The Browns, after 18 years, have made the playoffs. With an 11-5 record. The last time the Browns won 11 games was 1994. That year was also the last time the Browns won a playoff game, defeating the NE Patriots 20-13 before losing to Pittsburgh in the divisional round. In fact, Pittsburgh eliminated the Browns the last 2 times they have made the playoffs (2002).
In the history of the rivalry, the Browns own a 78-59-1 lead...but since the return in 1999, the Steelers have owned the Browns with a 38-6 record.
This Sunday the Browns face the Steelers again in the most important game since the return. Odds makers have the Steelers 6 point favorites (was 3.5 before COVID struck). The Steelers are set not only to get back their guys they rested last week, but several from injury...although Joe Haden will NOT be one of them.
Meanwhile, the Browns just lost Stefanski, Hodge, and Bitonio. Bitonio is critical as the Browns OL depth has taken several hits of late with Hubbard and Harris on IR. Dunn, a player who has primarily been on practice squads since 2017, will likely be the starting LG. The Browns are likely to get Ward back, as well as a few others from their list, but will it be enough.
Narratives have said the Steelers blew out the Browns when at full strength and almost won the game with backups. I looked back. The first game was a perfect storm. Chubb was out. Teller was out. Baker had bad ribs. Landry had bad ribs/hip. 2 INT's and a failed 4th down attempt snowballed into a blow out. The Steelers managed only 297 yards. The second game...was not as close as the score. The Browns controlled the game completely until 2 late TD's made the score close...and in both cases relied on deep passes where if the Browns defender had only turned around they would have been INT's. So no...the Steelers do NOT own the Browns this year.
So...the real question is...can the Browns overcome the loss of Stefanski, Vernon and Bitonio?
Stefanski will be involved in the game planning all the way up to kickoff. Priefer has actually been HC for a game and did a decent job. He also is a very long tenured coach and is well respected. Van Pelt will be calling the plays. He did so in 2009 with Buffalo, but since then has primarily been a QB coach. With that said, he seems to be on the same page as Stefanski, and will have the scripted plays and game plan created with Stefanski to guide him.
Vernon out is an issue, but we saw some younger guys step up. I think the DL can do the job.
My biggest concern is the loss of Bitonio. As mentioned above, Dunn or some other inexperienced player will be the only options. Hopefully Teller will be full strength and be able to do a lot of pulling for the run game.
Steelers have the ball: The Steelers can't run the ball. The Browns are decent at stopping the ball. In fact the backup DL are better against the run than Vernon. I believe the Browns will make sure to stop the run and clog up the short game...especially if Ward is back...to force Ben to show he can go deep with accuracy.
Browns have the ball: The Browns OL is going from a strength to a question mark. They will try to run the ball early and often. They NEED to run the ball to keep Baker clean. Baker also needs to test them deep. Hopefully DPJ is back from concussion, or they can work Hall in. If the Steelers can get to Baker this will be a very long game...and not in a good way.