Steelers vs Browns AFC Wildcard Preview

Steelers vs Browns AFC Wildcard Preview

Steeler Nation doesn’t just reside in the surrounding areas of Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. It is a world-wide army that lives and dies with the NFL franchise that calls Pittsburgh it’s home. The six-time Super Bowl champions are a team that always strives for excellence, and their fans expect nothing less in return. This is the ultimate Steelers Game Day Guide that all followers of the black and gold come to find everything they need to know about the Pittsburgh Steelers and their upcoming opponent! Mike Drakulich (@PghSportsNation), who covers both Pitt football and the Steelers for NGSC Sports, brings you inside the huddle for both teams with a weekly game story, the Steelers offensive and defensive game plans for success, prediction, game day information, a detailed breakdown of each team, and an up to date team injury report. Heck, you’ll even know the weather at kickoff. The only thing you’re missing is a game uniform.

 

Steelers ready to make Browns playoff return a short lived one again

In terms of what qualifies as a long time, there are kids that were born and have graduated high school in the same time span the last time the Cleveland Browns (11-5) made the NFL playoffs,

That was 2003, and in that game, the Browns suffered a heartbreaking loss after being up 24-7.

Previous to that game, it was January of 1994 that the Browns found themselves in the playoffs. In that contest, the Browns were curb stomped 29-9.

The team that dealt the Browns their last two playoff losses are eagerly waiting for Sunday night at Heinz Field to make it three straight playoff defeats.

Since 1992, the Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) have absolutely owned the Browns, and it has only gotten worse since the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, who sports a 23-2-1 record vs Cleveland.

Last week, Roethlisberger sat at home, resting up, as his shorthanded team almost found a way to upset the Browns before falling 24-22, a win that vaulted Cleveland into the playoffs, and set up a date with Pittsburgh in the AFC Wildcard round.

“I enjoyed watching the game, not as much as playing in it,” said Roethlisberger. “I sat at home and watched it with my family. I felt like my son asked me a question every single play, so I felt like I was really extra engaged in it.”

It’s been two years since Pittsburgh has made the playoffs. Back then the heavily favored Steelers lost in embarrassing fashion to the Jacksonville Jaguars, 45-42.

Roethlisberger is eager to make amends.

“I think every player should approach this playoff game like it could be their last playoff game ever,” said Roethlisberger.

Players like Roethlisberger and Cam Heyward know that every opportunity to play in the postseason should be cherished, and not taken for granted.

“I’m towards the end rather than the beginning,” Heyward said. “I’m not saying I’m retiring next year, but I’m in a situation where I only have a couple more cracks at it. You look at it when I first got here — we went to the playoffs and lost to Denver. You think we’re going to at least make the playoffs every time.

“It’s been a battle, and it hasn’t gone what way.”

It was 2015 since the Steelers last won a playoff game.

“For me, there aren’t a lot of opportunities left, and I really have to take advantage of it,” Heyward said. “It’s a privilege to make it to the playoffs. Look at the last two seasons. I thought we had really good teams, but we didn’t make it. I’m going to relish this.”

In Pittsburgh, where the Steelers have been one of the standards for excellence and winning in the NFL, expectations are high, both from the fans and the players. Within the confines of Steelers HQ and Heinz Field, championships dictate successful seasons, not just getting into the dance. Now back in the playoffs for the first time since 2018, Roethlisberger and his team intend to make the most of the opportunity.

“I think every player should approach this playoff game like it could be their last playoff game ever,” Roethlisberger said. “We’ve used examples of players and coaches who have been in this league for a long time that have never been in the postseason, never been to a Super Bowl.

“I think it’s prudent for every player to take that mindset and approach. I know I am because nothing is guaranteed in this game.”

Roethlisberger is the only player left who has won a Super Bowl with the Steelers. Only 26 players overall on the roster have playoff experience, 19 of those were here when the team was upset by Jacksonville 45-42 in their last playoff game.

Roethlisberger has met up with his fellow offensive teammates twice to explain what dedication it takes to win in the playoffs.

“There are a lot of guys that don’t understand what it’s about,” Roethlisberger said. “I get it. When I was a young guy, people tried to explain to me to take advantage of this. You’re thinking, ‘I’m young, I’ll get back.’ It’s not guaranteed. I think all of the veteran guys as we are winding down our careers, we understand we don’t know what is next or if there is going to be a next for some guys.”

The message is hitting home for many of the younger players, who are eager to prove the have what it takes to lead this team to victory and championships.

