NFL Game Scripts Week 6: Cleveland Browns @ Pittsburgh Steelers

With the AFC North getting tight at the top, the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers will battle it out for what could become an important tiebreaker in the playoff seeding at season’s end. While Cleveland QB Baker Mayfield looks set to be active in Week 6, there’s a chance he isn’t 100% after a tough hit in Week 5. Meanwhile, the Steelers will look to remain undefeated as they come off a strong showing on offense against their intrastate rivals.

Cleveland Browns Offense vs. Pittsburgh Steelers Defense

The Run Game

Cleveland Browns Pittsburgh Steelers
Image credit: USA Today

Although their two-headed RB monster of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt is at half strength with the former on IR, backup D’Ernest Johnson has been serviceable over the past few weeks. Hunt is exceptional as a receiver, often splitting to the outside in addition to staying in as a traditional RB. Johnson offers a little less, and is more of a physical runner than Hunt, staying mostly between the Tackles, whereas Hunt’s agility and vision allows him to be used on inside and outside runs. The Browns also sprinkle in a few touches for FB Andy Janovich at times, with some end arounds and reverses for their WRs to further keep defenses honest.

With the Steelers allowing only 3.3 yards per carry this season, the Browns will utilise their extra blockers more than usual, allowing them to disguise their runs and integrate play action later in the game. In the first half, Cleveland will use their TEs, Austin Hooper and Harrison Bryant, to provide extra blocking against LB TJ Watt, especially for Hunt, in addition to OG Joel Bitonio pulling to the outside. Although Hunt will see some runs to the inside as well, he will be sparingly given Janovich as a lead blocker, while Johnson instead is more frequently following Janovich through holes up the middle. With Hunt used across the line behind bigger bodies, and Johnson mostly through the middle, the Browns can then in the second quarter and second half hide their run direction.

 Pre-snap motions with the TEs will allow Cleveland to hint a run in one direction, with Hunt instead sent the opposite way. Layering further upon this, with Hunt on fake handoff counters and misdirects, Cleveland will bring one of their WRs in motion and handoff to them, with the TE then becoming a blocker for the receiver instead. If the Browns are trailing in the second half, the varying run designs will allow them to use draw plays and fake handoffs on RB release and screen plays to simulate a run game still.

Pittsburgh’s run defense has been successful this season due to their talent spread across their front seven, limiting their need to bring a Safety as an extra run defender. With Watt on one edge, LB Devin Bush in the middle, and LB Bud Dupree as another inside or outside defender, the Steelers can use a mixture of three and four man fronts. DL Casey Hayward and Stephon Tuitt provide a strong presence in the middle, and will be used to attack the interior OL of the Browns. The Browns likely figure to avoid running at Watt, and will move TEs to hold him off at times, while also using their TEs to try and attack Dupree more. Pittsburgh will aim to have Dupree and a Safety or CB to close down the other edge, so that runs are funnelled through the middle into Hayward, Tuitt and Bush, limiting Hunt and Johnson from getting into space.

The Passing Game

Cleveland’s passing game has expanded over the past few weeks by having WRs Odell Beckham Jr and Jarvis Landry throwing passes. Although this will now be expected to a degree by Pittsburgh, it nonetheless presents another threat to consider. Beckham and Landry tend to play on opposite sides of the field, but can both operate out of the slot to exploit matchups, with backup WRs Rashard Higgins and Donovan Peoples-Jones used as outside receivers downfield, or on short crossing routes. TE Hooper will run short and intermediate hitch and out routes, whereas Bryant instead stays short and heads to the flat. Hunt provides a functional receiver on wheel and swing routes out of the backfield, as well as on screens, with some in and out routes when lined up as a receiver.

Cleveland won’t attack on deep throws often, instead preferring to have receivers run after the catch. Although Beckham and Landry will at times be used on slants, post and fade routes, these are mostly on intermediate throws. Most of the first half will consist of short underneath throws, particularly RB and WR screens, with two intermediate receivers available on many plays. Beckham, if active, will primarily work the sideline and be the deeper threat, with Landry playing underneath. 

Throughout the whole game, either Landry or a TE will run a route into the underneath space created by Beckham as he takes defenders downfield, setting up a third receiver to run a curl, slant or out route on the other side of the field on the backside of the defense. The second half will see more mesh concepts and Hunt on curls as a check down option, drawing the Steelers in to create space downfield for Beckham on comebacks. In the first half, the Browns will also use a fake WR screen, jet sweep or similar play to have Landry or Beckham make a pass attempt, even if it is just on a short route, rather than downfield.

Pittsburgh will focus their secondary on double covering Beckham, bracketing him with Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick when he runs in and slant routes downfield, with one of the Safeties shaded to his side at all times to prepare for vertical routes. While this will leave Landry in more single coverage, the Steelers will prefer him to have shorter receptions, instead of bigger gains downfield. Dupree will be used to cover the LBs at times, while also working with Bush and Safety Terrell Edmunds to keep Hunt in front of them, using zone concepts over the short distance middle of the field to avoid having to try and match Hunt’s speed. The Steelers will be vulnerable to the outside and on short underneath routes, but can close these down quickly, while also forcing Mayfield to be accurate on deeper throws.

What should we expect to see on Sunday?

