Steelers Defense is Staying the Course to Try and Slow Browns Star-Studded Offense
Baker Mayfield threw 12 interceptions prior to the Browns' Week 9 game against the Denver Broncos. Since then, he's thrown one, and kept his team's season alive with a three-game winning streak that's put Cleveland in the race for the final AFC wildcard spot.
Heading into Week 11 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the questions reporters asked about the quarterback were along the lines of, 'how do you take advantage of his turnover issues?' and 'what do you see in Baker that you can use to produce turnovers?'
This week, it's different. Mayfield and the Browns have fought their way back from a place even worse than the Steelers. A team that used the offseason to build their roster full of stars was somehow worse than their divisional rival who just benched their backup quarterback for an undrafted rookie.
How? Well, there isn't one single reason Cleveland has fought their way into the playoff race. For the Steelers, they've identified all of them - starting with their quarterback's turnaround.
"Compared to how he was earlier in the season, he's more composed," Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton said. "He's trusting his guys to give him time and as you can see, when he gets out of the pocket he makes a lot of plays, so we have to make sure he's uncomfortable inside the pocket."
This composure has allowed Mayfield to open up his offense. Behind a Pro Bowl-like running game and two of the league's best receivers, the second-year quarterback has started to rely on the weapons around him more, forcing the ball less, leading to fewer mistakes.
"He's extending plays to not run and make plays, he's extending plays to get out of the pocket to throw and make big plays," Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree explained. "He's always been the type of leader to hype his team up. He has Odell and Landry to throw the ball too, and people don't really see Nick Chubb and give him the recognition he needs but he's controlling the team. So, Nick Chubb is the angle point to the team."
The Steelers' defense has accumulated 14 interceptions so far this season. They've found the ball against quarterbacks like Jared Goff, Jimmy Garapolo, Lamar Jackson and more, but not against Baker Mayfield.
In Week 11, the Browns offense racked up 293 yards and zero turnovers against, at the time, the league's top turnover defense.
It was a game many fans would love to forget, but one the players need to learn from. But not in the way many might believe. Instead of changing the gameplan to account for this superstar offense, Pittsburgh is sticking to their script; allowing the play-style they've utilized all season to work once again on Sunday.
"We're going to do what we did last time," Hilton said. "We had a couple of miscommunications that led to the big plays. We feel like if we take those big plays away and play our game we'll be fine."
The Steelers acknowledge the mistakes they made in Week 11. Last time, the defense found themselves in the wrong place several times throughout the game, leading to big plays. Without an offense that was putting up points, those mistakes proved to be detrimental.
They aren't looking to allow that to happen again. Instead, they're focused on keeping their play clean and forcing the Browns to have to go the extra mile. From there, the game is in their hands.
"We blew a couple coverages, they got two big plays on that," Dupree said. "We let them extend out of the pocket a couple times, they scored a touchdown. So, we have to limit those things and make them make plays when they can."
Dupree continued to talk about where it all starts - the running game. Nick Chubb has taken the NFL by storm in his second season, rushing for 1,117 yards and 8 touchdowns through 11 games.
A player many have overlooked because of the stardom on the Browns offense, but someone who's made a significant impact. Chubb's name is high in Pittsburgh, as Dupree stated earlier that the offense starts with the ground game. So, by nature, stopping the offense begins with the same thing.
"You've got to stop the run first so they're not running all over you, then Baker gets going," Dupree said. "So, you've got to make sure you're controlling both of them because they do a great job of play-action too. They have great key players on offense, this is another task for us to go out and have fun and play."
If executed correctly, stopping the run will force Mayfield to take control of the situation. From there, the Steelers are hoping to find themselves with a few turnovers and allow their offense to keep the ball as long as possible.
Minkah Fitzpatrick has highlighted the Steelers' turnovers this season, scoring twice so far since being traded to Pittsburgh.
It's nothing special that he's doing to come away with the football, though. Against Cleveland, it's about playing your assignment and staying close to the ball. From there, the game will do the rest.
"You've just got to do your job and be in the right spot," Fitzpatrick said. "Just being around the ball, good things are going to happen. I say it all the time, 'rush guys rush and cover guys cover and turnovers happen.' So, just being in the right spot, looking at the right things, being discipline and it'll just come."
None of it will be easy. The Steelers host an AFC North rival that's looking for the same thing they are - the postseason. The winner of this Week 13 showdown keeps their season alive, while the loser will have to hope for a few turns in their favor to get back into the playoff picture.
With five games left, no game can be taken for granted. Pittsburgh vs Cleveland didn't go as hoped in Week 11, and this week, it's going to be an even harder fought battle for the Steelers.
"There's just a gritty team," Hilton said. "They're a hungry team, they're fighting to get into the wildcard spot. This is a big one for both teams. It's going to be a lot going into it, especially what happened a couple weeks ago, so whatever executes better and keeps their composure will have a good win."