“Older players are leading the charge in this,” said safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who get to experience his first playoff action Sunday night. “They’ve been around for a while. They are telling us that details are important. We’ve got to do everything we’ve been doing. Don’t think about the offseason or getting your body right. You’re going to regret not giving 110 % right now, when it gets to the offseason.”

Fitzpatrick was named as an All-Pro for the 2nd season in a row.

Corner Joe Haden will need to rely on his teammates to get his chance at playing in the playoffs, as he will still be unable to play because of being on the Reserve/COVID list. If the Steelers win, he will be ready to go in the Divisional Round.

“I know he really wanted to be a part of this game,” Heyward said. “I told him our goal is to get him back for the divisional round. That is up to us taking care of our business.”

To do just that, Heyward and the defense will have to be at their best Sunday night, and will have to be up to the challenge of stopping Cleveland’s vaunted rushing attack, lead by the one-two punch of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

“One, he has great vision. Not too many running backs have vision like him,” Fitzpatrick said of Chubb. “Two, he’s a strong. He’s very well-built. He has strong legs, a slow center of gravity. He keeps his eyes up. Even when he’s after contact, he keeps his eyes up, keeps his feet moving. And he’s physical with his upper body, as well.”

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin confirmed the Steelers defensive plan against the Browns.

“We needed to minimize Chubb and their run game,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “We gave up too many big runs. A lot he had to do with, particularly the touchdown run. He made two defensive backs miss. He’s capable of that.”

In last week’s loss to Cleveland, the Browns struck first blood, with a 47 yard touchdown run by Chubb.

Chubb rushed for 1,067 yards in just 12 games, with 12 touchdowns, while Hunt went for 841 rushing yards, 304 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns on 236 touches from scrimmage this season.

“They wear on you,” Heyward said of the Browns duo. “When you have two really good backs like that, you are able to make them interchangeable. Of course, Nick Chubb is the workhorse, but Kareem Hunt is no slouch. Both of those guys are able to get a multitude of plays.

“It’s definitely a tall task when you are asked to stop both of those guys.”

 

Steelers Game Plan for Success

Offense

  1. First possession: Enough of scripted plays. Hand the keys to the car to Ben Roethlisberger and come out in a no-huddle offense that Big Ben thrives in. Start fast and establish a swagger on offense.
  2. Attack Browns secondary: Cleveland will be hurting with Myles Garrett playing hurt and deploying a depleted secondary. Roethlisberger and the offense need to be aggressive and take advantage of this match-up.
  3. Dominate: The running game should open up if the passing attack is successful. Take this game to the Browns and establish who the better team is.

Defense

  1. Shutdown Nick Chubb: Tough assignment, but with the Browns missing key offensive lineman, the Steelers defense will need to elevate their run defense and shut down Cleveland’s run game, forcing them to put the game on the shoulders of Baker Mayfield. Speaking of which…
  2. Punish Baker Mayfield: Even with the JV squad deployed last week, the Steelers sacked Mayfield four times. With Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt back, it’s time to create havoc, punish Mayfield, and force some rushed throws that could result in back breaking turnovers.

 

Prediction

The big bad bully awaits again for the Cleveland Browns. This will be just the 3rd time since 1994 that Cleveland has made the playoffs, and the last two times, it was their hated rivals from Pittsburgh who snuffed them out. There once was a time it was the Browns who were a thorn in the side of the Steelers. Eric Metcalf returned two punts for scores back in 1993, one a back breaking 75 yarder that gave the Browns the win 28-23. This writer remembers the late 80’s when Steelers kicker Gary Anderson visited the Midland Serbian Club, and one last Anderson, who was a guest at an event, “Will we ever beat the Browns again?”

That 1993 loss aside, since Bill Cowher arrived in 1992, the Steelers have owned the Browns like, well, a dog, with an astounding record of 43-10-1 vs Cleveland, Big Ben himself a career 23-2-1 vs the team that passed on him in the 2004 draft.

In the first game of this season between the two rivals, the Steelers walloped Cleveland 36-7. Last week, against Pittsburgh’s JV squad, the Browns barely escaped with a 24-22 win, which gave them their first playoff appearance since 2003.

The Browns will travel to Pittsburgh missing their head coach Kevin Stefanski, in addition to two of his assistants, who all have tested positive for COVID. The Browns will also be missing Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio, wideout KhaDarel Hodge, corners Kevin Johnson and Denzel Ward, and defensive end Olivier Vernon who was injured last week.

