When the Cleveland Browns face off against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the defense has an opportunity to make the pending quarterback decision a non-factor. With a chance to rest, heal and potentially able to iron out some critical details, the Browns defense can regain the form that it has flashed at times, including the first half against the Denver Broncos.
The Steelers are coming off their bye week, so they will also have a chance to plan for the Browns and potentially take advantage of some of the issues that have repeatedly come up this season. The problem for the Steelers is they are limited in terms of their upside on that side of the ball.
Getting time to work with their young offensive linemen could be helpful, but that likely won't be enough to block Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney. Should the mini-bye help recharge both Maliks, McDowell and Jackson, it may be difficult to get Najee Harris going on the ground, which would put the game in Ben Roethlisberger's hands; exactly what the Browns want.
Going back to last year in the playoffs, the biggest challenge the Browns dealt with was matching up with the sheer amount of weapons the Steelers had at their disposal. An overpowered Browns secondary was just trying to keep everything in front of them and not get beat.
This year, the Steelers are without Juju Smith-Schuster, out with a season-ending shoulder injury, but they have Harris out of the backfield and rookie tight end Pat Freuermuth.
The Browns are significantly better equipped to cover players like Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson. That does not make it easy as Johnson has exceptional quickness while Claypool's size is a mismatch, but even if Denzel Ward were unable to play, Greedy Williams and Greg Newsome have both been played well this season.
Their ability to get open only matters if Roethlisberger can deliver them the ball, which has been a challenge on two fronts.
First, Roethlisberger is physically compromised. His arm isn't as strong as it used to be and he does not move as well.
Second, his offensive line is often struggling to protect him combined with the fact that Roethlisberger has no interest in getting hit anymore, so the ball often comes out early and short.
So if the Browns can make Roethlisberger feel pressure, he will likely start dumping the ball off on underneath routes, some which are basically at the line of scrimmage. And when he wants to go down the field, he's getting the ball out so early that it's likelihood of success is reduced.
Regardless of the opponent, the Browns need to eliminate some of the issues they are facing at the safety position. John Johnson III has stepped up in a major way the past few games which has provided a massive boost while Ronnie Harrison and Grant Delpit have been wildly inconsistent.
The mini-bye may have provided a chance for them to slow down and really work to clean up some of those issues, including failures in simply executing their given assignments. The Browns defense can improve significantly if Harrison plays up to his ability. If he simply plays at the same level he did in 2020, the defense would be far better for it.
The more Delpit can do, the more freedom the Browns have with Johnson. The past two games in particular, Johnson is getting to play in a variety of roles, which was one of the reasons the Browns wanted him so much. If Johnson is manning up a tight end or playing a different role that has him closer to the line of scrimmage, someone has to operate as the last line of defense unless the Browns are simply content to play a far riskier style of defense.
The other issue the Browns have been struggling with is third down. Whether a mental block, play calling, execution or demonic possession, the Browns defense has gone from one of the best defenses in the league on first and second down to perhaps the worst on third and fourth down.
The good news is the Steelers are only averaging 19.5 points per game with their highest scoring output of 27 coming against the Broncos.
It's imperative the Browns defense is able to take advantage of the mini-bye and start playing up to their ability consistently. There was always an understanding it would take some time to get going with all the new pieces being added, but this type of break should enable them to take a meaningful step forward.
Being able to sync up the pass rush and the coverage could yield turnovers and really limit what the Steelers are able to do in this game. If that's a trend they can carry over, it could lead to success on the road against a hot Cincinnati Bengals offense.