The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns entered the season confident their rebuilding efforts would pay off a little sooner than people expected. But as we head into Week 3 of the NFL season, both teams are already in need of a confidence boost.
Related: NFL Power Rankings for Week 3
Heading into their "Thursday Night Football" AFC North rivalry game, each team is looking for more from their starting quarterback. Mitch Trubisky has struggled in his first two starts for the Steelers, slumping with a passing offense that ranks dead last in yards per attempt (4.85). Pittsburgh (1-1) has scored just three touchdowns overall, one of them coming from the defense.
The Browns (1-1), meanwhile, have shown a spark with Jacoby Brissett under center. What they don't have is two wins to show for it after Sunday's devastating loss. It's the first time in 21 years an opponent has fought back from 13 points down in the final two minutes to win; the Jets recovered an onside kick before Joe Flacco, for the first time since 2016, finished off the incredible fourth-quarter comeback.
Brissett then had an opportunity to win it, driving down to midfield with six seconds left in the game. But his interception on the edge of field goal range cost the Browns, who nearly started 2-0 for the first time since 1993. Their defense has allowed 27.5 points, second most in the AFC, while the offense tries to adapt with offseason acquisition Deshaun Watson sidelined with an 11-game suspension.
Despite the obvious flaws, both teams have a shot at success after a sluggish start for their AFC North rivals: the Baltimore Ravens (1-1) and Cincinnati Bengals (0-2). The winner Thursday night will, at least temporarily, take over first place in the division.
Who can recapture the momentum from their impressive Week 1 performances? Can the Steelers right the ship offensively or will the Browns learn how to close the deal with Brissett under center?
Thursday Night Football: Pittsburgh (1-1) at Cleveland (1-1)
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 22 at 8:15 p.m. ET
TV: Amazon Prime Video (available on TV in local markets)
Live Stream: fuboTV (only available in Cleveland and Pittsburgh markets)
Spread: Browns -4.5
Tickets: As low as $122 on SITickets.com*
Three Things to Watch
1. Browns' rushing offense vs. Steelers' rushing defense
The Browns were expected to rely more on the ground game with Watson suspended. So far, so good; they lead the NFL at 200.5 rushing yards per game. Nick Chubb leads the AFC with 228 yards and three touchdowns while Kareem Hunt has 104 yards and a touchdown of his own.
Keeping that momentum going is crucial as Chubb has struggled in his games against the Steelers. He's scored just one rushing touchdown against them in eight career meetings while going over 100 yards only once — in a 2020 regular-season finale where Pittsburgh rested several of their top players.
This season, the Steelers' run defense is off to a sluggish start, ranked 22nd in the NFL with 128.5 yards allowed per game. It's still an improvement from last season when they finished dead last in this category. They're already missing one of their key leaders, linebacker T.J. Watt, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year who is out several more weeks with a pectoral injury.
Can the Browns find a way through?
"This week is a test," Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said earlier this week. "Because these guys are as good as anybody you'll see."
2. Can the Steelers' defense cause giveaways?
The key for Pittsburgh in staying competitive these first two weeks has been its defense. A plus-four turnover margin through two weeks ranks tied for second in the NFL; that includes four interceptions of last year's Super Bowl sensation, Joe Burrow, in Week 1.
But Patriots quarterback Mac Jones did just enough to beat the Steelers in Week 2. Which way will Brissett lean? He's got a pedestrian total of seven touchdowns and five interceptions in his last season-plus in the league. A turnover-prone quarterback typically falls right into the hands of this Steel Curtain defensive model.
3. Which quarterback will step up to the plate?
Here's the real key. The Steelers' Trubisky has struggled to provide enough offense to keep opposing defenses from focusing on the team's best offensive weapon, running back Najee Harris. Justin Fields is the only full-time starter to make it through the first two games with fewer yards than Trubisky's 362. Trubisky ranks 28th in passer rating and sits in a precarious position with rookie NFL first-round draft pick Kenny Pickett waiting in the wings.
What helps Trubisky is the Browns remain without two key defensive pieces. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has already been ruled out for this game because of an ankle injury, and running mate Myles Garrett may sit out as well due to a neck issue. That'll reduce the pressure on an offensive line that's only allowed four sacks through two games.
On the flip side sits Brissett, who ranks 27th in the NFL with 6.2 yards per pass attempt. He's thrown just two touchdown passes while trying to play game manager for the Browns' rushing attack. Can he have a breakout performance through the air to give Cleveland another dimension to this offense?
The last time Brissett threw more than two touchdowns in a game was October 2019. Chances are, he'll need that type of performance at some point over the first 11 games for the Browns to win. And against the Jets, in the closing seconds, Brissett was unable to get over the hump.
Expect a close game with the Browns able to put some points up on offense. But the Steelers' defense was able to carve up a top-tier quarterback in Burrow.
How do you think they'll do with someone like Brissett?
Prediction: Pittsburgh 27, Cleveland 24
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
*Price as of publication.