browns play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both of these teams are coming off dispiriting losses a week ago, after they had picked up victories in the final moments in Week 1.
The Browns blew a double-digit lead in the last two minutes of their game against the Jets, while the Steelers barely moved the ball all day against the Patriots. Each of these teams is looking to get back in the win column and leap, at least, momentarily, into first place in the division, and hopefully establish some sort of foundation on which to make a run to the playoffs.
Which of them will get back to their winning ways? We’ll find out soon enough. Before we break down the matchup, here’s how you can watch this evening’s contest.
How to watch
Date: Thursday, Sept. 22 | Time: 8:20 p.m. ET
Location: FirstEnergy Stadium (Cleveland)
Stream: Amazon Prime Video
Follow: CBS Sports App
Odds: Browns -4.5, O/U 38.5
When the Steelers have the ball
Pittsburgh’s offense is in major trouble. Through two games, the Steelers have managed just 510 yards, 30th in the NFL. On a per-play basis, they actually rank 31st. They’re 26th in points per drive, 29th in Tru Media’s EPA per play, and 22nd in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA.
Most of the issues begin along the offensive line, where things are pretty dire. They simply cannot generate any push whatsoever in the run game. They have one of the league’s highest first-down run rates (50 percent), and on those plays have averaged just 2.9 yards per rush. Despite facing eight-man boxes on only 18 percent of runs, the Steelers have averaged just 1.30 yards before contact per attempt. On plays where Najee Harris was the ball-carrier (as opposed to Mitchell Trubisky, Jaylen Warren, or Chase Claypool), that figure is even worse — just 0.44 per attempt.
But Harris, who dealt with a Lisfranc injury during training camp and injured his foot again in Week 1, just does not look healthy. Among the 44 players with at least 15 rush attempts this season, he ranks 32nd in avoided tackle rate and 31st in yards after contact per attempt. Last season, he ranked seventh in avoided tackle rate and 21st in yards after contact among the 53 players with 100 carries or more.
The Browns have yielded only 3.77 yards per rush so far this season, and a ridiculous 0.33 before contact. The idea of the Steelers finding rushing success in this game, given how things have gone so far this year, seems rather far-fetched. And that puts the game in Trubisky’s hands, which is … not great.
Trubisky is 42 of 71 (59.2 percent) for 362 yards (5.2 per attempt), two touchdowns, and one interception so far this season. That’s despite a below-average pressure rate (28 percent) and one of the lowest blitz rates in the league (20 percent). He’s thrown into a tight window on 22.5 percent of his passes, according to NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats, and has been off target with his throws 16.7 percent of the time, per Tru Media. He has failed to find a connection with explosive rookie George Pickens, who has been on the field for 78 percent of the team’s offensive snaps but has been targeted only five times. His numbers with the other pass-catchers are not much better: Claypool has eight receptions for just 44 yards on 12 targets. Diontae Johnson is down a career-low 8.6 yards per reception. Pat Freiermuth’s catch rate is down to 52.9 percent (from 75.9 a year ago).
This is not a tenable situation for an offense, and there’s no reason to expect that it will get better any time soon. The time for Pickett is coming, perhaps as soon as tonight if Trubisky struggles. With a mini-bye before the team’s Week 4 game against the Jets, there is probably no better opportunity to make the switch.
If Trubisky (or Pickett) can figure out a way to try to push the ball down the field, there might actually be some opportunities available. Cleveland has allowed more completions on throws of 20-plus air yards than any team in the NFL except the Jaguars, despite having played against Baker Mayfield and Joe Flacco. Getting the ball downfield typically requires time in the pocket, though, and the more time in the pocket, the more opportunity for the defense to generate pressure. Cleveland ranks seventh in the NFL in pressure rate so far this season, with Myles Garrett leading the way. Trubisky has long been wildly susceptible to pressure, and would far rather get rid of the ball quickly and in short areas than take his chances with rushers in his face. For those reasons, he seems far more likely to continue targeting underneath throws, and thus to create few — if any — explosive plays.
When the Browns have the ball
Predictably, the Browns have run the ball early and often, and with great success. The Nick Chubb/Kareem Hunt duo is one of the NFL’s best, and has powered the Browns to 5.28 yards per carry despite facing eight-man boxes at the second-highest rate in the NFL (33 percent of carries, per Tru Media). They have an NFL-best 12 runs of 15 yards or more, good for a league-high 15.8 percent share of their total carries.
The ability to generate explosives in the run game is particularly important, because the pass game is more of a possession-based, move-the-chains type of unit at the moment, with Jacoby Brissett under center. Pittsburgh has done a strong job against the run so far this season, but has also played against two relatively weak offensive lines (Cincinnati, New England) compared to the one it will face against Cleveland on Thursday night. Without T.J. Watt, the Steelers might be more susceptible to the ground attack than it has been so far, now that it’s tasked with going up against one of the league’s best run-blocking units.
Of course, the Steelers are no slouches up front — even sans Watt. They still bring Cameron Heyward, Tyson Alualu, Larry Ogunjobi, Chris Wormley, Alex Highsmith, and even Malik Reed to the table. They can still get after the quarterback and get him to the ground or simply keep him boxed into the pocket, where he’ll have to deal with heavy pressure.
The Browns will surely try to get Jacoby Brissett on the move with play-action and bootleg concepts, with the only major downfield perimeter they have at the moment is Amari Cooper. Tight end David Njoku, an elite athlete, has seen his snap rate rise after getting a big contract this offseason, but has yet to become significantly more involved in the passing game. It’s tempting to say this would be a good week to finally get him going, but he may have to deal with the focus of Minkah Fitzpatrick for much of the evening. Fitzpatrick is off to a terrific start to the season with two interceptions in as many weeks, and he covers as much of the back end of the field as any safety in football. Any Brissett pass to his deep half of the field is liable to get picked if it’s remotely off-target.
In the end, this game seems likely to come down to a matter of trust in which offense can have any measure of success in moving the ball. Given the relative strength of Cleveland’s run game in comparison to any aspect of Pittsburgh’s offense, that’s the way we have to lean.
Prediction: Browns 20, Steelers 13