What We Saw: Steelers at Browns

The Browns running game is as good as the Steelers passing game is bad.

Steelers @ Browns

Final Score: Browns 29, Steelers 17

Senior Writer: Benjamin Haller (@benjaminhaller1 on Twitter)

 

Going into this week’s Thursday Night Football matchup football fans were intrigued to find out who these two teams actually are. Both teams won their opening games, however, the Pittsburgh Steelers suffered an uncharacteristically magnanimous home defeat to the Patriots in Week 2 while the Cleveland Browns were humiliated by a late comeback from the Jets to lose in front of their own beleaguered fans. Facing uncertainties and questions over their prospects for the 2022 season, all eyes were fixed on this crucial matchup, and especially the quarterback play of Mitch Trubisky – the former Bears first-round pick had been substandard over the first two weeks with Kenny Pickett, the Steelers’ 2022 NFL Draft first-round selection waiting in the wings. More to come on Trubisky later, but the big takeaway from this game is brought to you by a smart Browns fan…

 

 

We were all worried as within five minutes of the telecast Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit were saying it felt like a game that would come down to field position, special teams, and penalties.  They were not wrong early on as three straight punts, one of which was tipped, left much to be desired from either offense. The swirling wind then pushed a field goal from Chris Boswell wide right and left the door open for the Browns to take advantage – Jacoby Brissett sneaked to move the chains on a fourth down before a beautiful jinking run from Nick Chubb took them down into the red zone. Brissett then hit Amari Cooper on a basic slant to open the scoring with the touchdown. It was the break the game needed.

 

 

All credit to Trubisky as he marched the Steelers right back down the field to tie the game after a couple of excellent runs by undrafted rookie running back Jaylen Warren, and a phenomenal one-handed grab from George Pickens, the Steelers’ second round draft selection this year.

 

After fantasy managers were mid-panic attack seeing Warren preferred on the drive to Najee Harris, the scare was quickly extinguished as the former Alabama back battled the ball in for the score to complete a 7-play, 75-yard drive that sparked serious life into the contest.

 

Kevin Stefanski had the perfect game plan for Brissett to respond, however. He focused on the middle of the field to outmatch the Steelers’ linebackers and completed four passes in that area on a 12-play, 79-yard drive that finished with a nice grab by tight end David Njoku for a score. Browns back ahead!

 

 

Steelers Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada did a great job mixing up the tempo for Trubisky in response, and Pittsburgh was able to move the ball quickly down into the Browns’ red zone as halftime approached. The Browns were guilty of stacking the box too often on early downs allowing the Steelers to gain yards on jet sweeps and sideline throws. Harris ran the ball five times in a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive which Trubisky ran in from a couple of yards out, but only just. The Steelers went into the half with a narrow 14-13 lead.

 

 

Bonus halftime highlight – Fitzmagic balling out with his attire.

 

 

The second half was a more cagey affair but the Browns were able to move the ball more effectively with Brissett inspired to move the sticks when needed. The two-headed monster of Chubb and Hunt also took control on the ground. Blown coverage from the Steelers allowed Brissett to connect deep with Cooper and after Hunt had three stabs at hitting paydirt from inside the 10-yard line, Chubb finally made no mistake on fourth down to give the Browns a handy 10-point lead with less than 10 minutes to play.

 

 

Trubisky failed to execute in the passing game in the second half – four straight punts (three drives were quick three-and-outs) meant the Steelers defense was gassed and the Browns could eat up plenty of time running the ball and slowly put the Steelers fans out of their misery. Suddenly, with less than three minutes remaining, Trubisky let it loose and completed three straight passes for 54 yards. He nearly got picked in the end zone but at least he was taking some risks to try and get his team back in the game. He connected with Pat Freiermuth twice in the middle of the field to bring the Steelers in with a shot of making the game close. The Steelers chose to kick a field goal to make it a one-possession score and hope they got the ball back one last time.

