TNF Week 3 Preview: Pittsburgh at Cleveland

Pittsburgh safety Minkah Fitzpatrick already has 20 tackles, two interceptions, one pick-six and a blocked extra point in just two games.

Cleveland Browns vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

Line: Cleveland -4.5

Total: 38.5

Where: FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland, Ohio

When: Thursday, 9/22 at 8:15 p.m. ET

TV: Amazon Prime

Cleveland was well on its way to going 2-0 for the first time since 1993 last week, but it collapsed in the final two minutes against the Jets, allowing Joe Flacco to lead a pair of scoring drives.

The Browns won’t have much time to dwell on that setback, as they are facing AFC North rival Pittsburgh on Thursday night at FirstEnergy Stadium. Pittsburgh had a chance to go 2-0 as well, but it came up short against New England in Week 2.

The Steelers have gone 15-4-1 in their last 20 games against Cleveland, covering the spread in five of the last six meetings. They swept the season series last year, winning 26-14 at home and 15-10 as 5-point road underdogs.

Oddsmakers opened Cleveland as a 3-point favorite this time around, but the early betting action has pushed that line to -4.5 as of Tuesday afternoon. The total opened at 40.5 and has been bet down to 38.5 or 38, depending on the sportsbook.

Cleveland was put in a difficult situation to open the season when starting quarterback Deshaun Watson was suspended for 12 games, leaving Jacoby Brissett as the starter. He completed 18 of 34 passes for 147 yards and one touchdown in a 26-24 win over Carolina in Week 1.

Brissett was more efficient last week, going 22 of 27 for 229 yards against New York. The Browns took a 30-17 lead with 1:55 remaining in the game when Nick Chubb scored on a 12-yard run, but they immediately gave up a 66-yard touchdown pass, an onside kick recovery and another touchdown to lose the game.

They are still off to a stronger start than expected offensively without Watson on the field, ranked ninth in the NFL in yards per game (380.0). Chubb has been the catalyst, rushing 39 times for 228 yards and three touchdowns. Brissett and Kareem Hunt are each averaging more than 4.0 yards per carry as well.

Veteran wide receiver Amari Cooper is the top target in the passing game, catching 12 passes for 118 yards and one touchdown. He is facing a Pittsburgh defense that has been struggling without reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt (pectoral), ranked No. 26 in yards allowed per game (404.0).

Pittsburgh’s defense could not get off the field in the final minutes against New England last week, as the Patriots controlled the final 6:33 of possession in a 17-14 final. The Steelers had a chance to get to 2-0 on the season after a surprise win over Cincinnati in overtime as 7-point underdogs in Week 1.

Their offense, which ranked No. 24 in yards per game with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback last year, has been even worse so far this season. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky has completed just 59.2% of his passes for 362 yards, two touchdowns and one interception through two games.

The lack of a passing threat allowed the Bengals and Patriots to stack the box, so Najee Harris is averaging 2.8 yards per carry. He is facing a Cleveland defense that ranked fifth in the league last year, putting even more pressure on Trubisky, whose starting job could be on the line this week with rookie Kenny Pickett waiting patiently for his opportunity.

Cleveland has only covered the spread three times in its last 10 games, including once in its last six home games. The Steelers have gone ‘under’ the total in four of their last five games, and the ‘under’ has cashed in five of the last seven head-to-head meetings between these rivals. This could wind up being the lowest total in a game between Pittsburgh and Cleveland since their Dec. 2017 meeting closed at 38.5.

The pick: Cleveland -4.5

Pittsburgh’s offense desperately needs a spark, but it might not happen on Thursday night. The Steelers have been fortunate to play two close games to open the season, especially with an offense that is not able to move the ball consistently. Defenses are able to stack the box and keep Harris from being the running back that he was last season, which completely nullifies the Steelers offense. Cleveland has been able to overcome the Watson suspension with a strong rushing attack and timely passing from Brissett. My biggest concern is an emotional hangover following the shocking loss to the Jets, but I still feel like there is a larger gap between Cleveland Pittsburgh than there was last season, and the line is not yet portraying that narrative. The Browns were 5-point home favorites when these teams met last season—they should be at least 5-point favorites this time around, especially with Watt remaining sidelined right now.

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