(CBS Pittsburgh) — There’s never a dull moment in the AFC North. Going into Week 8, the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, and Pittsburgh Steelers all sit at .500 or better and reasonably positioned for a playoff run. However, their order in the standings is a little different from what we’re used to. The surprising Bengals lead after convincingly downing the Ravens in Week 7. Both teams have jumped out to 5-2 marks. The Browns, preseason favorites after last season’s strong showing, follow at 4-3. But they’ve seemed a bit flat the last couple of weeks and have been bitten by the injury bug. The Steelers trail them by half a game after two wins and a bye week.
Pittsburgh will look to pull even with Cleveland in the win column in Week 8. And with Ben Roethlisberger nicked up and showing his age, they’ll need a strong effort on the ground. The running game in general has become more integral to the offense of late. Rookie Najee Harris ran for 81 yards on 24 carries against the Seattle Seahawks two weeks ago and 122 yards on 23 carries the week prior. Earlier in the season more of his production came on short passes out of the backfield.
“When when I watch them play, it’s like they’re playing small ball,” said NFL On CBS analyst James Lofton. “They’re just trying to hit singles and get guys on base and move down the field that way. You don’t see chunk plays.”
Roethlisberger doesn’t go downfield that often anymore. And his stats on the season — 252.5 yards per game, with 7 TDs and 4 INTs — reflect as much. He no longer has that much mobility, and his offensive line doesn’t give him a lot of time.
According to Lofton, “he’s not what he once was, where we saw some of the greatness that he had, when he was in his youth. He had the ability to just make the defense almost stand still in the pocket. You would see guys who would grab him, and he would fling them off, move around a little bit. He’d rumble and run. And that’s kind of gone. And at age 39, which is normally the age when quarterbacks retire, with the exception of a guy who has gone down to Tampa and drink from the fountain of youth. He’s just like anybody else who’s gotten old.”
The loss of top receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to a shoulder injury and season-ending surgery limits his options as well. Chase Claypool and, more consistently, Diontae Johnson have both stepped up to play bigger roles. But the key is still putting the ball in Harris’s hands and giving him space to work.
The Browns defense knows what to expect. They tightened up against the Denver Broncos after allowing 4 touchdown passes in back-to-back weeks. More importantly for this matchup, Cleveland limited Denver to just 41 yards on the ground. That came after the Arizona Cardinals piled up 144 rushing yards on them. On the season, the Browns defense allows just 80.4 yards per game, the second-best average in the league. In passing situations, Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney will come after Big Ben. The Browns, as a team, have 20 sacks, with Garrett accounting for close to half of them.
The issues for the Browns come on the other side of the ball, where they’ve been banged up and, therefore, limited of late. Quarterback Baker Mayfield has a left shoulder injury that may eventually require surgery to fix. He was held out of Week 7 in favor of Case Keenum, and could easily miss more time. He was limited in practice on Thursday and has said that he won’t jeopardize his health or the team’s chances to play Sunday. A healthy Mayfield would help the Browns offense, but it’s not clear a limited Mayfield would.
Keenum kept the offense moving against the Broncos, going 22-33 for 199 yards and a touchdown. But it was once again the ground game that really mattered. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt missed the game with calf injuries. But D’Ernest Johnson rushed for 146 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Chubb will likely return to share backfield duties with Johnson in a rushing attack that has piled up a league-leading 1,193 yards on the season. Jarvis Landry also returns, giving Keenum another option in passing situations.
A successful run game for the Browns will limit passing situations. But the Steelers defense hasn’t been particularly impressive against either, allowing 107.7 yards rushing and 244.7 yards passing per game. Their pass rush has been steady, but sack totals are pacing far behind last season’s numbers. While still aggressive, the Steelers defense is also lagging in generating turnovers. T.J. Watt, the NFL’s highest paid defender, remains a force at outside linebacker. And he can create opportunities for his teammates.
“Where a defensive lineman beats the guy one on one is when they have an escape route,” Lofton pointed out. “So hands might come from the outside in the form of a chip to keep him from beating you around the corner. They may come from the inside to keep him from taking an inside rush on you. Once those hands have to work to slow T.J. Watt down, somebody else should be able to leak in. T.J. Watt can create rush opportunities for his teammates at the same time. You just have to know where he is every time you’re dropping back to pass, even if he’s on the sidelines.”
With the season not quite half over, this Steelers-Browns matchup isn’t necessarily any more of a must-win than another game. But the loser will fall likely fall a little bit further behind the Bengals, who should be able to dispose of the New York Jets. The Ravens have a bye week, but seem certain bounceback from their Week 7 loss in Week 9. The AFC North is the NFL’s most competitive division, and the cellar is a deep hole to climb out of.
The Steelers play the Browns Sunday, October 31 @ 1:00 p.m. ET on CBS.