They did and it all went horribly wrong on the final play of the game, the Browns defense recovering the ball in the Steelers’ end zone for a bonus D/ST fantasy bump. A miserable night for Steelers fans compounded late on.

 

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

 

Quarterback

 

Mitch Trubisky: 20/32, 207 Yards | 2 Carries, 7 Yards, 1 TD

 

If fans were looking for Mitch Trubisky to make some sort of statement in this game, it didn’t happen. The former North Carolina signal-caller spent much of the game either handing off to Harris or peppering his receivers with short to intermediate throws to the sideline. When he did need to make plays in the second half, he couldn’t. A number of throws on third down sailed over the head or wide of the receivers. It was a worryingly ineffective showing.

 

 

Even a late rally on the Steelers’ penultimate drive of the game won’t likely save the criticism coming from all sides. The limitations are too great to overcome. The only thing that propped up his fantasy day was Pickens’ phenomenal catch and two carries for seven yards, one resulting in a touchdown.

It could be, and should be, time for Kenny Pickett.

 

Running Back

 

Najee Harris: 15 Carries, 56 Yards, 1 TD | 3 Targets, 3 Receptions, 5 Yards | 1 Fumble (Lost)

Jaylen Warren: 4 Carries, 30 Yards | 1 Target, 1 Reception, 3 Yards

 

A productive day for Najee Harris, who amassed 12.10 fantasy points (in Yahoo!) on the back of a workload-heavy performance in the first half, was spoilt by a moribund Steelers offense in the second half.  When he got the chance, however, he also flashed a little razzle-dazzle.

 

 

Harris hardly touched the ball after the half with the game script quickly going south on the Steelers mainly thanks to the ineffectiveness of their quarterback. The Steelers ran just five rushing plays, three on their first drive of the half so Harris didn’t have a chance to make an impact. It’s a recurring worry for fantasy managers that doesn’t look like going away. To make things more annoying, Harris was credited with a lost fumble on that final dumpster-fire of a play that resulted in a Browns defensive score. He is averaging just 59 yards from scrimmage through three contests, not ideal for the ADP he was taken at in fantasy drafts.

With three quality, proven backs on show it was up to Jaylen Warren to make himself known. And he certainly did that. Warren was dynamic every time he touched the ball. He made the most of his limited touches in the first half and was unlucky after he broke off a huge run at the start of the third quarter only for it to be called back by a penalty for an ineligible man downfield. It was his last touch of the game but he is one to watch going forward.

 

 

Wide Receiver/Tight End

 

Diontae Johnson: 11 Targets, 8 Receptions, 84 Yards, 1 Fumble (Recovered)

Pat Freiermuth: 4 Targets, 2 Receptions, 41 Yards

George Pickens: 7 Targets, 3 Receptions, 39 Yards

Chase Claypool: 1 Carries, 11 Yards | 6 Targets, 3 Receptions, 35 Yards

 

It was a difficult night for this receiving room with Trubisky firing blanks in the second half but Diontae Johnson still managed to mount a respectable fantasy score with seven catches for 76 yards on 10 targets. Johnson is a WR1 but limited to a fantasy WR2 due to his quarterback. Johnson ran almost exclusively on the outside for the second week running, which is not ideal given his explosive ability out of the slot too, however his playmaking ability can not be underestimated. This catch was a beauty.

 

 

The highlight in the passing game was that sensational catch from rookie George Pickens, so let’s make sure we see it from all angles. Pickens has seen an uptick in usage each week and this will only attract more targets as his route running was excellent today too.

 

 

What looked to be an empty donut night for tight end Pat Freiermuth was salvaged somewhat by two late catches. The big unit had only seen one target before being hit on back-to-back plays late in the fourth quarter, totaling 41 yards. And with those catches was second in the team in receiving yards. Yikes! The much-hyped fantasy breakout candidate was an afterthought in this offense and it showed.

Speaking of afterthoughts, Chase Claypool was once again sparingly used and had a couple of contest catches broken up. The ability for Claypool to secure passes under pressure has plagued his time so far in the NFL. Tonight was no different.

