With the division crown locked up, the Steelers will travel into FirstEnergy Stadium to take on the Cleveland Browns. While there isn’t much on the line for Pittsburgh, the Browns need this win to officially be a playoff team. 2002 (the year I was born) marks the last time the Browns made a playoff showing. Furthermore, what better way to end the postseason drought than by beating their rival which has enjoyed plenty of playoff success in that time. Granted the potential stakes for this game have been dampened as a result of the week 16 results for both sides but one thing remains true. This is still an AFC North matchup so it should be an entertaining one.
- Rest up and play key guys in limited snaps
Mike Tomlin has already announced the following players will be officially out to rest against the Browns: Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, TJ Watt, and Cameron Heyward. Sitting some starters is absolutely the right move especially due to the nature of this season. The team had to play three games in twelve days and had their initial bye week taken back in September. Guys who have ridden the ship all year or have dealt with nagging injuries need to take a week to rest before the playoffs. Ben in particular needs a week to rest so his canon can be in its best form when it matters most.
Over the course of the year, Ben’s performance has seen its peaks and valleys with the valleys coming in December. No run game and declining lower body mechanics have affected his play and resulted in him needing to throw the ball 40-50 times a game to win. Giving him an off week is the best way to increase the chance the Steelers get the good Big Ben in the playoffs. The likes of Watt, Heyward, and Pouncey deserve this as well, as they are the captains of the team and put together Pro Bowl years across the board.
When it comes to the rest of the starters, the smart move is to limit the number of snaps they play in this game. Anyone dealing with a nagging injury should sit and the key starters should come out after the first quarter to possibly even the first half. There’s no reason to jeopardize the health of players the Steelers will need to win moving forward.
- Simplify the playbook for Rudolph
Since Big Ben will be sitting, backup quarterback Mason Rudolph will get his first start of the year. This season has been a lot different for Rudolph but one that he probably expected when he was drafted. Mason was thrown into the fire last year, albeit he didn’t play well but it will be interesting to see if that experience helps him out in this game a year later. It would be poetic justice if Mason Rudolph were to end Myles Garret and the Browns season considering what happened the last time they played on that same field. But in order for that result to even take place, the Steelers need to keep the playbook straightforward for Rudolph.
Featuring James Washington will be paramount because he is his favorite target. Washington and Rudolph played together at Oklahoma State and Washington led the team in receiving yards in the games where Rudolph was the QB. This connection could be game-changing because the bulk of Washington’s plays this year have been splash plays. Additionally, the quick short passing game should be the go-to game plan this week as Rudolph will have the most success throwing to get first downs rather than touchdowns. This game for Rudolph is the final prove it game as to why he should remain in the black and yellow.
- Let Baker beat you
Back in week 6, the Steelers defense feasted and shut down the Browns offense for four quarters. Several things have changed since then on both sides. For the Browns, Nick Chubb is healthy and OBJ is hurt. The entire offense is also operating a whole lot better with a dominant rushing attack and Mayfield playing efficient football. With TJ and Cam out as well as no Bush or Bud since their last meeting, the Steelers defense will have a tall task on Sunday.
The best way to limit the Browns offense remains the same despite their improvement, load the box to stop the run and let Baker beat the man to man coverage on the outside. To give him some credit, Mayfield has been doing this for a solid stretch of the season. However, that doesn’t mean that isn’t still the way to beat this Browns offense, as they can only go as far as the potent running game takes them. Putting pressure has always been the way to fluster Mayfield for the Steelers. This puts rookie Alex Highsmith into the spotlight as he will be the main edge rusher for this game. Highsmith has flashed a lot in the time he’s been given and this is an opportunity to take a jump in his young career.
Even though Mason Rudolph eliminating the Browns from the playoffs would be comedic irony at its peak, I think the Browns will win a closer than expected game. With it all on the line, there’s no reason the Browns shouldn’t bring their best. Browns beat the Steelers by a score of 30-24.