Corner Joe Haden looks to be the only player who will miss the game, as left guard Matt Feiler and inside linebacker Robert Spillane will return to action, as will kicker Chris Boswell and safety Terrell Edmunds who missed last week’s game.

With a fully healthy team at Ben Roethlisberger’s disposal, and motivation to rid the bad taste of several disappointing seasons the past few years, the Steelers are ready to show the world that their 11-0 start was no aberration. The defense suffered two huge losses in Devin Bush and Bud Dupree, but players like Spillane, Avery Williamson, and Alex Highsmith and elevated their play to keep the Pittsburgh defense as one of the best units in the NFL.

These may not be the punching bag Browns of the past, but this team isn’t quite ready for what awaits them come 8:15 pm Sunday night at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh is better from top to bottom compared to the Browns. Pittsburgh needs to start fast and kick the Browns while they are down. Roethlisberger should be able to take advantage of a depleted Browns defense, especially 10-30 yards down the field. Baker Mayfield will likely be under siege all game, with the services of guard Bitonio being out. The Steelers were able to sack Mayfield four times last week with Bitonio active, and Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt watching the game from home.  This could get ugly in a hurry.

Did I mention rivalry earlier? The bug doesn’t share a rivalry with the windshield… Steelers 38 Browns 17

 

Game Day Information

AFC Wild Card Playoffs

Venue: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA.

  • Field: Kentucky Blue Grass

Game-time: Sunday, January 10th at 8:15 pm

TV: NBC (Local on WPXI-TV)

  • Announcers: Al Michaels (play-by-play) Cris Collinsworth (analyst) | Michelle Tafoya (reporter)

Local radio: Pittsburgh- 102.5 WDVE-FM & 970 WBGG-AM

  • Announcers: Bill Hillgrove (play-by-play) Tunch Ilkin (analyst) Craig Wolfley (analyst) | Missi Matthews (sideline)

Internet broadcast: Steelers Nation Radio (SNR) on Steelers.com

Weather at kickoff: 32 and clear.  Winds out of the North at 2-3 mph.

Vegas line: Pittsburgh -6.5

NFL StandingsNFL Scoreboard

 

Steelers vs Browns History

Series History: Began in 1950

Overall Record: 77-60-1

  • At home: 49-21
  • On the road: 28-39-1
  • Postseason: 2-0
  • Streak: Cleveland won the last game.
  • Last regular-season meeting: Browns Win, 24-22 (Jan. 3, 2021)
  • Last postseason meeting: Steelers Win, 36-33 (Jan. 5, 2003)

 

 

Scouting the Pittsburgh Steelers

Overall record: 12-4 (1st in AFC North)

Last game: Cleveland 24 Steelers 22

Head Coach: Mike Tomlin (13th Season with Steelers)

  • Overall regular-season record: 145-78-1
  • Playoff record: 8-7 (Qualified for playoffs 9 times)

Links:

2020 Pittsburgh Steelers Team Roster

Steelers Team/Individual Statistics

Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 Schedule 

 

Steelers Offense

Strengths: The variety of weapons that Ben Roethlisberger can utilize in the passing game.

Weaknesses: Offensive line hasn’t been good in providing room in the rushing attack, especially in short-yardage situations.

Offensive Stats

  • Points per game: 26.0
  • Total yards per game: 334.6
  • Passing yards per game: 250.2
  • Rushing yards per game: 84.4

 

Starting Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger | Back-up: Mason Rudolph

Ben Roethlisberger has thrown 33 touchdown passes and passed for 3,803 yards and 10 interceptions. He has only been sacked 13 times.

Starting Running Back: James Conner | Back-ups: Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland, Jr., and Jaylen Samuels

James Conner has rushed for 721 yards with six touchdowns and has 35 receptions for 215 yards. Benny Snell has 368 yards rushing with four touchdowns, and has 10 catches for 61 yards. Anthony McFarland, Jr. has been inserted into the rushing attack and has 113 yards.

Fullback: Derek Watt

Wide Receivers: Juju Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, James Washington, and Ray-Ray McCloud III

Juju Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and James Washington lead a talented group of wide receivers. Johnson is a deep threat and has 88 receptions for 923 yards and seven touchdowns. Claypool, another deep threat, is having a big rookie year with 62 catches for 873 yards and nine TDs. Claypool also has rushed for 16 yards and two more touchdowns. Smith-Schuster is dangerous out of the slot, and leads the team with 97 catches for 831 yards and nine touchdowns. James Washington (30-392-5) can line up anywhere and comes up with big catches when his number gets called. Ray-Ray McCloud has been used as an x-factor type weapon, gaining 65 yards on four carries, and has 20 catches for 77 yards.

