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Can Steelers Protect Kenny Pickett from Browns Pass Rush?

The Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off a miserable performance against the San Francisco 49er who dominated their offensive line. Will eight days be enough to get it turned around as the Steelers host the Cleveland Browns, coming off their own great performance?
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The Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line is coming off one of the worst performances in the NFL and will now host the Cleveland Browns featuring a pass rush that caused Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow all kinds of problems. The Steelers can't play much worse than they did against the San Francisco 49ers, but their pass protection is a step down from the Bengals which could be spell disaster for second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Bengals pass protection surrendered 13 pressures on 36 total drop backs, a rate of 36.1 percent. Weather played a role, but the Bengals were hopeful their unit would be better than it was in previous seasons only to be under siege for the entire game.

The Steelers pass protection surrendered 23 pressures on 54 total drop backs against the 49ers, a rate of 42.5 percent. An inauspicious debut for a unit the Steelers hoped would be improved compared to previous seasons.

The 49ers routinely boast one of the best defenses in the league, so it's not a surprise they caused problems for the Steelers, but the rate in which they did it on the road is staggering.

The Steelers signed Isaac Seumalo as a free agent to step in at left guard in an effort to stabilize their interior and help stabilize the left tackle position. The Steelers certainly want him to help in their pass protection, but they also signed Seumalo in the hopes it would prevent them from experiencing games they can't run the ball.

Seumalo was added to an interior that also includes Mason Cole at center and James Daniels at right guard. The Steelers offensive line wasn't great last year, but Daniels had a strong year, especially in pass protection. Cole was decent at center last year and the hope is that with stronger guard play flanking him, he will continue to improve.

As bad as that group looked against the 49ers, it's important to remember they struggled against Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead. Two defensive tackles geared to rush the passer. The Browns have effective defensive tackles in Dalvin Tomlinson and Shelby Harris, but they are run stoppers first even if particularly Tomlinson can collapse the pocket rushing the passer.

The Steelers want to run the ball and that part of their offense was effectively erased by the 49ers. It's the Steelers best chance to keep their offense on schedule and put Pickett in favorable situations to be effective. If Tomlinson and Harris can help limit the Steelers from running the ball, that creates more obvious passing situations where the Browns can tee off and have Pickett in a vulnerable position.

That could open up opportunities for Maurice Hurst to make contributions, but Za'Darius Smith could have success rushing in the B gap.

The question the Steelers have struggled to answer is the tackle position. The Steelers drafted Broderick Jones in the first round of this year's draft, but they have opted to keep Dan Moore as the starting left tackle. Given how poorly Moore performed against the 49ers, it'll be worth monitoring if the Steelers opt to make a switch this week.

Myles Garrett will be facing Moore coming off a horrific performance or a rookie in his first start. Icky Ekwonu, the sixth pick of the 2022 NFL Draft, had his first career start for the Carolina Panthers opening up at home against the Browns and gave up sacks to Garrett on back to back plays. Regardless of who's out there, it's a good place to attack for the Browns.

On the other side, Chuks Okorafor possesses a big, wide frame that forces opposing edge rushers to go around him, not unlike Dawand Jones for the Browns, but he's in his sixth season and has yet to establish himself as an effective tackle.

If the Steelers are continually finding themselves in 2nd or 3rd-and-long, Garrett, Smith and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo could tee off and take over the game.

The Steelers are likely to try to utilize passing concepts that get the ball out of Pickett's hands faster, but that could be difficult to accomplish. They will be without Diontae Johnson, out with a hamstring injury, and while George Pickens and Pat Freuermuth are terrific talents, they may not be players the Steelers can utilize in a quick game on a consistent basis.

That's before factoring in the Browns secondary and the impact they could have in forcing Pickett to hold onto the ball.

Speaking of Freuermuth, the Steelers didn't utilize their tight ends or running backs as a big element in their pass protection. They only kept Freurmuth and rookie Darnell Washington in pass protection for a combined three plays. The Steelers want to be able to line up their tight ends and that, perhaps a quick chip be enough to slow down the pass rush before they go out for routes. 

They only kept their backs in pass protection for six combined plays.

Either Pickett is going to have to get rid of the ball faster or the Steelers need to dedicate more personnel to pass protection. None of the options look great for the Steelers heading into this matchup. It's difficult to envision a scenario where the Steelers offense has a productive day on offense against the Browns defense where they don't run the ball effectively.

Teams improve the most from week one to week two, something the Steelers are counting on ahead of this matchup with the Browns. The potential problem is that as dominant as the Browns defense was against the Bengals, there areas where they could improve. It could be another long afternoon for Kenny Pickett in Pittsburgh.