Meet The Opponent: Cleveland Browns Come to Pittsburgh
Meet The Opponent is a weekly series where Donnie Druin has the privilege of chatting with a reporter/analyst from whomever the Steelers face that week. In an AFC North divisional rematch with the Cleveland Browns, we welcome back Pete Smith of Browns Maven.
Donnie Druin: So... things have certainly changed since the last time we did this. We saw what happened at the conclusion at the end of the TNF game. Putting politics aside, can you speak on how Cleveland has changed both on the field (without the presence of Myles Garrett) and off the field (chemistry, attitude, etc.)?
Pete Smith: The loss of Myles Garrett on the field is massive. He was the best player on the team and obviously was a huge problem in this particular matchup as he has consistently dominated Alejandro Villanueva. They can't replace him and unless Olivier Vernon returns, they are compromised at defensive end, hoping to get some production from that spot.
The rest of the team seems to be galvanized by the loss, seemingly in response to the league office's handling of the situation. They looked focused against the Miami Dolphins, looking for an opponent to take out their frustrations on as opposed to playing like a team trying to justify preseason hype. That anger will only go so far, so the hope it gets replaced with confidence and the understanding that they've given themselves a chance to make the playoffs.
Donnie: Playing off the above question, the Browns appear to be getting hot at the right time. They've rattled off three consecutive wins, all against AFC opponents. What would you say has been the biggest change/adjustment from their last defeat in Denver up until now?
Pete: Confidence and consistency from Baker Mayfield. This last week, his ball placement and velocity were as good as they have been all season and it's making a huge difference in terms of the play of Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. Their play is elevating with Mayfield's. Everyone seems far better in terms of what they are expecting from one another.
One change that has contributed to Mayfield's improvement is the play of Wyatt Teller, now the team's starting right guard. His run blocking isn't where it needs to be, but his pass protection has been rock solid and unlike Eric Kush, the previous right guard, he doesn't give up as much ground, giving Mayfield a better pocket. The combination of Joel Bitonio, J.C. Tretter and Teller have been able to give Mayfield the ability to maintain eye discipline and step up in the pocket, avoiding outside rushers more akin to what we saw last year from him.
Donnie: Now that Kareem Hunt has a few weeks under his belt, what are your initial impressions of him in a Browns uniform?
Pete: Kareem Hunt is clearly talented. That was never really a question. He's able to contribute for the Browns as a runner and receiver, but he's been effective and willing as a lead blocker. He's playing like someone that understands he wasn't all that far away from being out of the league entirely, willing to do anything to convince teams to keep playing him and ultimately pay him.
The two-back sets are a challenge for opponents because they can't sit on Nick Chubb or assume his absence is a pass. He didn't play all that well against the Dolphins, but what he offers the Browns in terms of talent and scheme is notable.
Donnie: Joe Schobert is playing out of his mind, as he's amassed 97 tackles (more than double of the second-highest total on the team) and four interceptions on the season through eleven games. What's been the key to his success, and is there one specific play that pops into your head that can capture how important he's been?
Pete: Schobert's been a terrific linebacker for a few years now and it seems like he's finally getting his due for it. He made the Pro Bowl as an alternate two years ago, last year was hampered by an injured hamstring but was still largely effective. This year, he's got more help in front of him with Sheldon Richardson next to Larry Ogunjobi and he's healthy, able to do everything he's capable. That's allowed him to have the four interceptions in the past two games.
The play that actually sticks out is one against the Denver Broncos, when he was able to punch a ball out, which a teammate recovered. The Browns offense failed to capitalize and lost the game to the Broncos, but that was a testament to his ability to make game changing plays entirely as a product of his skill.
Donnie: With Devlin Hodges getting the nod as starting quarterback, how do you think the Browns will gameplan for him? A lot of people in Pittsburgh are expecting different results in round two with "Duck" at the helm.
Pete: The big difference is obviously going to be losing Garrett and depend on the availability of Vernon. Vernon was unable to play in the first matchup, so if he's able to go in the second, it would at least mitigate some of the loss of Garrett as he's been excellent this year even if his sack total doesn't suggest it. Beyond that, it's a matter of coming up with ways to generate pressure while making Devlin Hodges unsure of what he's looking at, which is what they were able to do with Mason Rudolph.
It stands to reason they are going to take a similar approach as they did last game, but come up with different ways of accomplishing, trying to disguise or simply bring looks that Hodges can't see from the previous game.
Donnie: Circle one or two match-ups you think can determine the outcome of this game.
Pete: If Juju Smith-Schuster is able to play in this game, expect him to be lined up on the left a ton. Greedy Williams has shown to be vulnerable and struggled to cover Johnny Holton in their first matchup, which led to a number of penalties in the Steelers lone drive. Whether it's Schuster or someone else, it stands to reason the Steelers are going to test Williams as often as possible, opting to stay away from Denzel Ward most of the time.
Donnie: Final score prediction?
Pete: Much as it was the case in last game, it seems like the first team that gets to 20 wins this game. So with that in mind, Browns 23 Steelers 14
A very big thank you to Pete for both his contributions and time for both articles, especially on such short notice. For more Browns info and analysis, visit Browns Maven and follow Pete on twitter @_PeteSmith_.