Tight Ends: Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald

Eric Ebron gives Big Ben a huge target across the middle and in the red zone. Ebron has become a Big Ben favorite and has 56 catches for 558 yards and five touchdowns. Vance McDonald has mainly been used for blocking, but has 15 receptions for 99 yards.

Placekicker: Chris Boswell

  • Extra Points: 34-38
  • 1-19 yards: 0-0
  • 20-29 yards: 5-5
  • 30-39 yards: 6-6
  • 40-49 yards: 7-8
  • 50+ yards: 1-1

*Injured/Out

 

Steelers Defense (Base 3-4)

Strengths: One of the top units in the NFL. They are fast and physical. Pittsburgh defends the run relatively well and they possess a relentless pass rush that puts constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks with a variety of blitzes. The splash play Steelers lead the NFL with 56 sacks and 18 interceptions. They are 3rd in the the NFL allowing just 19.5 points per game.

Weaknesses: Sometimes have issues getting off the field on 3rd downs. Skilled backs catching passes out of the backfield.

Defensive Stats

  • Points per game allowed: 19.5
  • Total offense yards per game allowed: 305.8
  • Passing yards allowed: 194.4
  • Rushing yards allowed: 111.4
  • Sacks: 56
  • Interceptions: 18

 

Defensive Line:  Cam Heyward anchors the defensive line and is a yearly all-pro, with the vastly underappreciated Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu alongside him. Tuitt has ten sacks in 2020.

Linebackers: OLB T.J. Watt is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and formed a terrifying 1-2 punch with Bud Dupree on the opposing side before Dupree injured his ACL vs the Ravens. Watt has collected 15 sacks on the year, tops in the league. Alex Highsmith has stepped in for Dupree and is getting better each week. Inside LB Vince Williams is stout against the run, and leads the linebackers with 68 tackles. Hard-hitting Robert Spillane, who replaced star LB Devin Bush, who tore his ACL, won’t likely play until the playoffs with a knee injury. Avery Williamson, acquired via trade from the NY Jets, is the starter in place of Spillane.

Secondary: Free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick leads an impressive secondary with two good corners in Joe Haden and Steven Nelson. Strong safety Terrell Edmunds never gets the credit he deserves but is always around the ball. Fitzpatrick has 74 tackles and four interceptions to lead the team.

Mike Hilton is the most unheralded player on the defense, a do-everything player in Pittsburgh’s nickel package. Hilton has three sacks, three interceptions, and 50 tackles.

 

Steelers Special Teams

Punter: Jordan Berry

Kickoff Returners: Anthony McFarland, Jr. and Ray-Ray McCloud

Punt Returner: Ray-Ray McCloud

Scouting report: Ray-Ray McCloud is averaging 23.2 yards per kickoff return, and 11.4 yards per punt return.

 

Scouting the Cleveland Browns

Overall record: 11-5 (3rd in AFC North)

Last game: Browns 24 Steelers 22

 

Head coach: Kevin Stefanski (1st season with Cleveland)

  • Overall regular-season record: 11-5 | 11-5 with Cleveland)
  • Playoff record: 0-0

2020 Cleveland Browns roster

Cleveland Team/Individual Statistics

 

Browns Offense

Strengths: Great rushing attack combo with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Baker Mayfield plays well when given time to throw.

Weaknesses: Pass blocking. Browns give up a ton of sacks. Baker Mayfield is prone to bad throws and turnovers when under heavy pressure.

Offensive Stats

  • Points per game: 25.5
  • Total Offense per game: 369.6
  • Passing yards per game: 221.2
  • Rushing yards per game: 148.4

 

Starting Quarterback: Baker Mayfield | Back-up: Case Keenum

Baker Mayfield has thrown for 3,563 yards with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He has been sacked 26 times. Mayfield has rushed for 165 yards.

Starting Running Back: Nick Chubb | Back-ups: Kareem Hunt and D’Ernest Johnson

Nick Chubb is a load rushing for 1,067 yards in just 12 games. He has 12 touchdowns. Chubb also has 16 receptions for 150 yards. Kareem Hunt is a great compliment and has 841 rushing yards and six scores. He is adept out of the backfield with 38 catches for 304 yards and another five touchdowns. D’Ernest Johnson has 166 yards in 2020.

