NFL - National Football League

11/13/2019 | News release | Distributed by Public on 11/13/2019 21:54

What to watch for in Steelers-Browns on Thursday

Unlikely and fleeting as it might be, there is still hope for the Browns to salvage their season of disappointment.

Unforeseen as it might well have been a month ago, there is now very realistic hope for the Steelers to be playing in games that matter when the season hits its stretch.

An age-old rivalry renewed, AFC North adversaries the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4) and Cleveland Browns (3-6) collide on Thursday Night Football at 8:20 p.m. ET from Cleveland's FirstEnergy Stadium in a showdown airing live on FOX and the NFL Network.

Pittsburgh has claimed seven of the last eight in the rivalry, the only blemish a tie to open last season. Things have changed mightily since the teams began last year.

Cleveland is still rife with stars, but in the midst of a season having fallen far short of expectations, the Browns are clinging to hope and coming off a close win against the Bills.

Meanwhile, the Steelers found themselves mired in a similarly stifling start to the season, but have run off four consecutive victories and hold the the last AFC playoff spot in the standings.

Two archrivals coming off wins, plenty of big names and seasons to save. Storylines are in abundance as the lights go on in Cleveland.

Here are four things to watch for:

Baker Mayfield and the mystery of the Browns offense

In a season marked by stumbles, Baker Mayfield is coming off arguably his best outing of 2019.

His 68.42 completion rate and 102.7 quarterback rating were highs for the season as he threw for 238 yards, two touchdowns (also a head-shaking season high) and no interceptions. The no interceptions are particularly eye-opening as it's the second game in a row Mayfield didn't throw a pick following at least one in each of his initial seven games.

In the Browns' 19-16 win over the Bills, the offense certainly didn't sparkle, but wins are really all that matter -- especially for the Browns, who are playing for a miraculous postseason run, saved jobs and relevance all in the same.

If Mayfield's play remains steady -- it doesn't need to be spectacular with the surrounding talent -- the Browns' offense might well at least glimpse the potential so many prognosticated.

Aside from some fumbling troubles, Nick Chubb has continued his ascent into the hierarchy of NFL running backs and on Thursday night, he could well become the first Browns back since Peyton Hills in 2010 to rush for 1,000 yards. His 919 yards (third in the NFL) lead the AFC. A season ago, he finished four yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark.

While there's been much ballyhoo about getting Odell Beckham more involved -- a storyline that was apparently traded with him from New York -- OBJ's 79 targets do lead the team and his 44 catches for 632 yards are each second on the team behind Jarvis Landry. Looking into the numbers, one could argue, it's not about getting Beckham or Landry the ball, it's about getting everyone else involved. The No. 3 receiver on the team is Chubb with 27 catches. After that it's Dontrell Hilliard with 11 grabs. Landry and Beckham have 77 and 79 targets, respectively. Aside from Chubb (36 targets), nobody has emerged as an alternative.

As the quandary remains as to what is going wrong with the Browns offense and why Beckham isn't more involved, perhaps the right question is why aren't others more involved?

On Thursday, Baker and the boys will be facing a Steelers defense brimming with a host of playmakers. As the Steelers defense gets big plays from seemingly everyone involved, the Browns offense might well strive to do the same.

Minkah Fitzpatrick and the ascent of the Steelers defense

Having arrived in the Steelers starting lineup via trade with the Dolphins in Week 3, Minkah Fitzpatrick's presence has seen Pittsburgh go 5-2 with him on the team as he's tallied five interceptions, eight passes defended and 34 tackles. Those five picks are tied for the league-high.

Pittsburgh's defense allowed 33 and 28 points in its first two games, respectively -- both losses without Fitzpatrick. Since then, the Steelers haven't allowed more than 26 points and that was just once against the high-flying Ravens. Fitzpatrick, quickly establishing himself as a favorite for defensive player of the year, has made a huge and instant impact.

In the Steelers' 17-12 win over the Rams on Sunday, it was Fitzpatrick's 43-yard fumble return for six which stood as the game-winning score. It was the latest evidence provided of just how things have changed since Fitzpatrick joined the fray, with Pittsburgh's defense havign gone from allowing 30.5 points per game and 445 yards to 17.1 and 300.

Fitzpatrick is another former first-rounder that has the Steelers clicking like a defense on the rise. In total, the Steel City defense boasts eight former first-round picks and it's certainly beginning to play up to its potential.

The likes of Fitzpatrick, Bud Dupree, Devin Bush, T.J. Watt and more are quickly turning this first-round club into a fearsome one.

Some stellar Cleveland defenders shining despite defeats

Cleveland's defense as a whole has been modest, ranking 17th in the NFL in total defense, having been great against the pass (seventh) and terrible versus the run (27th).

It's overshadowed some outstanding individual efforts, though.

With 10.0 sacks (tied for third in NFL), 11 tackles for loss (tied for fourth) and 15 quarterback hits (tied for 10th), Garrett is wreaking havoc as expected and would likely be drawing more acclaim if team wins were following his individual production.

There's also linebacker Joe Schobert, who likely would not draw more acclaim even if the Browns were winning. Schobert's the epitome of a lunch-pale guy, playing loud and speaking low. His 82 tackles are tied for tops in the AFC with Tennessee's Rashaan Evans.

The fourth-rounder turned Pro Bowler hasn't missed a defensive snap this season.

Win or lose, Schobert and Garrett are consistently producing for the Browns.

Next men up leading Pittsburgh wins

As the waiting game for JuJu Smith-Schuster continues, the talented wideout has combined to produce just six catches for 60 yards across the last two games - which come following his first and only 100-yard game of the season in Week 8 against the lowly Dolphins.

Meanwhile, James Washington has hauled in 10 catches for 159 yards and a touchdown in that same span, setting season highs with four catches for 69 yards in Week 9 against the Colts before improving on his season bests with six receptions for 90 yards against the Rams. Among wideouts, Washington has been the go-to over the last two games. A preseason standout, Washington has patiently waited and is now paying dividends during a season in which the Steelers are winning without the usual suspects -- at least on offense, anyway.

Running back Jaylen Samuel has also stepped up in the passing game. James Conner is due back and he burned the Browns last season with four touchdowns and 281 yards on the ground over two tilts versus Cleveland. But the backups, though it hasn't exactly been pretty, have got the job done in a co-starring role in support of the defense.

Though hardly spectacular, quarterback Mason Rudolph has been effective and Pittsburgh is suddenly 4-2 with him as starter.

Notably there was no Antonio Brown or Le'Veon Bell at season's beginning. Now there's no Ben Roethlisberger, Conner has been a question mark and Smith-Schuster has struggled. But Rudolph, Samuel and Washington are getting it done and the Steelers have found their stride -- at least in terms of wins. Thursday might well be the latest case in which the next Steelers up step up.