The Browns secondary is forced to make changes against a tough opponent.
It’s not the same old Cleveland Browns, and in fact, in the defensive backfield, they are not the same from week to week.
In terms of the percentage of defensive snaps played last week, the busiest members of the defensive backfield were cornerback Terrance Mitchell (100 percent), Robert Jackson (100 percent) and M.J. Stewart (94 percent); safeties Ronnie Harrison (100 percent), Karl Joseph( 91 percent) and Sheldrick Redwine (9 percent).
So, the game reps show that they played three corners and two safeties almost all the time.
This week, however, Mitchell is listed as questionable for reasons that are not clear, and Stewart is also questionable with a calf injury. Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson apparently will not make it back to the active roster in time for Sunday’s game due to Covid. Being down four cornerbacks hurts, there are no two ways about it.
If Mitchell cannot go, that would make life rather difficult. He and Ward are the most reliable cornerbacks that the Browns have. Losing Ward is difficult enough, but losing both of them poses a severe challenge.
At safety, Harrison, Joseph, and Redwine are going to be back this week, and the Browns also add Andrew Sendejo, returning from Covid limbo.
If the Browns need additional help at corner, it may come from Tavierre Thomas, who is a special teams ace and has done a very nice job filling in this season when called upon. Brian Allen, the ex-Steeler, is also a recent addition to the roster and could also be used. A.J. Green has been with the practice squad all year and will probably be okay in the zone defense for the first two seconds, give or take a tick.
The Steelers have three wide receivers who finished with over 800 receiving yards: Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Their number four receiver, James Washington is also very, very capable. Tight end Eric Ebron is their pass-catching tight end, while Vance McDonald is their road grader at the position.
The Browns are not going to shut down the Steelers’ wide receivers. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is going to complete 70 percent of his passes. The only question is, how many will be complete to black and gold jerseys, versus the white jerseys with orange trim?
The strength of the Steelers’ offense is depth at wide receiver. If the Browns can play zone, keep the game in front of them and contain the short passes, they will be okay, and they have a chance to catch a few picks if the Steelers are less than perfect. However, If Roethlisberger is given some time to throw, force the defensive backs into deeper coverage, and if he is as good as he was earlier this season, it could be a long afternoon.
Overall, however, the Steelers were not their usual awesome selves on offense the past several weeks. Pittsburgh is 1-4 the past five games, and at times they looked ridden hard and put away wet. The Browns, for their part, have not been at their best the past two weeks.
Look at the stats. They started off the season with five straight games of more than100 yards rushing and ended the season with six straight games of under 100 yards rushing. They are more dependent than ever on the short passing game and the big shoulders on Ben Rothlisberger.
It will be up to the Browns secondary to find a way to contain his targets on Sunday.