By Norm Elrod
After some early-season strangeness, many NFL teams are settling back into their usual roles. Count the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns among those teams that subconsciously seem to know where they belong in NFL pecking order. The AFC North rivals tied in Week 1, leading prognosticators to claim that Le'Veon Bell's holdout would ruin the Steelers' season and a non-loss, ending the Browns' losing streak, signaled great things to come.
It hasn't played out that way, at least not yet.
Going into this season's rematch in Week 8, the Steelers have won two straight and shown they know how to score without their best offensive weapon. The Browns, while certainly improved, remain a work in progress.
Cleveland is coming off an overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, its fourth overtime game of the season, and a blowout loss to the Los Angeles Chargers before that. For the first month of the season, however, the Browns flirted with .500, alternating wins and losses after their Week 1 tie. All in all, it still seems like progress from their win-less 2017 campaign.
But progress in the NFL comes in fits and starts; just ask Cleveland's rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield, who took over for Tyrod Taylor in Week 3 against the New York Jets. He brought the Browns back for the win in that game, their first in nearly two years. Cleveland fans were obviously ecstatic, but his Hall of Fame enshrinement will have to wait.
Mayfield playing was always a matter of when, not if. Taylor's injury -- and poor play besides -- just forced the issue. And Mayfield has had some success as a starter, even if he's struggled too, as rookies do. He's averaging a solid 272.5 yards passing per start, while completing about 55% of his passes, with six touchdowns against five interceptions. Those stats include a strong outing, against a stellar Ravens defense that ranks among the NFL's best, and a weak outing, against a so-so Chargers defense.
Giving up five sacks in each of the last three games, the offensive line hasn't done him any favors. At least they're blocking the run. The Browns have the league's fourth-leading rushing attack so far this season. But after trading away Carlos Hyde, their top rusher, to the Jacksonville Jaguars last week, Nick Chubb is the go-to guy. The rookie produced in his first start, to the tune of 18 carries for 80 yards and a touchdown.
Aside from Chubb and Mayfield, the Browns line up rookie Antonio Calloway at wide receiver. He hasn't factored in, however, with only 16 catches so far. Jarvis Landry, who's been targeted at least 10 times in every game but one this season, is their only real threat at the position. Tight end David Njoku has come on in recent weeks, becoming a safety valve for Mayfield as he continues to grow. Njoku is listed as questionable for Sunday.
The offense under Todd Haley (for now) remains a work in progress, and so does the defense. This unit will give up yards, yielding 134.7 on the ground and 278.9 per game through the air so far. Both of those averages put them squarely in the bottom quarter of defenses. But, they lead the NFL in turnovers with 20 so far.
The defense, bolstered by youth throughout, should continue to improve. Myles Garrett, the first overall pick in 2017, is a beast, and rookie cornerback Denzel Ward has impressed. The Browns just aren't going to shut down anyone yet... certainly not the Steelers' high-flying offense.
While the Steelers would certainly love to have Le'Veon Bell lining up behind Ben Roethlisberger, they've managed to press on. Pittsburgh has been among the NFL's best offensive teams this season, averaging 417.7 yards and 28.5 points per game. Roethlisberger, in particular, has been on fire, throwing for at least 250 yards every week and over 300 yards most weeks, while completing 65% of his passes. He's averaging two touchdowns and one interception per game, though three of those interceptions came against the Browns in Week 1.
He's had plenty of help, with JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown accounting for about half of Roethlisberger's production. Smith-Schuster has pulled in 42 catches for 561 yards and two touchdowns, while Brown has grabbed another 40 catches for 478 yards and six touchdowns. Six players have at least 10 receptions, and all of them have at least one for a touchdown.
The exception is James Conner, who, starting in place of Le'Veon Bell, has yet to cross the goal line on a pass play. Still, Conner has been plenty productive, finding the end zone seven times on the ground. He torched the Browns for 135 yards and 2 touchdowns in September and picked up 110 and 111 yards, along with 2 TDs in each game, in the Steelers' two wins before the bye. The conversation in Pittsburgh may keep coming around to Bell, the team is covered should he continue is holdout.
As for the defense, well, we'll see. The Steelers D gives up plenty of yards and plenty of points, 380.2 and 25.7 per game, to be precise. But they also can create problems for opposing quarterbacks, especially rookies who haven't seen them this season. The pass rush is strong, with 22 sacks through six games, and the defensive backfield includes former Brown Joe Haden,
So what does this all mean?
If you're a fatalist, It may not mean much, in light of the history between these two teams. The Steelers have topped the Browns the last 14 times they've played in Pittsburgh. The Browns have also lost 24 straight away games. Further, both teams seem to have reverted to form in recent weeks... the Steelers as a contender and the Browns as an also-ran.
Still , while Pittsburgh is the better team, Cleveland is no longer an NFL joke. Every one of their games, except against the Chargers, has been close. And this one will be too. Look for Pittsburgh to pull it out, but also look for the Browns to make it a game, as they continue to grow.
SportsLine analyst R.J. White sees things much the same way...
The Browns, despite not winning a game for more than a year, have played the Steelers tough in their last four games, losing by no more than four in each. The offense is better with Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb in feature roles, and the defense is second in DVOA and first in turnovers, so I don't think this game gets away from them. The Steelers have been bad off a bye, 1-6 ATS in their last seven and 0-4 in the last four years. They also have to deal with the Le'Veon distraction. Browns keep it close yet again.
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