So Much On The Line For Browns And Steelers In Season Finale

Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods' job could be on the line as he opposes his professional mentor, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, whose playoff life and streak of non-losing seasons is also on the line. (USA Today)

Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods' job could be on the line as he opposes his professional mentor, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, whose playoff life and streak of non-losing seasons is also on the line. (USA Today)

So much on the line for Browns and Steelers in season finale

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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for and 850 ESPN Cleveland. He has covered the Browns since 1984.


Four downs on Browns (7-9) v. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)

First down: Knockout or lay down?

The stakes of the final Browns game are clear-cut. The Steelers need to win to: A.) Earn the AFC No. 7 playoff seed, with losses by New England and Miami; B.) Avoid the first losing season in Mike Tomlin’s 16 years as Steelers coach; C.) Avoid their first fourth-place finish since the inception of the AFC North in 2002. Should the Steelers win and get knocked out by a New England or Miami win, Tomlin would consider the day a success if he avoids his first losing season. The Browns need to win to: A.) Single-handedly eliminate the Steelers from playoff field for the first time since the rivals have met in 1950; B.) Sweep the season series with the Steelers for the first time since 1988; C.) Finish ahead of the Steelers in division standings for the first time since 1989; D.) Avoid the sixth double-digit loss season in Jimmy Haslam’s 10 years of ownership and the fourth in Paul DePodesta’s seven years as chief strategy officer. 

Second down: James Hudson, 2.0.

In the 16th game of the 2021 season, aka, Baker Mayfield’s last game as Browns quarterback, T.J. Watt wrapped up the NFL defensive player-of-the-year award with a Hall of Fame night. Singled against Browns rookie right tackle James Hudson most of the game, Watt sacked Mayfield four times, had three additional tackles-for-loss and two quarterback hits, and batted down two Mayfield passes. At times, Watt trolled Mayfield with a Dikembe Motumbu finger wag. After the game, Mayfield submitted and essentially said he was done for the year and would not play in the 17th game. “When you got T.J. Watt over there and we’re not giving our rookie tackle a whole lot of help, that’s not going to be good,” Mayfield said, throwing the coaches under the bus. “This is the NFL. You have to be able to adapt mid-game and we didn’t do a good enough job, as you can tell.” Hudson will get the starting nod against Watt this time because Jack Conklin, flushed with a new, four-year/$60 million deal, is out with an ankle injury. In his second year, Hudson has been a development project of offensive line coach Bill Callahan and assistant Scott Peters. Frankly, he has responded better than 2020 overall No. 10 pick Jedrick Wills, who continues to be a concern. This week, offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said of Hudson: “Just the experience of going against [Watt] and studying what his plan was against James and how he can counter that. We have to help him at the same time. We were deep in the pocket last year at times, and that made it tougher for James. Being where we are supposed to be and things like that. James is a year older. He has been through the training of Bill and Scott for another year, and we expect James to  play better than he played last year if he does play.” A large factor is that Deshaun Watson should be able to escape Watt better than the slow-footed Mayfield, though Watson’s pocket awareness sometimes is a problem.

Third down: A look back.

On the second night of the 2022 draft, Browns GM Andrew Berry traded the 44th overall pick to the Houston Texans – a recurring, familiar partner of the Browns – for picks Nos. 68, 108 and 124. The trade meant the Browns wouldn’t take a much-needed receiver in the second round. Eight were already taken. The ninth was taken at No. 43 by the New York Giants – Wan’Dale Robinson of Kentucky. The 10th was taken at No. 44 by the Texans – Jon Metchie of Alabama. The 10th was taken at No. 50 by the New England Patriots – Tyquan Thornton of Baylor. And the 11th was taken at No. 52 by the Steelers – George Pickens of Georgia. Robinson and Thornton have been meh and Metchie missed the entire season after being diagnosed with a form of leukemia. Pickens, however, has flashed No. 1 star potential statistically (49 receptions, 729 yards, 3 TDs) and, mostly, artistically in Pittsburgh’s struggling pass offense. Did Berry do the right thing? With the picks acquired in the trade-down, Berry selected cornerback M.J. Emerson, defensive tackle Perrion Winfrey and kicker Cade York. Right now, you can argue that Berry has the upper hand of the trade in Year 1. Emerson and York have had good rookie years – yes, York is over 100 points – and if Winfrey matures and develops, he could be a force inside the defensive line. Pickens (6-3 and 200 pounds) is sensational on the boundary and on 50-50 balls, but is not used over the middle as a rookie. But talents like Pickens are rare. An Emerson-v.-Pickens matchup will be something to watch in this game.

Fourth down: Whither Myles Garrett?

Because of the Jadeveon Clowney freak show – he’s been left home after derogatory comments to on Thursday – Garrett concludes his sixth NFL season without a suitable complement at the opposite defensive end position. Unless the Browns’ pervasive analytics department intervenes, Clowney will not be back in 2023. Garrett continues to rack up sacks – 15 on this season, which ups his career total to 73.5 over six years – Pro Bowl honors (four) and high analytics grades. But Garrett has not received a single vote in defensive player-of-the-year balloting in five seasons because of overall lack of team success and Garrett big games with playoffs on the line. Like former Browns left tackle Joe Thomas, Garrett alone can not change the losing culture of the Browns. That doesn’t mean he can’t follow the pathway of Thomas to legit Pro Football Hall of Fame consideration. It would behoove Garrett, however, to outplay Watt in these annual Browns-Steelers slugfests to garner some DPOY support. He has not done that.

The pick: Browns 23, Steelers 18.

My record. 7-9.