Browns-Steelers Preview: Early Season Showdown In The Tough AFC North

(CBS Pittsburgh) — The Pittsburgh Steelers remained undefeated in Week 5, pushing aside the Philadelphia Eagles to earn their fourth win of the season. But four wins isn’t enough to control an AFC North with two other four-win teams. The Baltimore Ravens also dispatched with the cellar-dwelling Cincinnati Bengals to get to 4-1. And the Cleveland Browns, who the Steelers will host in Week 6, fended off the Indianapolis Colts to stay tied with the Ravens.

The AFC North continues to be the toughest division in football this season, with three early-season playoff contenders. And this week’s Browns-Steelers matchup should be yet more evidence of that. Pittsburgh has owned the rivalry for much of the last two decades. But this year feels a little different.

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“I think what makes this game a great one is that both teams are winning,” says Bill Cowher, former NFL coach and studio analyst on The NFL Today. “Cleveland is 4-1, Pittsburgh is 4-0. Having coached in Pittsburgh and played and coached in Cleveland, I find both of the cities very similar. They’re both blue-collar cities, very passionate sports fans, and they are very passionate about their local teams. When you look at this game, it goes back to the fact that Cleveland for the first time there’s no drama in Cleveland, they seem very focused.”

The Steelers are also very focused, with a menacing defense and Ben Roethlisberger back under center.  After an opening possession that gained one yard on six plays, they reeled off five straight scoring drives against an overmatched Eagles defense. They held a commanding 31-14 lead midway through the third quarter, which proved enough to fend off a late surge from Carson Wentz.

Rookie Chase Claypool, a second-round pick out of Notre Dame, was the hero of the day. He hauled in seven of his 11 targets, three of which went for touchdowns, and racked up 110 receiving yards and another rushing touchdown. But he had help. Ben Roethlisberger completed 27 of his 34 pass attempts for 231 yards, spreading the ball around to eight different receivers. The run game was inefficient, though Ray-Ray McCloud ripped off a 58-yard run in the third quarter to skew the stats.

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Big Ben is playing with a new perspective and a renewed sense of purpose. “He’s a veteran guy with a lot of young players around him,” notes Cowher. “I think he is the leader and needs to be there. It’s a solid offensive line. He is playing really good football. He’s not forcing things. It’s a very unselfish group of receivers. You don’t hear anybody yelling, wanting the ball. He has just been able to sit there and take what the defense has been giving him.”

Roethlisberger also benefits from a strong defense that stepped up last season in his absence and has carried their intensity forward into this season. In only four games, they’re tied for the NFL lead in sacks with 20. “They will harass you, they put pressure on you, they force you to be patient,” says Cowher. “And, if there’s opportunities there, you better seize them, because they come after you, and they’re relentless in doing so.”

That was certainly the case last week. They sacked Wentz five times and held the Eagles rushing attack to just 94 yards. The Steelers defense also tightened up when it had to, stopping the driving Eagles twice late.

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The Browns managed to overcome another of the NFL’s better defenses in their most recent win. They scored a pair of field goals and a pair of touchdowns on their four first-half possessions. A pick-six early in the second half would extend their lead to 27-10, at least momentarily, as the Colts’ Isaiah Rodgers returned the ensuing kickoff 101 yards for a TD. Baker Mayfield struggled to get anything going after halftime, but the defense held tough. Myles Garrett forced Philip Rivers into a safety, and the Browns held on for a 32-23 win.

“Kevin Stefanski has done a very good job of putting an offense in that Baker Mayfield looks very comfortable running,” says Cowher. “They’re running the football. They have a revamped offensive line. Bill Callahan, I think, is one of the best coaches in the National Football League at coaching the offensive line. The defensive front has been very good, led by Myles Garrett. This is a good football team.”

The win over the Colts was the kind of game the Browns are used to losing. The fact that they held on, even in the face of some adversity, has to excite a fanbase used to the team folding at the first sign of strife.

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They’ll face more adversity in Pittsburgh, but the Browns seem to be up to the task. As Cowher sees it, “this is still a statement game for them, going up again Pittsburgh, who has also won four games, at 4-0. It’s been Pittsburgh and Baltimore for so many years, I think, right now, it’s a great opportunity for Cleveland to make a statement and say, you know what, we’re going to challenge for this division as well.”

The Browns play the Steelers Sunday, October 18 @ 1:00 ET on CBS.