 

Cleveland Browns

 

Quarterback

 

Jacoby Brissett: 21/31, 220 Yards, 2 TD | 3 Carries, 11 Yards

 

Good on you, Jacoby Brissett! The Browns placeholder quarterback perfectly executed the game plan as Kevin Stefanski dialed up a multifarious playbook that emphasized the veteran’s strengths. When he wasn’t executing in the passing game, he was handing the ball off to his elite running back room to do the rest. A perfect outcome for the Browns. Brissett zipped a number of passes with conviction throughout the contest and showed good chemistry with his favorite target Amari Cooper and hot-hand for the night David Njoku. The Steelers badly missed T.J Watt and hardly generated any pass rush all night apart from Alex Highsmith. Brissett was pressured on just 4 of 33 dropbacks so he had plenty of time to pick his targets in the middle of the field time and time again.

 

 

The journeyman quarterback also executed a number of sneaks to move the chains. His passion and determination were infectious in the second half. It propelled his team to a crucial win.

 

 

Running Back

 

Nick Chubb: 23 Carries, 113 Yards, 1 TD | 1 Targets, 0 Receptions, 0 Yards

Kareem Hunt: 12 Carries, 47 Yards | 4 Targets, 3 Receptions, 14 Yards

 

Nick Chubb was a monster with the ball in this contest, as always. The only dismay for fantasy managers was that he split carries with Hunt a little more than usual and that affected his fantasy potential in a plus matchup. He also saw just one target out of the backfield.

 

 

The game script was perfect for Chubb late in the game as he was handed the ball to run the clock down. He had a season-high 23 rushes and averaged 4.9 yards per carry and scored his fourth touchdown of the year. He’s a sure-fire fantasy stud. Fun play alert – Kareem Hunt picked up a first down on this entertaining screen play on third down and long-cooked up by Kevin Stefanski. We love this stuff.

 

 

Hunt saw his usual heavy usage in collaboration with Chubb hitting double digits in carries for the third game in a row. He did have two chances inside the 5-yard line to punch the ball in so fantasy managers will feel a little short-changed. He remains a solid flex option despite a downturn in targets out of the backfield so far this season.

 

Wide Receiver/Tight End

 

Amari Cooper: 11 Targets, 7 Receptions, 101 Yards, 1 TD

David Njoku: 10 Targets, 9 Receptions, 89 Yards, 1 TD

Donovan Peoples-Jones: 3 Targets, 1 Reception, 10 Yards

David Bell: 1 Target, 1 Reception, 6 Yards

Miller Forristall: 1 Target, 0 Receptions, 0 Yards

 

Amari Cooper is the clear and present danger in this Browns offense and his early touchdown proved this. Cooper also blew a chance for a huge gain after forgetting about the constraints of the field and running out of bounds before hauling in a nice throw by Brissett down the sideline.

 

 

He schooled Akhello Witherspoon all night, though. The former 49ers dud could not deal with Cooper’s route-running ability. Cooper could have hauled in a couple of passes late on but the pace on the ball meant the passes bounced up off his hands on a couple of occasions. Still, he is a solid WR1 for fantasy managers on this performance, always a threat in the red zone.

 

 

David Njoku was effective in the passing game throughout this game, his first two grabs coming on third down and converting to move the chains. His third grab was the kind of play we all expected him to do many times a season, a high catch in the endzone for six. Njoku had plenty of joy against an undersized Steelers defense.

 

 

This output was his second most in terms of yards in six NFL seasons so we are all a few years late on the Njoku breakout game but glad it has finally found its way to realization. If he can establish himself as the second look for targets in this offense, he could be a top-five player at the position. It’s always been a question of if with Njoku.

David Bell and Donovan Peoples-Jones both had key grabs for third downs in this game but were limited in terms of involvement. It is particularly disappointing in terms of DPJ, who looks to have slipped down the pecking order this season after a promising 2021.

 

Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)

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