CLEVELAND -- For most people, a short work week is a welcome situation.
In the NFL, it's nothing but a pain, sometimes quite literally.
The NFL has been scheduling all of its teams to play on Thursday nights for more than a decade and nobody is ever happy about it. But they have learned to deal with it.
The Steelers (5-4) will get their next chance to do so Thursday night in Cleveland when they face the Browns (3-6) at FirstEnergy Stadium, the first meeting between the two AFC North rivals.
"We’re both dealing with it," Cam Heyward said of playing the Browns on a short work week. "It’s not like the scales tip either way. Cleveland’s preparing for us. We’re preparing for them. It’s just good on good. It comes down to who is going to execute on a short week. The game plan is a little more simple. It just comes down to execution and who makes the fatal error in the game."
Or who just runs out of gas.
The Steelers have won their past four games and five of their past six to get back into the conversation as a potential playoff team in the AFC. In fact, their win Sunday at Heinz Field over the Rams put them in the sixth spot in the AFC playoff race as the second half began.
Not bad for a team that was left for dead at 0-3 and 1-4. But it's also still not where they aspire to be. Nor are the Browns where anyone thought they might be after making a flurry of moves in the offseason to bring in veteran stars such as wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and defensive linemen Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson.
But it hasn't exactly worked out the way the Browns planned.
The team has struggled under first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens, beating the Bills, 19-16, Sunday to end a four-game losing streak. The Browns are barely alive in the AFC playoff race, sitting four games behind the Ravens in the AFC North standings and two games out of a potential wildcard spot.
With six losses already, Cleveland would almost have to run the table to have a chance at the postseason.
"We are playing a divisional opponent, so it is a big one for us," Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield said. "We know that. We have to treat it as such to do our job. With all that being said, it comes back to us focusing on doing the best we can at our jobs, eliminating mistakes, protecting the ball and creating turnovers – the same things that we have been trying to harp on the past couple weeks.”
That's been an issue all season for the Browns. Despite having a lot of star power, they've turned the ball over -- a lot. Only four teams have more than the 17 turnovers the Browns have posted. Only two teams have more than their 79 penalties, and one of those, the Cardinals, has played 10 games compared to nine for the Browns.
Like the Browns, the Steelers have had some major personnel changes. Ben Roethlisberger is out for the season. They'll have six starters -- quarterback Mason Rudolph, receiver Diontae Johnson, linebackers Mark Barron and Devin Bush and defensive backs Minkah Fitzpatrick and Steven Nelson -- playing in their first Steelers vs. Browns game.
The Steelers have built their resurgence on taking care of the football -- seven turnovers in their five wins -- and a smothering defense that has recorded 26 turnovers in the past seven games.
"They are an excellent football team," Kitchens said of the Steelers. "With what they have been able to do after the start is very impressive – losing their quarterback, never wavering, continuing to just play the games, and they have won four straight. In those four straight, they have taken the ball away 14 times. That is a recipe for success when you can do that.
"We have our work cut out for us.”
Then again, this will be the first time for the Browns playing a Thursday night game under Kitchens.
"The shortness of the week is just an element of it. The health of the unit is probably a bigger variable because you don’t get a lot of information, in terms of people working their selves to readiness via practice setting," Mike Tomlin said. "You don’t get an opportunity to let things play out in the way things that usually play out on Fridays and Saturdays, in terms of some of the availability things. Time provides clarity, and you just don’t have it. You’ve got to make quick decisions, particularly from a planning standpoint."
And very little practice. The Steelers got just one practice in on Tuesday and had a walkthrough Wednesday morning before getting on the buses for Cleveland.
That plays into the game plan being a little more simple, as Heyward said.
It does make the Thursday night games a little more basic than those played on other days. There's just not a lot of time to prepare opponent-specific schemes.
At least from that respect, there is some familiarity between the two teams, even if both have undergone some dramatic changes since when they met for the second time midway through the 2018 season.