Wide Receivers: Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones, KhaDarel Hodge, and Marvin Hall

Jarvis Landry leads the team with 72 receptions for 840 yards and three touchdowns. Rashard Higgins is 2nd on the team with 599 yards receiving off of 37 catches, four of which ended up in the endzone. Donovan Peoples-Jones has 14 catches for 304 yards and a pair of TD’s. KhaDarel Hodge and Marvin Hall are minimal contributors.

Tight Ends: Austin Hooper

Austin Hooper is 2nd on the team with 46 receptions for 435 and four touchdowns. Harrison Bryant will miss the game. David Njoku has 19 receptions for 213 yards and two TD’s.

Placekicker: Cody Parkey

  • Extra Points: 43-47
  • 1-19 yards: 0-0
  • 20-29 yards: 5-5
  • 30-39 yards: 4-6
  • 40-49 yards: 10-11
  • 50+ yards: 0-0

*Injured/out

 

Browns Defense (Base 4-3) 

Strengths: Decent pass rush, with Myles Garrett leading the way when he is healthy. Tough rushing defense.

Weaknesses: Secondary can be exploited. Linebackers are average.

Defensive Stats

  • Points per game allowed: 26.2
  • Total offense yards per game allowed: 358.4
  • Passing yards allowed: 247.6
  • Rushing yards allowed: 110.8
  • Sacks: 38
  • Interceptions: 11

 

Defensive Line: Myles Garrett leads the team with 12 sacks and has 44 tackles. DT Sheldon Richardson has 64 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Olivier Vernon had nine sacks but is out for the season.

Linebackers: B.J. Goodson leads the team with 91 tackles. Malcolm Smith is 2nd with 72 tackles.

Secondary: Terrance Mitchell has 60 tackles. CB Denzel Ward has two interceptions, but is out.

 

Browns Special Teams

Kickoff Returners: D’Ernest Johnson

Punt Returner: Donovan Peoples-Jones

Scouting report: D’Ernest Johnson is averaging 25.1 yards per kickoff return. Donovan Peoples-Jones is averaging 4.3 yards per punt return.

 

Injury Report (1/9/20)

Pittsburgh Steelers

  • Out: CB Joe Haden
  • Doubtful: None
  • Questionable: K Chris Boswell (Right Groin)

Cleveland Browns

  • Out: G Joel Bitonio, WR KhaDarel Hodge, CB Kevin Johnson, CB Denzel Ward, DE Olivier Vernon
  • Doubtful: None
  • Questionable: T Jack Conklin (Knee), G Wyatt Teller (Ankle), WR Donovan Peoples-Jones (Concussion), DE Myles Garrett (Shoulder), CB Terrance Mitchell (NIR), DT Sheldon Richardson (Neck), CB M.J. Stewart (Calf)

 

NFL Playoff Schedule

AFC

Bye: #1 Kansas City

 

Saturday, January 9th

1:05 pm on CBS: #7 Indianapolis Colts at #2 Buffalo Bills

 

Sunday, January 10th

1:05 on ABC: #5 Baltimore Ravens at #4 Tennessee Titans

8:15 on NBC: #6 Cleveland Browns at #3 Pittsburgh Steelers

 

NFC

Bye: #1 Green Bay

 

Saturday, January 9th

4:40 on FOX: #6 LA Rams at #3 Seattle Seahawks

8:15 on NBC: #5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers at #4 WAS/NYG

 

Sunday, January 10th

4:40 on CBS/Nick/Amazon Prime: #7 Chicago Bears at #2 New Orleans Saints

 

Pittsburgh Steelers History

Established: 1933

Super Bowl Championships: (6)

  • IX, X, XIII, XIX, XL, XLIII

AFC Championships: (8)

  • 1974, 1975, 1978, 1979, 1995, 2005, 2008, 2010

Division Champions: (24)

  • AFC Central: 1972, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1983, 1984, 1992, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 2001
  • AFC North: 2002, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2020

Steelers Hall of Famers

 

Author Profile

Mike DrakulichYour source for Pittsburgh sports!
From Midland, "The Basketball Capital of Pennsylvania", located 35 miles NW of Pittsburgh along the Ohio River. This former steel town was home to storied athletes such as Dave Alston, Norm Van Lier, Simmie Hill, and the legendary 1965 Midland High School Basketball Team.

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