It’s an old-fashioned AFC North rivalry and projected to be the most exciting game in NFL Week 2, according to SmartRatings. We’re breaking down this early showdown and revealing our model’s Browns vs. Steelers prediction.
After a quiet offseason – a departure from recent years – the Cleveland Browns made quite a loud statement in Week 1.
While the star-crossed New York Jets dominated the NFL’s summer headlines (and continue to do so in the most unforeseen of ways), the Browns were making far more subtle moves to address the problem areas that contributed to last season’s 7-10 disappointment.
Acquiring veteran defensive end Za’Darius Smith certainly didn’t have the sizzle of some of Cleveland’s past offseason transactions, namely last year’s trade for quarterback Deshaun Watson and the 2019 blockbuster that brought in wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
Neither did the hiring of accomplished defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to fine-tune a unit that largely underperformed in 2022.
In keeping with the popular tradition of making overreactions to Week 1 results, the Browns may just have won the offseason.
Schwartz’s retooled defense absolutely smothered the Cincinnati Bengals in the opener, albeit with a possible assist from the soggy conditions at Cleveland Browns Stadium and a calf injury to Joe Burrow that may just be more significant than the defending AFC runners-up and their franchise quarterback are letting on.
Nevertheless, holding a talent-rich Cincinnati offense to 142 yards and zero touchdowns in a 24-3 rout is still plenty impressive.
So, the question now becomes: Are the Browns really this good? And are their bitter rivals and Week 2 opponents, the Pittsburgh Steelers, really as bad as they looked in their 2023 debut?
The season couldn’t have started any worse for the Pittsburgh offense, which didn’t record a single first down in its first five drives in an eventual 30-7 trouncing at home at the hands of the formidable San Francisco 49ers.
It’s a surprising outcome for a team our NFL projection model has been very bullish on, giving Pittsburgh the highest probability (47.2%) of the Browns (25.5%), Ravens (21.6%) and Bengals (5.7%) to win what should be a highly competitive division.
The Steelers also have history on their side leading into this Monday Night Football matchup that could have a very big say in how the AFC North race ultimately plays out.
Pittsburgh has won nearly 74% of its home games following a loss (going 34-12) in Mike Tomlin’s long run as head coach, and it has absolutely owned the Browns in the Steel City even beyond Tomlin’s 15-year reign.
Yes, the Browns did win in a nearly-empty Acrisure Stadium during the COVID-19-affected 2020 playoffs, but their last victory in Pittsburgh in a regular-season game came when their 41-year-old head coach, Kevin Stefanski, was a safety at the University of Pennsylvania nearly a full two decades ago.
That run of 19 consecutive defeats is the second longest in NFL history for any team on the road against a single opponent in regular-season play. And the list below shows, it’s not the first time Cleveland has endured a painfully long losing streak in Pittsburgh.
MOST CONSECUTIVE ROAD LOSSES VS. AN OPPONENT (REGULAR SEASON)
- Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers (23; 1992-2014)
- Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers (19; 2004-present)
- Detroit Lions at Washington Redskins (18; 1939-2007)
- Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers (16; 1970-85)
- New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins (15; 1970-85)
That’s just one of a number of subplots to a showdown our computer models have pegged as a virtual toss-up, another reason why the latest chapter of this storied rivalry came out as the No. 1 game to watch of Week 2 based on our SmartRatings system.
Most sports betting sites have the Browns as the best bets by around 2.5 points with an over/under of 38.5, but we have the Steelers with a 54.6% win probability and the over/under to come in around 40.
CLE: Get Deshaun Untracked
The Browns offense seems to have a glaring advantage they surely intend to exploit. That’s a powerful running game that will be facing a banged-up Pittsburgh front that was gashed for 188 yards on the ground by the 49ers in Week 1.
Compounding matters for the Steelers is the absence of top run defender Cameron Heyward due to a groin injury that will sideline the six-time Pro Bowler into at least November.
Heyward posted a run disruption rate of 24.6% last season, considerably above the league average of 20.1% for interior defensive linemen, and his presence will be clearly missed in a matchup against one of the league’s premier running backs in Nick Chubb and a high-caliber offensive line that helped the Browns churn out 206 rushing yards against the Bengals.
Cleveland also found considerable success running the ball in its two 2022 meetings with Pittsburgh, generating 171 rushing yards in the first clash and averaging 6.1 yards per attempt in the second. The Browns won the first meeting 29-17 but left Pittsburgh with a 28-14 loss in the most recent.
The difference between those two games? Quarterback Jacoby Brissett didn’t turn the ball over in Cleveland’s victory, while the Steelers scored 10 points off two Watson interceptions in their win.
Watson’s play remains a real enigma seven games into his controversial arrival in Cleveland that began with the Browns lavishing him with a fully guaranteed $230 million contract, one the Dawg Pound faithful is still waiting for the former Houston Texans star to live up to.