"It’s a division game. Every team has to go through it. I don’t know if every team has a division game to go with it," Heyward said. "We’ve got to be ready. We knew when the schedule came out we were going to play on Thursday night."
• Who: Steelers (5-4) vs. Browns (3-6)
• When: 8:20 p.m.
• Where: FirstEnergy Stadium
• TV: WPGH, NFL Network
• Radio: 102.5 WDVE, ESPN Pittsburgh
• Satellite: SiriusXM 225, Internet 826
• Forecast: 30 degrees, 20 percent chance of snow
• Lots open: 4:30 p.m.
• Will call open: 6:20 p.m.
• Gates open: 6:20 p.m.
• Boxscore: NFL Game Center
• Odds: MyBookie.AG
THE INJURY REPORT
Steelers: RB Benny Snell (knee, out), FB Roosevelt Nix (knee, out), WR Ryan Switzer (back, out), LB Anthony Chickillo (ribs, questionable), CB Joe Haden (illness, questionable)
Browns: DB Eric Murray (knee, out), DE Olivier Vernon (knee, out), TE Ricky Seals-Jones (knee, questionable), OT Kendall Lamm (knee, questionable)
[caption id="attachment_915796" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Mason Rudolph. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]
THE KEY VARIABLE
James Conner isn't on pace to rush for 1,000 yards this season after just missing that total last season when he missed three games with an ankle injury, but he was having his best rushing game of 2019 against the Dolphins, gaining 145 yards on 23 carries, when he suffered a sprained shoulder on his final carry.
He's expected to return to the lineup after a two-game hiatus for the Steelers. And it's none too soon, considering the Steelers rushed for just 132 yards in those two games without their Pro Bowl running back.
"We've been playing against good defenses," Conner said of the Colts and Rams, the two teams the Steelers defeated without him in the lineup.
"I just want to contribute to the run game when I get back. Mason's been playing good. We've been winning games without the run game. That doesn't mean we don't need it because we do, so hopefully I can contribute to that when I get back."
Conner has 380 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground and has added another 236 yards and two touchdowns on 29 receptions. His six touchdowns are a little more than a third of the Steelers' 17 offensive scores, despite missing those two games.
But Conner won't be the player on whom the spotlight shines offensively for the Steelers. As usual, that will be Rudolph, now 4-2 as a starter since replacing an injured Roethlisberger.
Conner's return would certainly help take some of the pressure off of Rudolph, who is coming off perhaps his best game of the season. He completed 22-of-38 passes for 242 yards and a touchdown in the win against the Rams, numbers that would have been better if not for four dropped passes.
"I think it was his best game of consistently making decisions and putting the ball in proper spots," Randy Fichtner said. "So that lead to opportunities down the field and did a nice job with it. Put balls in places where we could catch them."
This will be Rudolph's second chance to start a game against a quarterback selected ahead of him in last year's draft. The 2018 third-round draft pick lost to the Ravens and Lamar Jackson, 26-23, in overtime earlier this season, though Rudolph was knocked out of that game with a concussion.
He and Mayfield, the first-overall pick in last year's draft, have a lengthier history. Rudolph was the starter at Oklahoma State and Mayfield at Oklahoma in the Bedlam Series when the two were in college. Mayfield won their two meetings as starters in the Bedlam Series, fanning the flames by calling the Cowboys the Sooners' "little brother," on Twitter last season after he had moved on to the NFL.
"They had a great team every year. Most years, it came down to that game deciding the Big 12," Rudolph said. "Great competitor and a great team they had. They were our rival, so it was always fun playing those games."
Now, it's Rudolph who is playing for the team that might be considered the "big brother," in a rivalry game. The Steelers lead the all-time series, 75-58-1, including going 7-0-1 in the past eight meetings. Cleveland has just one player -- linebacker Joe Schobert -- who has ever beaten the Steelers as a member of the Browns.
