Steelers can’t win, but here’s how Cleveland Browns can lose

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 14: Mason Rudolph #2 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks to throw the ball during the game against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 14, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 14: Mason Rudolph #2 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks to throw the ball during the game against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 14, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images) /
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Cleveland Browns
EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – DECEMBER 20: Baker Mayfield #6 of the Cleveland Browns scrambles with the ball during the third quarter of a game against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on December 20, 2020 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) /

Only the Cleveland Browns can beat the Browns on Sunday

If the Cleveland Browns can’t beat the Steelers second string, there’s no way that they belong in the playoffs. Realistically, Pittsburgh cannot win Sunday’s game unless the Browns lose it. The Steelers are not nearly as formidable as they were earlier in the season, having lost key players due to injury.

There’s a reason why they have lost three of their past four games — and looked bad while doing it. There’s no offensive line, they cannot run the ball, and they are missing a few major pieces on defense. Not only that, but they have — apparently — elected to rest quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, center Maurkice Pouncey, linebacker edge rusher T.J. Watt and defensive tackle Cam Hayward.

R.J. Bell of Straight Outta Vegas suggests that by the end of the season, the Steelers had become a bottom-five NFL offense. That’s before sitting down Roethlisberger and Pouncey.

To recapitulate the main components of the injury situation, right tackle Zach Banner, starting inside linebacker Devin Bush and outside linebacker Bud Dupree, all have torn ACLs. Guard Matt Feiler is also out versus the Browns but may return for the playoffs. Guard Stefen Wisniewski was also placed on IR and ultimately waived, winding up on the roster of the Kansas City Chiefs.

With no line, the Steelers’ running game came apart the second half of the season. The Steelers compensated by having Ben Roethlisberger average 44 throws per game over the past nine weeks. Most of the time they are dink and dunk passes, but on the rare occasions when he did throw deep, his throws have had a noticeable drop in velocity. He has just been overworked.

A week off might really help him, but he isn’t even going to be in the game. He’s air-mailing it into the playoffs, as coach Mike Mike Tomlin explains, so into this mess steps backup  Mason Rudolph and new center J.C. Hassenauer.

This isn’t an exhibition game. That’s why they call them the ‘Stealers’. They want to steal a victory that they have no business winning, so that they will have a shot at the second seed for the playoffs. Still, how could the Browns possibly blow it to a team with such a ragged offense?

The Browns are favored by -9 points as of New Year’s Day.  That is a big spread, but upsets do happen, about 20 percent of the time according to

The answer is that the Browns have to help Pittsburgh win. The Steelers need the Browns to play like the 2019 team. Putting aside the unfortunate incident involving Myles Garrett incident, what led up to it was that the team as a whole made themselves feel better by valuing swagger over discipline. They accepted roughing the passer and helmet-to-helmet hits and thought they were doing the right thing by asserting themselves and being intimidators over the Steelers.  Not so.

The fundamental difference between the 2020 team and the 2019 team is that it has been built on discipline. Under great duress last week due to the loss of five players to Covid-19, some of that discipline started to break down versus the Jets. Here’s a list of what needs to happen to lose to the Steelers:

1.  Slide, Baker, slide!

Against the Giants, it was horrifying to see Baker Mayfield dive head-first between three defenders and make the first down. He got away with it, and jumped up flashing his famous smile that has sold so many insurance policies, and announcers Mike Tirico and Cris Collinsworth were just pleased as punch. It was an exciting play for the viewership.

Hey, Baker knows what he is doing. Let him have fun out there, right?

No. What got the Browns to this point was playing disciplined Cleveland Browns football under coach Kevin Stefanski. Blue-collar, hard-hat, no-nonsense football. Disciplined football. If Mayfield makes a miscalculation with the Steelers, that could bring the season to a premature close.

Their front four is fast and hits like a ton of bricks. Mayfield may think he is invincible, and he has been exceptionally durable for all the talk about being frail (number of games missed since entering the league = 0), but he is not invincible. Mayfield does no good for the team if he gets a concussion, which is probably what will happen if he goes headfirst versus the Rooney boys. Do not do this.

Mayfield used to be a baseball player, so it’s time to dust off that second base slide.

By the way, is there anybody else who feels that short-yardage is better handled by Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt instead of the quarterback sneak? Why do we bother to have Pro Bowl running backs if they cannot make short yardage? Is 215-pound Mayfield really the best option to plunge ahead for the first down in those situations?

It’s not as though the quarterback sneak is foolproof. Look, Mrs. Mayfield did not raise a wimp. In fact, she probably made him eat nails for breakfast. That’s not in question. But Chubb and Hunt are probably better at carrying the mail.

Keep the quarterback upright and undamaged to the extent you have control over the situation.