The Browns will balance their runs and passes, trying to get their players into space where possible. Some runs up the middle will be used, but the extra blockers will allow for more deception on outside runs. However, inside runs will consolidate the defense, giving Beckham and Landry more space on the outside. Most passing attempts will be on crossing routes short over the middle, with a few to Beckham as he breaks to the inside of a CB, or with timing on comebacks. The Steelers will trust their front seven to limit the run, allowing them to keep their Safeties in Cover 2/Tampa 2 schemes, so that Hunt and Beckham especially aren’t given one-on-one matchups in space, or able to get behind the defense.

Pittsburgh Steelers Offense vs. Cleveland Browns Defense

The Run Game

Pittsburgh want to run the ball more, but haven’t had enough success for them to lean on it too much. RB James Conner has been up and down, while neither backups Anthony McFarland and Benny Snell have been able to seize chances to earn more snaps. Conner sees the most work, including as a receiver, with Snell providing relief for Conner with little work in the passing game, and McFarland a rotational player only. FB Derek Watt will at times provide blocking for Conner and Snell, but only sees a handful of snaps each game, so that the Steelers can have more receivers.

Conner will see runs up the middle early on, before the Steelers start to run him to the outside more. Snell will be used by running at the Tackle, able to cut inside or outside depending on the defensive formation. As the game progresses, Conner will be sent on runs to avoid DL Myles Garrett, and in the second half the TEs will be used to also avoid Cleveland stacking one side of the defense. If Garrett lines up inside, Conner and Snell will be run to the outside, using the TEs to help create space on the edge, especially if the Browns assign an extra defender to that side. 

After a few plays with this, the Steelers will then run plays to the weak side to take advantage of possible holes. Alternatively, if Garrett remains on the edge, the Steelers will not only run through the middle, but will assign a TE to help block him, allowing them to run in either direction. As the game enters the third and fourth quarters, Pittsburgh will vary their plays to attack across the line, including at Garrett at times, so that Cleveland can’t align their defense to force runs in a particular way.

With their DL, the Browns have been able to stay a top run defense, allowing an equal eighth-best 3.9 yards per carry. Although Garrett will play on the edge and inside, the Browns will align their LBs based on who seems to be facing double teams. If Garrett is on the outside, either Mack Wilson or Sione Takitaki will line up over him, and when Garrett shifts inside, they will also move further in to sit over the B gap. If one of the other DL instead starts seeing double teams, Garrett will be given less help with a LB, and instead 2 LBs will stay inside to shoot the gaps, with the third LB across from the TE. To further account for the Steelers’ blockers, the Safeties will be brought up to the line to defend the flat and restrict runs to the outside. If the Steelers start to use toss plays or passes to get Conner and Snell to the outside, the Safeties will be pulled back after the snap and follow them if they head to one side, while Wilson covers the opposite sideline.

The Passing Game

Pittsburgh will be happy that WR Chase Claypool had such a dominant performance in Week 5, as it should force opponents to reduce the focus on Juju Smith-Schuster. With Claypool on one sideline, it allows Smith-Schuster to either play from inside him or the opposite sideline, with Diontae Johnson and James Washington then taking the slot unoccupied. Conner and McFarland will see some targets on short outside routes, with TEs Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald on intermediate routes to the outside, or on curls and slants over the middle. This results in the WRs running deeper routes, often two simultaneously, with the third WR on slants, in and comeback routes to stay underneath the DBs.

Smith-Schuster will be moved around to either open him up over the middle, or free up a second receiver. In the first half, he will be sent on deep vertical and post/fade routes, with some slants and crossing routes 10-15 yards downfield out of the slot. With Smith-Schuster forcing the Browns to decide whether to keep a Safety on him or remain deep, it allows him to be targeted over the middle on intermediate routes, or Claypool/Johnson to get behind the defense in single coverage for shots deep. The TEs will go to the outside in the space created by Claypool or Johnson, where they will mostly be covered by LBs, and this will continue all game. The RBs will see an increase in targets after the first quarter, mostly on slants and swing routes to the outside. In the second half, the third WR will see an increase in targets over the middle on shorter routes, and after a few drives of targeting the TEs, slot WR and RBs, will free up the deep threat once more.

Cleveland will assign their top CB Denzel Ward to Claypool and Smith-Schuster at different times. When Ward is defending Claypool, it will indicate that the Safety will be giving extra help against Smith-Schuster, with the second Safety playing single high coverage over the middle, giving Claypool a one-on-one matchup. When Ward takes Smith-Schuster, it could still be with Safety help, but will also mean the other passing options are possibly seeing extra coverage. LB Wilson will mostly be used on the back side to protect against the RB releasing to the flat, although if the Steelers move their TE will see Wilson matchup with them instead. Safety Andrew Sendejo could be used in single coverage more as well if the Browns are reluctant to use their nickel package, but this will give them less deep coverage, although could provide better coverage on short and intermediate routes.

What should we expect to see on Sunday?

Pittsburgh will attack deep frequently, but by using two WRs to force the Browns to show their hand in coverage. The space created underneath will be increasingly used until Cleveland adjusts their coverage, resulting in the Steelers attacking deep again. Claypool and Smith-Schuster will be the focus of the offense, and will draw the attention away from other targets throughout the game. The Browns will alternate between nickel and their base 4-3 formations, depending on if they prioritise defending the run or the pass. Once the Browns show their personnel, the Steelers will audible their plays and use their RBs and TEs to attack the defensive front on the ground, without having to change their own personnel on the field.

Owen Ravenna

NFL Analyst