Rudolph would like nothing better than to keep that streak going.
"You want to win every game you can, and do your rival games hurt more when you lose? For sure," he said. "You wouldn’t be human if you said otherwise. This week is a new week. We are trying to push the mud off us from the earlier September run we had there of losing some games. We are kind of coming into our own as an offense, I think, and moving in the right direction and just have to keep stacking wins."
THE HISTORY LESSON
The Steelers would like to avoid a result like the last time they played in Cleveland on a Thursday night.
It came 10 years ago on Dec. 10, 2009 when the 6-6 Steelers headed to Cleveland Browns Stadium riding a four-game losing streak, the last three of which came by a combined nine points.
The game-time temperature was 15 degrees. The wind was gusting up to 25 miles per hour coming off Lake Erie. It was cold, so cold that Ben Roethlisberger didn't even go out on the field to warm up.
It was so cold that when you stepped out of your car to make the walk to the stadium, you thought you might die.
The Steelers' season -- one year removed from the Super Bowl -- did that night.
Despite the winds, Bruce Arians called for Roethlisberger to drop back to pass 40 times. That turned into eight sacks for 60 yards in losses.
Considering the Steelers ran the ball 22 times for 72 yards, it pretty much erased all of that.
Browns' quarterback Brady Quinn completed just 6 of 19 passes for 90 yards, but the Browns ran the ball 37 times for 171 yards and one touchdown. Josh Cribbs, running out of the Wildcat, had eight carries for 87 yards, while Chris Jennings had 20 carries for 73 yards, scoring the game's lone touchdown.
The Browns built a 13-0 lead on a pair of Phil Dawson field goals and a 10-yard TD run by Jennings.
The Steelers trimmed the lead to 13-3 on the final play of the first half on a 27-yard Jeff Reed field goal. Reed added a 42-yard field goal at the end of the third quarter, but that was as close as the Steelers would get.
The Steelers drove to the Cleveland 44 on their next possession, but Justin Hartwig was called for holding to stall the possession.
The Steelers got the ball back with just over six minutes remaining and drove to the Cleveland 39, but Roethlisberger's fourth-and-6 pass to Santonio Holmes was knocked down by David Bowens and the Browns took over on downs, running out the clock.
Roethlisberger finished 18 of 32 for 201 yards but no touchdowns and no interceptions. Holmes had six catches for 93 yards, while Heath Miller had five for 59.
Corey Williams and Marcus Bernard had two sacks each for the Browns, who improved to 2-11 with the victory, while dropping the Steelers to 6-7.
They rebounded to win their final three games to finish 9-7, including beating the Packers, 37-36, the following week in one of the classic games played at Heinz Field.
But the damage was done during that five-game losing streak that was finished off on a frigid day in Cleveland.
THE MAIN MATCHUP
Mayfield took the league by storm last season, throwing 27 touchdown passes in 14 games during his rookie season. He has been tapped as the league's next big thing -- at least by advertisers. He has appeared in more national commercials this year than he has touchdown passes (9) this season.
But it's the turnovers that have raised some eyebrows. Mayfield has thrown 12 interceptions this season, giving him 26 in 23 career games. He's also fumbled 10 times in his short career.
Enter the Steelers, who have forced 26 turnovers this season, including four last week against the Rams. The Steelers also have recorded 33 sacks and have a league-best 71 quarterback hits this season.
It's not, however, Mayfield's turnovers that have caught the attention of the Steelers. It's running back Nick Chubb. A second-year player, Chubb leads the AFC with 919 rushing yards and he averages 5.3 yards per carry.
If the Steelers hope to unleash their pass rush against Mayfield, who has been sacked 25 times, they know have to stop Chubb first. To make matters even more difficult, former NFL rushing leader Kareem Hunt, signed by the Browns in the offseason, returned last week after a 10-week suspension by the league for violation of the personal conduct policy.
