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Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cleveland Browns Prediction and Preview

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cleveland Browns Prediction and Preview

The Steelers have been preparing for how to beat the Browns for the past two weeks as they rested over their bye. 

But in a greater sense, they've been preparing for this game for the last nine months after losing their final two games of last season to Cleveland, including an embarrassing home loss in the Wild Card Round.

The Steelers won the AFC North last season thanks to a league-best 11-0 start. But they are just 3-3 to begin 2021 and have a minus-25 point differential. In a crowded AFC North, they'll need a quick turnaround to make the playoffs for the second time in four seasons.

Cleveland, meanwhile, may be fortunate to sit 4-3 considering all of its injuries. Without their quarterback and top two running backs, the Browns managed to beat the Broncos last Thursday, and that extra rest will come in handy with several key contributors returning.

Can the Steelers get revenge on the Browns after two tough losses last year? Or will Cleveland bury Pittsburgh in the bottom of the AFC North?

Pittsburgh (3-3) at Cleveland (4-3)

Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 31 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Browns-3

Three Things to Watch

1. Can the Browns keep Baker Mayfield healthy?
It's not official yet, but Mayfield appears likely to start on Sunday after missing the Denver game with a torn labrum and fractured humerus bone in his non-throwing shoulder. He's also optimistic that he can avoid surgery.

Staying upright will be of utmost importance. And that will be a big challenge against a tough Steelers front. Despite blitzing just 20.2 percent of the time (seventh-lowest rate in the league), Pittsburgh ranks second in the NFL with a 15.9 percent hurry rate and third in with a 28.8 percent pressure rate.

While the Browns have been successful in run blocking — their 5.25 adjusted line yards are best in the AFC — they rank 26th in the NFL with an 8.5 percent adjusted sack rate allowed. Cleveland is expecting to get right tackle Jack Conklin (knee) back after missing two games, but he's been limited in practice this week and should have his hands full with T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, and Co. 

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Keeping Mayfield healthy will mean getting rid of the ball quickly and running the ball effectively. The signal-caller should get a boost with slot receiver Jarvis Landry back, but Landry has been limited in practice with a new knee injury of his own.

2. Can Ben Roethlisberger continue to play mistake-free football?
When Roethlisberger has struggled to throw the ball more than 10 yards down the field, one of the keys to success is not turning the ball over. The 39-year-old has not done that in the last two games, and the Steelers are 2-0.

Although the Browns have the No. 2 total defense (296.3 ypg), they are just 18th in scoring defense (23.6 ppg) because only three teams have forced fewer turnovers than them. Specifically, they have intercepted just three passes, including one in the past three games.

Roethlisberger is likely to stick to short passes over the middle — last week he was 25-for-29 within 10 yards and 4-for-11 beyond that — but he should feel more comfortable than normal against the Browns since do-it-all linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah remains out with a high-ankle sprain.

Turnovers are key for any team, but they have especially been important to the Steelers' offense and Browns' defense this season. Pittsburgh is 3-1 when committing one or no turnovers and 0-2 when giving the ball away more. Cleveland is 3-1 when forcing a turnover and 1-2 when it doesn't.

3. How effective will Cleveland's banged-up ground attack be?
Maybe it's credit to the Browns' O-line but the rushing attack did not miss a beat with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt out last week. D'Ernest Johnson racked up 146 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries against Denver, a team that was only giving up 85.5 rushing yards per game entering the contest.

Now the Browns will get Chubb back after missing two games with a calf injury, which will allow them to move Johnson into a complementary role.

The Steelers' run defense has been a mixed bag this season. They're in the middle of the pack in yards allowed per game (107.7, 12th) and per attempt (4.3, 17th) but have only allowed two rushing scores all season. That's helped them to the league's sixth-best red-zone defense (46.7 percent TD rate).

If Mayfield is not 100 percent effective with his shoulder injury, the Browns will need more success punching the ball in. And it's not like the Steelers are invincible in short-yardage situations. Opponents have been successful on 67 percent of third and fourth downs with two yards or less to go this season, which ranks 19th in the NFL.

Final Analysis

The Browns are the better team when healthy, but injuries continue to be an issue for them. Much of this game will come down to how effective Mayfield will be. Pittsburgh would likely be the road favorites if Case Keenum has to start again. However, with Mayfield and Chubb slated to return, the Browns will likely have a narrow edge on Halloween.

Prediction: Browns 23, Steelers 20