The second of two “Monday Night Football” games in Week 2 pits old rivals against each other as the Pittsburgh Steelers play host to the Cleveland Browns.
Cleveland was one of the most surprising winners of the season’s opening week, as the Browns laid the smack down against the Cincinnati Bengals in a 24-3 win. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, was blown out on their home field by the San Francisco 49ers. In this game, the Browns will be looking to continue their good start, while the Steelers attempt to reverse the tide.
Both teams will be without their top wide receiver for this contest, as Amari Cooper and Diontae Johnson are each dealing with injuries. There are plenty of other injuries that will impact this game (Cam Heyward, Jack Conklin), and all of the expected absences point toward a defensive-minded battle.
So, will the Steelers bounce back, or will the Browns send them into an even deeper hole? We’ll found in soon enough. Before we break down the matchup, he’s a look at how you can watch the game.
How to watch
Date: Monday, Sept. 18 | Time: 8:15 p.m. ET
Location: Acrisure Stadium (Pittsburgh)
TV: ABC | Stream: fubo
Follow: CBS Sports App
Odds: Browns -2, O/U 38
When the Browns have the ball
Deshaun Watson has now started seven games for the Browns, and he has completed just 57.8% of his passes at an average of 5.3 yards per attempt while throwing only eight touchdown passes against six interceptions. He also has a sky-high sack rate of 10.4%, even worse than the already-high mark he posted in Houston. In those seven games, the Browns have scored 27, 10, 13, 10, 24, 14, and 24 points, good for an average of just 17.4 per game. That is, to put it mildly, not what the Browns signed up for when they traded for and handed the largest guaranteed contract in NFL history to a player who had been accused by upward of 20 women of sexual misconduct.
Watson has been an absolute disaster when under pressure: He’s 20 of 52 (38.5%) for 244 yards (4.7 per attempt) with two scores and three picks, according to TruMedia. He has looked abjectly terrified when any rushers enter his airspace, with his eyes almost immediately dropping toward the rush. That’s resulted in his taking a sack on an astronomical 30.7% of his pressured dropbacks, the fifth-worst rate among 49 quarterbacks who have thrown 100 or more passes across 2022 and 2023.
This presents a problem when playing against the Steelers, who not only have T.J. Watt but also Alex Highsmith rushing the passer across from him. The absence of stud interior defensive lineman Cameron Heyward should help the Browns keep the rush away from Watson, but it’s notable that right tackle Jack Conklin is out and rookie fourth-round pick Dawand Jones will make his first career start across from a former Defensive Payer of the Year. Jones didn’t allow a pressure on any of his 20 pass-blocking snaps last week, according to Pro Football Focus, but he obviously was not dealing with Watt last week.
Making matters worse for Watson, his No. 1 wide receiver, Amari Cooper, is expected to miss this game after suffering an injury during practice last week. Cooper Cooper has been the intended target on 46 of Watson’s 199 Cleveland pass attempts, a 23.1% share that is significantly higher than that of anyone else on the team. (Donovan Peoples-Jones is second with 32 targets and tight end David Njoku is third with 31.)
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Without Cooper, the Browns will likely use DPJ and Elijah Moore as their top two receivers, though Njoku is probably their most reliable and most explosive pass-catcher. Pittsburgh swapped out its linebackers this offseason, but has generally been more vulnerable to throws over the short middle than other areas of the field and allowed 85 receptions fopr 897 yards and five touchdowns to tight ends a year ago. Throwing over the middle of the field does leave your offense vulnerable to being preyed upon by Minkah Fitzpatrick, though, so Watson will have to be careful not to miss high or wide with his throws to the athletic tight end.
Given Heyward’s absence and Watson’s struggles, along with the typical inclinations of Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski, it might be wise for Cleveland to lean on Nick Chubb and the run game. The left side of the offensive line remains intact with Jedrick Wills and Joel Bitonio, and at 242 pounds Highsmith — who typically lines up to that side of the field — is on the lighted side for an edge player. Running at him might be a wiser course of action than entrusting the game to a quarterback who has done nothing but struggle since his arrival and will be playing a road game without his top target.
When the Steelers have the ball
Preseason superstar Kenny Pickett came crashing back down to earth last week against the vicious San Francisco 49ers defense, looking a whole lot like the player he was for most of his rookie season by completing 31 of 46 passes at an average of just 5.0 yards per attempt, with one touchdown, two interceptions, and five sacks. He was off target with 15.2% of his throws, per TruMedia, a rate better than only those of Zach Wilson, Marcus Mariota, Justin Fields, Taylor Heinicke, Baker Mayfield, and Davis Mills last season.
Of course, playing against the San Francisco defense can have that effect on even the best quarterbacks. But now Pickett has the misfortune of tangling with a Browns unit that held the Bengals completely in check in Week 1 and suddenly looks like a potentially terrifying group under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Cleveland relentlessly blitzed Burrow and Co. last week, with Schwartz sending at least one extra rusher on an incredibly 39.4% of his dropbacks. but when he was he ranked just 23rd out of 33 qualified quarterbacks in EPA per dropback and 31st among the same group in passer rating. Heating him up could be a good strategy here.
That’s especially true considering the Steelers will be without No. 1 wide receiver Diontae Johnson, who suffered a hamstring injury during the season opener. Without Johnson, who is the best separator among the Steelers’ wide receiver corps, Pickett might be throwing into tighter windows than usual and trusting the likes of George Pickens, Allen Robinson and Pat Freiermuth to win in contested-catch situations.
Pittsburgh got almost nothing going on the ground last week, which was unsurprising considering the game script and opponent. Cleveland’s run defense was a major problem last season (26th in FTN’s DVOA), but the hope is bringing in players like Dalvin Tomlinson and Shelby Harris on the interior, along with Za’Darius Smith to pair with Myles Garrett on the edge, will help rectify that issue. They held Joe Mixon to 56 yards on 13 carries last week, and they don’t have to worry much about explosive runs here because Najee Harris eight rushes of 20 or more yards on his 585 career carries.
Given how bad Cleveland’s passing game has looked with Watson at the helm, along with the Steelers’ wealth of experience winning games with their defense, I lean toward Pittsburgh to prevail in what promises to be an ugly, low-scoring game.
Score: Steelers 16, Browns 13
I like my pick for this game, but you might like R.J. White’s better. He’s our gambling guru over at SportsLine.com and he’s been on roll with his Steelers predictions, going 55-28-4 on his last 87 picks. If you want to check out White’s pick, you can do that here.