PITTSBURGH – Deshaun Watson will make his sixth start for the Browns on Sunday. The quarterback, though, has already figured out what this start — in Pittsburgh against the Steelers — means to Browns fans.
“Most definitely,” Watson said this week. “I know the Browns fans are pulling very, very hard for this win. They want this one to finish out the year and be able to go into next season with two victories under our belt, especially against Pittsburgh.”
That’s especially when a win over Pittsburgh could potentially be what knocks the Steelers out of the playoffs. Pittsburgh is 8-8 and needs to beat the Browns (7-9) to have a chance to earn the No. 7 seed in the AFC playoffs.
The Steelers do need help to get that spot. They need the Buffalo Bills to win at the New England Patriots, and they also need the Miami Dolphins to lose at home to the New York Jets.
Still, those two things can happen and Pittsburgh doesn’t get in without beating the Browns. That means, much like they did in last Sunday’s win over the Washington Commanders, the Browns – even after the late-week drama – can at least be a contributing factor in a team’s playoff elimination.
Oh, there’s also the opportunity the Browns have to sweep the season series with the rival Steelers, which they haven’t done since 1988. Cleveland won 29-17 over Pittsburgh in Week 3.
“It would be huge for us,” All-Pro left guard Joel Bitonio said. “They’ve been a very, very good franchise at least my whole career. They’ve been very good and they’ve done some good things. So for us to get a second win against them in Pittsburgh, I think it would be a big thing for us.
“We’re treating it like a very important game for us. I know they have playoff implications. They have to win and get a little bit of help but, regardless of that, I think both teams are going to come out firing anyway and we know it’s going to be a big challenge.”
The Browns and Steelers may be playing each other for the second time this season. However, they’ll be playing much different teams than they did when they met in Cleveland.
It starts with the quarterbacks. Back in September, it was Jacoby Brissett starting for the Browns and Mitch Trubisky starting for the Steelers.
Brissett completed 21 of 31 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns in that game. Trubisky, returning to his home region, completed 20 of 32 for 207 yards.
None of that matters, because neither of those quarterbacks are starting. Instead, it will be Watson making his sixth start of the season for Cleveland against Pittsburgh’s 2022 first-round pick, Kenny Pickett, making his 12th career start.
“Obviously, stepping into a stadium with Deshaun Watson has our attention, what he brings and getting a feel for him,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said this week. “We don’t have a lot of exposure to him, obviously. The first in-stadium exposure is going to be a significant one for us and understanding how to manage his talents and what it means in terms of how these two groups come together His mobility, his ability to extend plays and make throws.”
That’s what Watson did a week ago against Washington, specifically in the second half. After a dismal 3-of-8, 23-yard first half, he completed 6 of 10 second-half passes for 146 yards and three touchdowns, while also rushing six times for 31 yards.
Watson has completed 80 of 141 (56.7%) passes for 872 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions since returning from an 11-game suspension.
“It was just a matter of fact of when the opportunities come how you can make it more consistent,” Watson said. “The second half was very, very motivating for the offense to be able to continue to have some momentum going into this week, but also just for us to be able to pull out that win. The Commanders had an opportunity for them to go to the playoffs, so it was a tight match and they played hard but we wanted to be able to try to win the game and show what we have not just for the Cleveland Browns but for ourselves.”
The Steelers are in a position to potentially go to the playoffs because, in part, of what Pickett has brought to their offense. The former University of Pittsburgh Heisman Trophy finalist is only 6-5 as a starter, but has won four of his last five starts.
Specifically, it’s been the last two weeks, in the fourth-quarter comebacks against the Las Vegas Raiders and Baltimore Ravens, when Pickett has been most impressive. On the two game-winning drives in those games, Pickett completed 13 of 16 passes for 139 yards with two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 142.5 passer rating.
For the season, Pickett has completed 232 of 360 (64.4%) of his passes for 2,209 yards with six touchdowns and nine interceptions. He has a quarterback rating of 76.5.
“I’m growing every week; that’s the positive,” Pickett told Pittsburgh reporters this week. “There’re things that I’m learning from and there’s things that are on tape now that I wasn’t doing early in the season. So, I’m continuing to grow. It’s not going to happen overnight. I like the way that I am trending. I like the way that I’m improving and seeing things on the field, taking what I’m seeing on tape and bringing it to the field and playing with a little bit more anticipation than I was earlier in the season. “
Matchup to watch: Cleveland Browns RT James Hudson III vs. Pittsburgh Steelers LOLB TJ Watt
It’s not necessarily Hudson’s fault this matchup appears here. If Jack Conklin was healthy enough to start against the Steelers, he would have been there instead. This is, really, all about Watt. That’s because, as well as the Pittsburgh defense is playing overall, that defense is so much about Watt.
There’s no question the absence of Watt for seven games, including the first meeting against the Browns, due to a partially-torn pectoral muscle was a major issue for the Steelers. It shows in the statistics, where the points allowed, total yards, rushing yards and passing yards have all sky-rocketed to be top-10 in the league with him after being in the teens or, in some cases, even 30s without him.
That brings us to Hudson, who will make his third start of the season due to an ankle injury for Conklin. The second-year Browns tackle is quite familiar with Watt, having allowed four sacks to him in last season’s Week 17 meeting in Pittsburgh.
So the juxtaposition is there for Hudson to showcase his growth against the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He’ll need to order for Cleveland to have a chance.
Cleveland Browns player to watch: RB Nick Chubb
No reason to overthink this, really. The Browns need another big game out of Nick Chubb to give them a chance to get just their second regular-season win and third win overall in Pittsburgh’s 21-year-old Acrisure Stadium, formerly Heinz Field. The last time the Browns played the Steelers, Chubb had 113 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. It was his best game statistically against Pittsburgh in his career. The ability to grind out yards and the clock, especially late, with Chubb will be needed to potentially wear down the Steelers defense.
Pittsburgh Steelers player to watch: RB Najee Harris
The return of Watt and the emergence of Pickett have certainly been key storylines to the Steelers’ 6-2 run to get to .500. However, don’t sleep on the way Najee Harris has run the football over the last eight games, either. At Pittsburgh’s bye week in Week 9, Harris was tied for 28th in the league with 361 yards, while averaging 3.3 yards per carry. Since coming out of the bye, his 593 yards in those eight games rank tied for second in the NFL in that span, while his per carry average has gone up to 4.21. Against a Browns run defense that has been porous this season, and is now missing Jadeveon Clowney as well, Harris may be the one the Steelers turn to in order to get a win.
Three numbers: Myles Garrett, TJ Watt in a marquee edge-rusher game
Myles Garrett’s most infamous moment in his NFL career came against the Steelers with the helmet incident in 2019. He can match or surpass one of his best moments if he gets at least one sack of Pickett on Sunday. Entering the game Garrett is one sack behind his single-season franchise sack mark, which he set a year ago with 16. For his career, he has six sacks against Pittsburgh, half of which have come in the Steel City.
The time spent on injured reserve has limited Watt’s sack totals this season. He only has five for the season, although 3.5 have come in the last four games. However, Watt has owned the Browns over his career. In 10 career games, including the playoffs, he has recorded 14.5 sacks against Cleveland.
Chubb has done a lot of things during his career with the Browns. Topping the 1,500-yard plateau is one thing the star running back hasn’t done. However, that can change with just 52 rushing yards in Sunday’s finale in Pittsburgh. So for this season Chubb has rushed for 1,448 yards, which is 46 yards behind his career high set in 2019. He is averaging 72 rushing yards in eight career regular-season games against the Steelers.
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