The NFC North was expected to have a tough battle for second place, but who would have thought that the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers would be a combined 8-1 through Week 5 of the NFL season?
We're in for a great matchup — perhaps the best in their rivalry in decades — when these teams meet on Sunday at Heinz Field.
The Browns haven't gotten off to this strong of a start since 1994 — two years before the team moved to Baltimore. Amazingly, it's been even longer for the Steelers: They haven't started 4-0 since 1979.
Although Pittsburgh only lost three times to Cleveland between 2003 and '17, the teams have been more even since Baker Mayfield's arrival. The Browns tied the 2018 opener, and the home teams have won the next three by an average margin of 12 points.
The Browns have looked revitalized under new head coach Kevin Stefanski. He's not asking too much from Mayfield, who is down to 6.4 yards per attempt and 195.2 yards per game but has seriously cut down on turnovers. He's up to a career-best 75.2 QBR and can lean on the league's best rushing attack.
The Steelers, meanwhile, haven't missed a beat with Ben Roethlisberger's return. They've scored at least 26 points in each game and are cobbling together a talented offense without the usual big names. But to prove that they are back after missing the playoffs two years in a row, they're going to have to take care of business against other playoff contenders like the Browns. (Yes, that feels weird to say.)
Cleveland at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 18 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Steelers -3.5
Three Things to Watch:
1. Can Chase Claypool do it again?
The Steelers have a knack for drafting wide receivers, from Hines Ward to Santonio Holmes to Antonio Brown to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Could second-rounder Claypool be the latest homegrown star? He sure looked the part last week in his first career start when he hauled in seven passes for 110 yards and three touchdowns. He added a fourth score on the ground and nearly added one more through the air that was called back on a questionable offensive pass interference call.
No one is expecting the former Notre Dame wideout to put up four scores again, but he could emerge as one of the Steelers' go-to weapons, especially if Smith-Schuster continues to underwhelm. Claypool has a rare combination of size (6-4) and speed (4.42-second 40-yard dash) and should only improve as he builds trust with Roethlisberger.
The Steelers could also be in for a big passing day in general since the Browns have been absolutely torched through the air this season. They're giving up 296.4 passing yards per game, which is last in the AFC and 30th in the NFL. Denzel Ward is a strong No. 1 cornerback, but he's just one man and Big Ben doesn't lack for options, especially if Claypool continues to impress.
2. No. 1 rushing offense vs. No. 2 rushing defense
Despite losing Nick Chubb for a few weeks with an MCL injury the Browns still have the strongest rushing unit in the league at 188.4 yards per game. Even without Chubb last week against a stout Colts defense, Kareem Hunt and D'Ernest Johnson led the way for a 124-yard effort.
It's not just a matter of volume, although the Browns have run the ball more (172 attempts) than any other team. They're also averaging 5.5 yards per carry, just 0.1 yards off the Ravens' league-best mark. That's thanks in large part to a dominant offensive line that leads the league with 5.08 adjusted line yards. The additions of tackles Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills Jr. are already paying dividends.
The Steelers' defensive front will be their toughest matchup yet, though, as Pittsburgh is only allowing 64.0 rushing yards per game, second only to the Buccaneers. The Steelers held the Giants and Texans under 30 yards on the ground, and no back has topped 80 yards in a game against them. Whoever wins in the trenches will get a big advantage on Saturday; controlling the clock has been a key to both teams' success.
3. Myles Garrett's first game against the Steelers post-suspension
The last time we saw Garrett face off against the Steelers was the last time we saw him play in 2019. Of course, that was the fateful Week 11 game in which he attacked Mason Rudolph with the quarterback's own helmet. Barring an injury to Roethlisberger, we're not likely to see Rudolph play, but there will be plenty of focus on Garrett.
The former No. 1 overall pick has been outstanding since the league reinstated him over the offseason. He's second in the NFL with 6.0 sacks and tied for first with three forced fumbles. He's quickly living up to the five-year, $125 million contract extension he signed in July.
The Steelers will be a tough matchup, though, even before considering the Eye of Sauron-like attention he'll receive. Pittsburgh's six sacks allowed is tied for the fourth-fewest in the league, and the team's 4.2 percent adjusted sack rate is third.
This game features a lot of strengths on strengths, so it's easy to see Sunday's contest going either way depending on who wins in the trenches. Pittsburgh has the more established offense, but don't be surprised to see more trick plays from Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. in the passing game.
The Steelers will be allowed to have upwards of 7,500 fans in attendance at Heinz Field, and they'll be sure to let the Browns know how they feel about Myles Garrett and Co. Expect a close, hard-fought game that should be the most entertaining of the early slate.