By Daniel Benjamin
The Pittsburgh Steelers can still secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs, but they need help. Pittsburgh (12-3) will attempt to finish the regular season in style when they host the Cleveland Browns (0-15) at Heinz Field at 1 pm ET on Dec. 31. A win over the Browns and a loss by the New England Patriots (12-3) to the New York Jets would bump the Steelers up to the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. The Patriots currently have the edge over Pittsburgh as a result of their Week 15 victory over the Steelers.
Browns’ Record (0-15)
Cleveland will make the two-and-half hour trek to the Burgh looking to avoid becoming the fifth team in modern NFL history to finish the season winless, and the first since the Detroit Lions in 2008. The Browns have lost 16 straight regular season games and 33 of 34 over a two-and-half year span. The Browns got their lone win in 2016 in Week 16 at home against the San Diego Chargers.
The Steelers won their fifth straight game in the season series in the season opener with a 21-18 victory. Both teams struggled offensively in the first meeting of the year, though Ben Roethlisberger did toss a pair of touchdowns to Jesse James. The Steelers owned a 290-237 edge in total yards over the Browns.
Overall, the Steelers lead the all-time series 73-58. They have also won 45 of the 76 meetings in Pittsburgh. In fact, the Browns have just one win in 17 trips to Heinz Field and that lone victory occurred in October 2003.
Browns on Offense
Cleveland is the lowest scoring team in the league at 14.0 points a game. The Browns have been held to less than their season average on seven occasions, including four times they didn’t even reach double figures. They are tied for 27th in total offense (304.5 yards a game) and rank 26th in yards per play (4.8). The Browns have been a tad bit better on the road. They are averaging 15.5 points and 327.1 yards a game away from the Dawg Pound.
Rookie DeShone Kizer has struggled in his first season behind center. Kizer, who had his best game of the season against the Steelers in Week 1, has failed to complete over 50% of his passes on seven occasions, including in each of the last two games. Against the Bears last week, the Notre Dame product completed 18 of 36 passes for 182 yards and two interceptions. He has been picked off 21 times this year while tossing nine touchdowns. Kizer does aid the team’s running attack as he has the ability to make big plays either in scramble situations or in designed runs. He leads the team with 5.0 yards per carry and five touchdowns.
The Browns average 107 rushing yards a game for the season, and Isaiah Crowell leads the team with 55.5 rushing yards a game. Crowell, who is rated as the No. 46 halfback in the league, is talented but has yet to put everything together in his four seasons. He averages 4.4 yards per carry and has five runs of 20-plus yards.
Josh Gordon is the team’s top receiver and is immensely talented. Gordon’s biggest issue is his inability to stay out of trouble. He has 14 receptions for 220 yards and one touchdown in four games this year. Gordon is the only Browns receiver to grade out as at least average.
Browns on Defense
Defense has been the strength of the Browns throughout the season. Cleveland is ranked 12th in the league in total defense, allowing 326.8 yards a game. The strength of the Browns’ defensive unit is their front four and their ability to stuff the run. They have limited their opponents to 96.1 yards a game on the ground, which is the seventh fewest in the league.
Linebackers Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey share the team lead with 132 tackles. Schobert and Kirksey have combined for 6.5 sacks and 12 tackles for losses; also seven pass defensed along with one interception and five forced fumbles.
Right defensive end Myles Garrett leads the team with six sacks while left defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah and reserve linebacker James Burgess have recorded four sacks apiece.
Jason McCourty, the team’s No. 1 cornerback, has half of the Browns’ six interceptions. He has also been credited with 14 pass defensed and two forced fumbles.
Players to watch: RB Duke Johnson Jr. and DE Myles Garrett
Johnson, the 17th rated running back by PFF, is very versatile and a big time playmaker. Johnson has shown the ability to run the ball as he is producing 4.3 yards a carry, though his forte is as a pass catcher. Johnson leads the team by a wide margin with 68 catches for 618 yards and an additional three touchdowns. What makes him so dangerous out of the backfield is his elusiveness. Johnson has racked up 457 yards after catch, which includes eight catches of 20 or more yards.
Garrett is an athletic pass rushing specialist who can also stop the run. The 2017 No. 1 overall pick, ranked 14th at his position by PFF, was impressive against the Bears. In 25 pass rushing opportunities last week, he picked up his sixth sack of the season along with hurry. It was his first sack in the last four games.
Outlook: Steelers 24, Browns 16
This game could be closer than expected, as the last two meetings have been decided by three points. But ultimately, the Steelers have too much talent on both sides of the football to lose to the lowly Browns.