The two combined for 146 rushing yards and nine receptions for 49 yards in the win over the Bills Sunday, often taking the field at the same time.
"They’re both proven in the league. But the focus is what Chubb’s been doing this year and even last year," said Steelers defensive end Tyson Alualu. "It’s definitely a challenge for us. We’ve got to be ready for it. As a defensive line, you want to affect and get after that quarterback. But that doesn’t happen if we don’t stop the run. We know what we’ve got to do."
Complicating matters are the presence of Beckham and Jarvis Landry. The Browns have playmakers all over the field for Mayfield. But the quarterback has to get them the ball.
"Quarterback is a hard job," said Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler. "You’ve got to stand in there and hold the dadgum ball and let somebody knock the stew out of you. It’s a hard job. It takes a lot of grit and a lot of courage to play that position because of what you’re set up as. You’re hoping that your offense line can protect you for a certain amount of time. They get a feel for how long they’ve got and they either move around or get rid of the ball."
Butler wasn't specifically referring to Mayfield, but he could have been. Cleveland will be at a severe disadvantage with its offensive line working against the Steelers' defensive front.
"They are making a lot of plays right now," Mayfield said of the Steelers defense. "Obviously, they picked up (Minkah) Fitzpatrick, and he has had quite a bit of turnovers. They are creating plays up front. They have the dual pass rushers with (Bud) Dupree and (T.J.) Watt on the edges. They are able to create plays in the backend."
Fitzpatrick now leads the league with five interceptions from his free safety position thanks, at least in part, to the defensive pressure up front. He's also scored a defensive touchdown in two consecutive games.
"He is always in the right spot," Kitchens said. "He is great with his eyes. It is almost like he knows where the ball is going before it is going to be there. He does a good job of being where he is supposed to be and then being where he is not supposed to be when there is a play to be made."
• "You know, he’s got to rest sometimes. If you wrestle a 300-pound guy every 30 seconds, it makes it pretty tough. I mean, he’s a big guy himself too, but he’s going to get tired, and so what helps us is when we hold the ball offensively." -- Butler on Heyward
• "He’s leading the league in sacks. He doesn’t move around as much as Aaron. So maybe you’d say Al’s (Villanueva) going to get it, but about the time you say that, you’ll look on the tape and there he is on the right side. So, he’s picking on the other side. I mean, you know he’s generally going to be on the outside and he’s going to come hunt the quarterback, and that’s what he does so well." -- Fichtner on Browns defensive end Myles Garrett
• "Cleveland is always going to be a special spot. They drafted me and I spent seven years there, but football-wise, I’m all in here. Our defense here is special. I’m just trying to win." -- Former Browns' and current Steelers' cornerback Joe Haden
THE TEN DATA POINTS
• There have been 77 games decided by seven or fewer points this season, the second-most in league history through 10 weeks. The Steelers have been involved in six one-score games, going 3-3. The Browns have been involved in four, going 1-3.
• Rudolph is 2-0 with four touchdown passes and a 104.9 passer rating in two prime time starts this season.
• Bush leads all rookies with 69 tackles.
• Browns slot CB T.J. Carrie has allowed 412 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 45 targets.
• Opposing quarterbacks have posted a 99.4 passer rating against the Browns, with 16 touchdown passes and four interceptions.
• The Steelers have allowed just two pass plays of 40 or more yards this season, the second-fewest in the league.
• The 25 20-yard pass plays allowed by the Steelers are the 7th fewest in the NFL.
• The Browns allow 4.9 yards per carry, fourth most in the NFL, and 134.9 yards per game, sixth most.
• The game will feature the top two pass rushers in the AFC, as Garrett leads the conference with 10 sacks and Watt is second with 9.5.
• The Steelers rank 23rd in the NFL in third down conversion percentage at 36.1 percent. The Browns are 28th at 31.2 percent.
