Mike Tomlin hasn't lost to the Browns often in his coaching career. (Joshua Gunter, cleveland.com)
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The Browns are attempting to do something nearly impossible: go from a 2-6 start to the postseason. They’re off to a good start with Sunday’s win over Buffalo. It seems appropriate it’s the Steelers standing in the way of them really making a run.
Pittsburgh has been the AFC North team the Browns can’t solve. They haven’t beaten the Steelers since 2014. They’ve seen miserable seasons end at Heinz Field with a whimper. They’ve watched coaches get fired after losses to their rival two hours to the southeast.
The Browns’ chances could very well hinge on these two matchups with Pittsburgh over their next three games. A game with the Dolphins is sandwiched in between. Their toughest remaining game is against Baltimore at home in Week 16, but take care of business elsewhere and there might be some wiggle room by then.
Last week, the first item in this space was how important Sunday's game was to the Browns' future. It was ugly, but they won.
This week, it’s a repeat: this game is really important and it’s against the team the Browns just can’t seem to figure out.
Will the Browns turn their entire season on its head Thursday night? There’s one thing to watch. Here are four more:
2. The red zone ... again
It's not just the Browns this time. Their struggles in the red zone are well-documented, of course, ranking No. 26 in the NFL at 46.67 percent.
The Steelers are worse in the red zone, ranked No. 28 at 39.13 percent.
Both teams need to shake off their red zone woes, especially the Browns, who have the weapons to turn around their fortunes inside the 20.
The flip side of this is the Steelers are much better than the Browns defensively in the red zone. They rank No. 9 while the Browns defense is No. 23.
3. Slowing James Conner
James Conner has had some big days against the Browns. (Joshua Gunter, cleveland.com)
Conner has played 8.8 percent of his career games against the Browns. He’s racked up 19.5 percent of his career rushing yardage and 16.7 percent of his career receiving yardage against them -- which is a fancy way of saying he has had his biggest games against the Browns.
Only the Bengals have given up more yardage to Conner than the Browns, and he’s played them five times. He’s played the Browns just three times.
The Browns are No. 28 in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per play and Football Outsiders ranks them No. 22 in run defense DVOA. The Steelers would love to let Conner run wild to take the pressure off Mason Rudolph.
4. Strength vs. strength
The Browns will have an opportunity to test Pittsburgh’s run defense with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The Steelers are giving up 3.85 yards per rushing play, seventh best in the league, but are No. 11 in rushing defense DVOA.
The Browns, meanwhile, are the second best team in the NFL in rushing yards per play on offense behind only Baltimore. The best way to keep the Steelers’ pass rush at bay is run at it. This could be a night for the new-look backfield to take over and carry the Browns.
5. Can Baker Mayfield conquer the Steelers?
Mayfield hasn’t gotten a real shot at the Steelers yet in his career. He was the backup during the tie to open the 2018 season. He started the second matchup, but the Browns were in disarray and, less than 24 hours after the game was over, their head coach and offensive coordinator got fired.
This is a moment for Mayfield. All the ups and downs of his second season can get put to bed if he goes on Thursday Night Football and slays the dragon very few Browns quarterbacks have been able to figure out. It would be even more fitting against the type of defense he has struggled against.
It’s hardly a referendum on the arc of his career longterm, but it’s a moment nonetheless. He rose to the occasion the last time he played on Thursday night when he came in against the Jets and led the Browns to a win. Is there more Thursday night magic in his arm tomorrow?
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