Yep, it’s that time of the year. Coming unusually late in the season, the Browns have their first meeting of the season against arch-nemesis Pittsburgh. This game will take place under the lights, at home, for Thursday Night Football.
So, let’s have a look at what’s in store:
The Visiting Steelers:
The Steelers have had team-crippling injuries to both sides of the ball this season. They had to turn to their third string QB at one point and have operated for the vast majority of the season under backup QB Mason Rudolph. All that, and… They could be a lot worse off. Following an impressive 17-12 win against the Rams last week, Pittsburgh sits at a respectable 5-4 record. That’s pretty good for a team which is quite…makeshift (with how many critical injuries they’ve suffered to this point).
Perhaps the move which saved Pittsburgh’s season from spiraling out of control early was trading for DB Minkah Fitzpatrick from the Dolphins. Fitzpatrick has been beyond stellar in elevating this Pittsburgh defense, to the point where he is running away with Defensive Player of the Year honors. In fact, if Pittsburgh does manage to make the postseason, Fitzpatrick could even end up in MVP talks as well! This season, Fitzpatrick has a career-high five interceptions (four with Pittsburgh), he has forced and recovered two fumbles (both with the Steelers) and has played in 99.7% of the team’s defensive snaps this season.
Mason Rudolph, who took over for Ben Roethlisberger very early in the season, has also played the part in keeping the ship steady for the Steelers. Rudolph has a pretty solid 10:4 TD:INT ratio along with 1,088 passing yards and a 94.8 passer rating. He has started seven of the team’s nine games this season and has looked to bounce-back nicely (and more importantly, in good health) after taking a scary hit that gave him a nasty concussion in the team’s 26-23 loss to Baltimore a few weeks ago.
The Steelers, like the Browns, have some ailments to work out, and only have a short week to do it. Fortunately, it looks as though James Connor (shoulder) and guard Ramon Foster (concussion) are healthy, and it seems they should be ready to go. Based on Mike Tomlin’s words (quote included below), it seems that fullback Roosevelt Nix (knee) will be quite a bit iffy for the game.
Mike Tomlin talked a bit more in depth on the team’s injury situation than usual on Monday. Here’s what he had to say, per Steeler’s Depot:
“If we were to work today, James Conner would have been a full participant,” Tomlin said on Monday. “But again, that’s a hypothetical workday and so there’s some angst there. We feel comfortable about his ability to be available to us as we do Ramon Foster’s, but we have to get through the week in that regard. Guys that we’re less optimistic about are Rosie Nix and (Steelers running back) Benny Snell. Those guys are working, but they’re not positioned in the ways that James Conner and Ramon Foster are maybe to participate this week.”
At 5-4, the Steelers are, somehow, positioned to at least fight for a playoff spot. This game will be crucial to their playoff odds, and given the matchup, the Steelers will come on Thursday, ready to play.
The Hometown Browns:
The Browns are coming off an incredibly sloppy 19-16 win against the Buffalo Bills this past Sunday, where it seemed neither team wanted to win the game. Still, the monkey’s off their backs and they got their first home win for the season.
Baker Mayfield easily had his best game of the season in the win, setting season-highs with two touchdowns, a 68.4% completion percentage and a 102.7 QBR for the game. Games like that have, unfortunately, not been the norm for Mayfield this season, with a putrid 7:12 TD:INT ratio this season, a 58.7 completion percentage and 71.3 QBR for the year. He will have to replicate, or even outdo, his performance from this past Sunday on Thursday.
Head coach Freddie Kitchens, once again, seemingly tried to lose the game this past week against the Bills. After trying predictable, slowly developing run plays and throws behind the line seven times from the Bills’ one, Kitchens went for it on fourth down with yet another terrible play call and the Browns left more points on the board.
In what has become a troubling trend of Kitchens “compensating for something,” the Browns again reached the Bills’ four yard line, didn’t convert the third down and Kitchens once again left the offense on the field. Even the football gods had seen enough and a false start penalty on Chris Hubbard (who deserves a game ball for this penalty) finally knocked some sense into Kitchens. If not for that, perhaps the massive chorus of boos from the angry home crowd might have at least convinced him to call timeout.
Things are actually looking up for the Browns’ injury report this week. Damarious Randall has had a positive week of practice after a less-than-stellar game against Buffalo and should hopefully be a bit more up to speed for this week’s game. After taking a nasty hit to the knee in the aforementioned Bills game, Myles Garrett has had no issues as a full participant in practice this week. The trio of Joel Bitonio, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry also showed up on the injury report for the third-straight week, but all were full participants and should be perfectly fine for this week’s game. Unfortunately, the team will likely be without Olivier Vernon (knee) again on the short week, as he has failed to practice in an even limited capacity at all this week.
At 3-6, a run for the playoffs at this point is extremely improbable for the Browns, as they would pretty much need to win out to have a chance. With Freddie Kitchens ruining things at the helm, that seems unlikely. Still, given the primetime nature of the game and the much maligned opponent, even if they were 0-9, this game would fire up just about anybody and the Browns are no different.