As the Cleveland Browns prepare for the Pittsburgh Steelers, their offense should look back to the playoffs in which they were able to put a significant amount of stress on their coverage while neutralizing their pass rush.
In the playoffs, the Browns passing game found success by spreading the Pittsburgh Steelers out, getting the ball out quickly and targeting their linebackers in coverage. Even with Michael Dunn replacing Joel Bitonio due to COVID-19 and Kendall Lamm coming in for Jack Conklin after he sustained a hamstring injury, the protection remained strong.
The Steelers coverage when spread out left linebackers to play man coverage, which the Browns exploited on multiple occasions, manipulating situations where Robert Spillane was covering Jarvis Landry.
The personnel may be different for the Steelers at linebacker this year, but they might be susceptible to the same plan of attack. Landry's status isn't clear. He was coming off a sprained MCL which caused him to miss four games. Returning to play against the Denver Broncos, he left the game after twisting his knee.
The team has said Landry will be fine, but that's vague to say the least. Going back to the offseason, Landry focused on getting slimmer, so he could maximize his agility, which would make this matchup even more in his favor. Steelers linebacker Devin Bush proclaimed his confidence being able to cover Landry.
So if 'fine' means that Landry is going to be healthy and able to utilize the hard work he put into changing his body, it's a good matchup for the Browns. He could put up a monster game. If 'fine' means that Landry is ailing, but will play, the Browns may want to provide a few different looks. Tight ends are one way to attack, but a player that stands out in this type of matchup could be Demetric Felton.
This isn't really something Felton has done in the NFL yet, but it's definitely something he did in college. Most of Felton's usage in his rookie year has been attacking the flats or out wide. Perhaps the mini-bye will allow him to get more reps that attack the middle of the defense that enable him to use his quickness and overall speed.
If the Browns utilize this gameplan, either quarterback can execute it, but Baker Mayfield obviously gives the offense a wider variety of options because he can attack further down the field. Nevertheless, with a plan to get the ball out quickly, Keenum can find the right matchups against the Steelers defense that has some talented players in the secondary, but hasn't played all that well this year.
The timing of the Steelers game is fortuitous for the Browns running game as Wyatt Teller, who started out the season playing pretty poorly, has returned to his dominant form the past few games. The team is also expecting to get Jack Conklin back, who has been dominant in run blocking while Joel Bitonio has been playing like an All-Pro all season. A healthier Jedrick Wills provided a significant boost against the Broncos as well, so another week could enable him to perform as he expected at the start of the season before the ankle injury.
Combined with what looks like the return of Nick Chubb, the Browns should feel as confident in their running game as they have all season. The Steelers defensive line is the strength, but the Browns did not shy away from running the ball in the playoffs and mauled the Steelers up front. Michael Dunn taking it to Cameron Heyward all game was about as expected as Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson.
This year, Heyward is playing as well as he has at any point in his career. T.J. Watt continues to one of the most impactful defenders in the league. However, the Steelers do not expect Stephon Tuitt back this week, so the Browns can attack players like Isaiah Buggs and Chris Wormley, who will be across from Teller and Conklin.
The Steelers are coming off their bye week and they are not ignorant to what happened in the playoffs. Maybe head coach Mike Tomlin can come up with a game plan that hides their weaknesses and improves their chances, but unless they can come up with a way to get much healthier or add talent, they may be limited in what they can really do.