True story. I pulled a fast one on myself last weekend. When I did my initial lineup on Wednesday, I had Kyler Murray in the lineup stacked with Christian Kirk. I decided to go with the other side of the Tampa Bay-Arizona matchup, pulled Aaron Jones out of the starting lineup and saved money with Devin Singletary instead. Ouch. Always go with your first instincts. Since the Steelers play Thursday, we'll go with a Thursday-Sunday lineup.
Quarterback: Kyle Allen ($5,300) -- Allen is coming off his first career 300-yard game and now faces a soft Falcons pass defense at home.
Running backs: Brian Hill ($4,800), Christian McCaffrey ($10,500) -- Hill takes over as the main ball carrier for the Falcons, while this will be my first play of the year with McCaffrey who has torn it up every week. It's a big price, but he's been worth it.
Wide receivers: John Brown ($6,400), Marquise Brown ($5,600), D.J. Moore ($5,900) -- Value picks all around. John Brown has been solid all season, while Hollywood Brown has a juicy matchup against the Texans. Moore and Allen rolled last week and should again this week.
Tight end: Greg Olsen ($3,900) -- Do you get the idea that Carolina-Atlanta could be a high-scoring game?
Flex: Jordan Howard ($4,700) -- Howard should find some openings against New England's run defense, which hasn't been great.
Defense: Saints ($2,900) -- The Saints got embarrassed last week at home. They'll bounce back this week against the Bucs on the road.
Dale Lolley (5-4): The Steelers are a terrible matchup for the Browns. They do the things that take advantage of the issues that have given the Browns fits, namely rushing the passer and taking the ball away. The Steelers have to slow Cleveland's running game to make that happen, but the Browns make enough mistakes with dumb penalties and such to make it easy for what has become one of the league's top defenses. Don't believe that? FootballOutsiders.com currently has the Steelers' defense as third in its DVOA rankings behind only the Patriots and 49ers. The Steelers need to get Conner running to help Rudolph, who needs to continue to take care of the football. If he does that, the Steelers should win against a Browns offense that has scored 19 or fewer points in seven of its nine games. Steelers, 23-17
Christopher Carter (3-6): The biggest task for the Steelers’ defense will be shutting Chubb down. If the Browns are forced to the air and Mayfield has to deal with the Steelers’ pass rush and secondary, they’re in trouble. This could be another game with four turnovers if the Browns aren’t careful. But this has to be helped by the Steelers’ offense putting up enough points to put pressure on the Browns’ offense to score. They have a talented defense, but they’re not as consistent as the Steelers right now, and that will be their downfall. Steelers, 27-12
Hunter Homistek (6-3): It's easy to focus on Mayfield, Beckham, Jr., and Landry here — and they're threats for sure — but this game really hinges on the Steelers defense shutting down Chubb and Hunt for me. They do that, and it's game over. In fact, it'll get downright ugly for the Browns if the Steelers take that away. And I think they will. Rudolph will make strides with a healthy Conner taking some heat off him, and the Steelers will keep rolling to win their fifth straight. Steelers, 31-20
Matt Sunday (6-3): I like the Browns in this one. They don't often come off a win, but they are this week. Buuuuuttttt I like the Steelers more. Jarvis Landry has emerged as the guy out there, but Joe Haden. Odell Beckham Jr. can offset that by making splash plays, but Minkah Fitzpatrick. Baker Mayfield can find someone else then ... but T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Yeah, I can't figure out how the offense can beat the Steelers. I just don't see how Nick Chubb will have time to get going. Steelers, 20-15
Dejan Kovacevic (5-4): Something -- and maybe only one thing -- has me hesitating this week. Much as I love the matchup of the Steelers' defense vs. ... well, anyone right now but especially a team that can't block or protect the football, Chubb's straight-ahead style might mitigate that from the Cleveland perspective if it ever dawns on Kitchens that the Browns really ought to be more about running, less about making the marquee guys happy. That said, the visitors' offense might figure out stuff, too. Steelers, 25-18
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