The second of two “Monday Night Football” games in Week 2 pits old rivals against each other as the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Cleveland Browns.
Cleveland was one of the most surprising winners of the opening week of the season, as the Browns defeated the Cincinnati Bengals in a 24-3 victory. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh was eliminated on their home field by the San Francisco 49ers. In this game, the Browns will try to continue their good start, while the Steelers will try to reverse the tide.
Both teams will be without their best wide receiver for this contest as Amari Cooper and Diontae Johnson are 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 to a defensive battle.
So will the Steelers bounce back or will the Browns send them into an even deeper hole? We will find it soon. Before we look at the matchup, here’s a look at how you can watch the game.
How to watch
Date: Monday, September 18 | Time: 8:15 p.m. ET
Location: Acrisure Stadium (Pittsburgh)
TELEVISION: ABC | Flow: fubo
Follow: CBS Sports app
Chances: Browns -2, O/U 38
When the Browns have the ball
Deshaun Watson has started seven games for the Browns and completed just 57.8% of his passes, averaging 5.3 yards per attempt, while throwing just eight touchdown passes against six interceptions. He also has a sky-high 10.4% sack rate, even worse than the already high mark he posted in Houston. In those seven games, the Browns scored 27, 10, 13, 10, 24, 14 and 24 points, which is an average of just 17.4 per game. This is, to put it mildly, not what the Browns signed when they negotiated and handed the largest guaranteed contract in NFL history to a player who has been accused by more than 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 looked abjectly terrified when any invader entered his airspace, his eyes almost immediately falling towards the rush. This resulted in him sacking an astronomical 30.7% of his pressured dropbacks, the fifth-worst rate among 49 quarterbacks who threw 100 or more passes in 2022 and 2023.
This presents a problem when playing against the Steelers, who not only have TJ Watt, but also Alex Highsmith rushing the passer in front of him. The absence of interior defensive lineman Cameron Heyward should help the Browns keep the run away from Watson, but it is notable that right tackle Jack Conklin is out and fourth-round rookie Dawand Jones will make his first career start alongside a former -Defensive payer of the year. Jones didn’t allow pressure on any of his 20 pass blocks last week, according to Pro Football Focus, but he obviously wasn’t handling Watt last week.
To make 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 was the intended target on 46 of Watson’s 199 pass attempts in Cleveland, a 23.1% share that is significantly higher than that of any other member of 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, although Njoku is likely their most reliable and explosive pass catcher. Pittsburgh has rotated its linebackers this offseason, but has generally been more vulnerable to throws in the short middle than other areas of the field and allowed 85 receptions for 897 yards and five touchdowns to tight ends a year ago. However, throwing to the middle of the field leaves his offense vulnerable to being attacked by Minkah Fitzpatrick, so Watson will have to be careful not to miss high or far on his throws to the athletic tight end.
Given Heyward’s absence and Watson’s struggles, along with Browns coach Kevin Stefanski’s typical leanings, it might be wise for Cleveland to rely on Nick Chubb and the running 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 on that side of the field — is on the light side for a wing player. Running to him might be a wiser 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 primary target.
When the Steelers have the ball
Preseason superstar Kenny Pickett came back to earth last week against the San Francisco 49ers’ vicious defense, looking much like the player he was for most of his rookie season, completing 31 of 46 passes for an average of just 5.0 yards per attempt, with one touchdown, two interceptions and five sacks. He missed the target on 15.2% of his shots, according to TruMedia, a better rate than only Zach Wilson, Marcus Mariota, Justin Fields, Taylor Heinicke, Baker Mayfield and Davis Mills last season.
Of course, playing against San Francisco’s defense can have that effect on even the best defenders. But now Pickett has the misfortune of being involved 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 attacked Burrow and Co. last week, with Schwartz sending at least one extra rusher on an incredible 39.4% of his dropbacks. but when he was, he ranked just 23rd among 33 EPA-qualified quarterbacks in dropback and 31st among the same group in passer rating. Warming it up might be a good strategy here.
This is 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 receivers, Pickett may be playing in tighter windows than usual and relying on players like George Pickens, Allen Robinson and Pat Freiermuth to win in contested situations.
Pittsburgh had almost nothing going on last week, which wasn’t surprising considering the game script and opponent. Cleveland’s run defense was a big problem last season (26th in FTN DVOA), but the hope is to bring 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 fix this problem. They held Joe Mixon to 56 yards on 13 carries last week, and they don’t have to worry too much about explosive runs here because Najee Harris has eight runs of 20 or more yards in his 585 career carries.
Given how bad Cleveland’s passing game looked with Watson at the helm, along with the Steelers’ wealth of experience winning games with their defense, I lean towards Pittsburgh prevailing in what promises to be an ugly, low-scoring game .
Punctuation: Steelers 16, Browns 13
I like my pick for this game, but you might like RJ White’s better. He’s our game guru at SportsLine.com and is on point with his Steelers predictions, going 55-28-4 in his last 87 picks. If you want to check out White’s choice, you can do so here.