Here’s what the Browns have gotten for their money so far: A completion rate of 57.8%, an average of 6.31 yards per attempt, an interception rate of 3.0% and a passer rating of 77.4.
There are 35 quarterbacks with at least the 199 passes Watson has attempted since he made his Cleveland debut in December. Of those four aforementioned categories, he ranks 30th or below in each.
Our advanced metrics have told much the same story. Among the 39 quarterbacks with 150 or more adjusted pass attempts last season, Watson finished 29th in well-thrown percentage and near the bottom in pickable pass percentage.
HIGHEST PICKABLE PASS PERCENTAGE IN 2022 (MIN. 150 ATTEMPTS)
- Taylor Heinicke, Washington Commanders (7.82)
- Zach Wilson, New York Jets (7.73)
- Deshaun Watson, Cleveland Browns (6.37)
- Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys (5.54)
- Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins (5.45)
It’s a puzzling reversal of fortune for a guy who’s just 28 years old and three seasons removed from finishing third in the NFL in completion percentage (behind Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees) while recording the fourth-lowest interception percentage in the league (behind Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Burrow).
Watson’s struggles continued into last week as he finished with a 69.0 well-thrown percentage (WT%) with just 65.5% of his throws deemed catchable, though field conditions likely contributed to those low numbers to some degree (Burrow’s WT% was 64.3 and his catchable ball rate was 57.1%).
The Browns should be able to move the ball effectively on the ground, but in a game that could very well come down to the wire, Watson’s going to have to make some plays with his arm to prevent the offense from becoming solely one-dimensional.
How he performs may not just be the key to this game, but the Browns’ season as well. If the defense really is as stout as it showed in Week 1, Cleveland looks very much like a playoff-caliber team in all other facets.
PIT: Get the Run Game Going
The Steelers have a significant injury to deal with on the offensive side as well with 2022 leading receiver Diontae Johnson out with a hamstring issue. That could force coordinator Matt Canada to deploy veteran Allen Robinson outside more instead of in the slot, where he’s probably better suited at this stage of his career. Robinson had the second-lowest open rate among outside receivers with at least 25 targets last season at 51.4%.
That’s potentially a major problem against a Cleveland secondary that was absolutely airtight against the Bengals after also performing at a high level down the stretch of last season. The Browns defense limited enemy quarterbacks to a league-low 52.9% completion rate and just 5.79 yards per pass attempt over the final six games of 2022, and their opponents’ open percentage during that stretch was the fourth lowest in the NFL (72.4).
Cleveland’s pass defense was even more dominant in the opener, allowing a burn on a miniscule 17.2% of Cincinnati’s throwing attempts with Bengals receivers open just 55.2% of the time on a day the defending AFC North champs finished with a mere 67 net passing yards.
The Browns boast both talent and depth in the defensive backfield. Denzel Ward is a two-time Pro Bowler, while fellow cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. and slot defender Greg Newsome each had burn rates below 40% in 2022. Emerson didn’t permit a single catch on five targets in the Cincinnati game.
LOWEST BURN% BY OUTSIDE CORNERBACKS IN 2022 (MIN. 50 TARGETS)
- Pat Surtain II, Denver Broncos (35.1)
- Sauce Gardner, New York Jets (37.5)
- Alontae Taylor, New Orleans Saints (38.1)
- Martin Emerson Jr., Cleveland Browns (39.5)
- Michael Davis, Los Angeles Chargers (39.8)
Cleveland’s trouble spots on defense last season were a pass rush that ranked 27th in the NFL in pressure rate and an inability to adequately stop the run. The Browns may have shored up the first weakness by adding Smith to bookend star pass rusher Myles Garrett on the edge, which makes them the only team with two players who produced pressure rates above 22% with 200 or more pass rush opportunities during the 2022 regular season.
The jury’s still out as to whether the Browns have improved on their No. 26 overall ranking in defensive EVE (efficiency vs. expected) against the run from last season, as the game flow in last week’s opener really didn’t provide a definitive answer.
Expect the Steelers to test Cleveland’s run defense more thoroughly, especially considering their shorthanded receiving corps and questions in protection after the 49ers sacked Kenny Pickett five times in last week’s debacle.
Pittsburgh’s running game finished a pedestrian 25th in EVE last season but clicked at times, and the Steelers usually succeeded when it did. They went 6-1 when rushing for 144 or more yards, with the lone loss coming to the eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Conversely, the Browns surrendered 144 or more rushing yards seven times last season and lost six of those games.
The Steelers reached exactly 144 rushing yards in their Week 18 home win over Cleveland. Their approach was more persistent than dynamic as workhorse back Najee Harris averaged just 3.5 yards per attempt on 23 carries, but Pittsburgh consistently moved the chains (going 9 of 15 on third downs) and won the turnover battle while getting its big plays from a defense that sacked Watson seven times.
It’s a formula that’s often produced tried and true results under Tomlin, especially at home. The Browns know that all too well.