As the equipment staff works to wash the vomit out of uniforms and the field, both players and coaches rinse and spit out their mouthwash to rid themselves of the awful, acidic taste from gagging a 13-point lead in the home opener against the New York Jets, the best news for the Cleveland Browns might be the fact they get to play again on Thursday. An opportunity to put that failure behind them and redeem themselves, the Browns face off against a team that has all too often revealed their deepest insecurities in the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A win, at home, even against a Steelers team that doesn't appear to be good and all is right in the world. At least for a week and a half. A loss would compound the failures against the Jets and there will be calls for coaches to be fired and players to be replaced for a team with 14 more regular season games to play and the most difficult parts of their schedule still ahead of them.
Beyond any aspirations for the postseason or appeasing critics, the Browns simply need to get this win for themselves. The players need to make a statement that they are learning from their mistakes and improving, especially for a defensive unit that came into this season eager to tell everyone how good they could be. The Browns defense has the capability to make game changing plays, making a handful in each of their first two games. But just like the early part of last season, they have shown little consistency or mental toughness, resulting in an emotional rollercoaster ride. They need to develop intestinal fortitude and earn confidence rather than talk about it.
The coaching staff needs a win to convince critics of their competence. For Kevin Stefanski, this isn't about the offensive play calling, which has been good despite being underpowered, but his grasp of the locker room, the culture they are instilling and the effectiveness of his lieutenants are all valid questions. Is he the right person to lead this team or is he merely a talented teacher and coordinator?
Gone are excuses and blame that could be laid at the feet of quarterback Baker Mayfield and wide receiver Odell Beckham. They are no longer in the way of any potential gelling of the locker room, so the player leaders should have no problem being effective. This is supposed to be Myles Garrett's team, but they have players such as Denzel Ward and Anthony Walker Jr. among others who are supposed to be able to hold this group accountable. What is this Browns locker room is made of? A group that is tasked with being tough, smart and accountable is too often young, dumb and irresponsible.
The Browns are a young football team, something they have actively leaned into as they have built this team, which puts more onus and responsibility on the coaching staff. There are young players that could become stars on this roster, but some of these puppies are biting the Browns. Both mistakes on the field and poor decisions off of it have the potential to hold this team back. In a normal season, the Browns could work through this without too much issue because they would have time to figure it out as they work to improve over the course of the year. This season and the predicament they find themselves with Deshaun Watson's ongoing suspension require earlier results to capitalize on the most winnable part of their schedule.
Unfortunately, one of the realities that is difficult to accept is the Browns are auditioning a number of players for 2023. Even though the Browns want to compete in 2022, they held back resources in favor of the following years when they have their full roster available to them and the Super Bowl should be more achievable. So they are allowing young players to fill a number of key roles, hoping they can develop and earn those roles over the course of the season. The price of potential is often learning by making mistakes. The Browns defense should have learned plenty just two weeks into the season.
Defensive tackle and wide receiver clearly stand out on this front, but the secondary is included even though that unit has received a substantial infusion of resources. Safety Grant Delpit celebrates his 24th birthday this week after two rocky games and rookie corner M.J. Emerson is seeing the field plenty early due to a hamstring injury that has landed Greedy Williams on injured reserve to start the season.
That is putting additional pressure on what has become an easy target in defensive coordinator Joe Woods. Woods is enduring some of the early issues the team faced last year on defense, which had people calling for his ouster. There is no patience for the same mistakes the team experienced during the 2021 season, notably including blown coverages as a result of miscommunication.
It helps that the Cincinnati Bengals have gotten off to an 0-2 start and the Baltimore Ravens had their own disaster, giving up a 21-point lead to the Miami Dolphins as they fell to 1-1. Nevertheless, the Browns blew a golden opportunity to get a lead within the division when they are going to need all the wins they can get.
The Steelers are a beatable opponent. T.J. Watt, who has routinely terrorized the Browns will miss the game as he recovers from an injured pec. They are also experiencing quarterback problems as Mitchell Trubisky struggles. There have already been cries, including at home for the team to put first round rookie, Kenny Pickett, onto the field.
The Steelers have an embarrassment of riches at receiver including Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, Pat Freuermuth and rookie George Pickens, but it has been a challenge getting them the ball.
So either the Browns continue that trend, put pressure on Trubisky and force him to make mistakes like his first two games of the season or he has a big game and picks apart the Browns defense much like Joe Flacco did. This should be a game where the Browns coverage excels, but they have to take advantage of the opportunity and avoid mistakes.
Despite increased investment, the Steelers offensive line has struggled, which has limited what Najee Harris has been able to produce on the ground. Teams are taking the same approach as they have with Jacoby Brissett, daring the journeyman Trubisky to beat them. To this point, Brissett has had the far better protection and produced better results. The Browns defensive front should be able to get pressure on Trubisky, who will bet on his legs to his own detriment at times.
Without Watt, the Steelers defense is hardly a pushover. They have future Hall of Famer Cameron Heyward on the defensive line and Minkah Fitzpatrick patrolling the secondary. Fitzpatrick is making an early case for himself as the defensive player of the year, intercepting passes in each contest, one of which went for a touchdown, helping the Steelers beat the aforementioned Bengals. The Steelers pass rush was ineffective without Watt, but they only surrendered 17 points against the New England Patriots. Their zone scheme punishes errant throws as Steelers defenders play back so they can come up and attack the ball, resulting in turnovers which can give their offense a short field.
The Steelers appear vulnerable, but that's little consolation for the Browns. It only adds to the pressure for them to perform, magnifying the scrutiny that would come with a loss. The Browns have four days to figure it out and redeem themselves with a win at home or this season could be over before it has even begun. Given what happened against the Jets, the Browns should be hungry.