A wild Week 2 concludes tonight with a “Monday Night Football” doubleheader. The Saints and Panthers kick off the show at 7:15pm ET, followed shortly by the Steelers and Browns at their typical 8:15pm start. Most of us will switch back and forth between games, enjoying the rare benefits of having more than one option on a Monday night. Personally, I like tunneling without distractions. So I’ll check things out in Carolina for the first hour before moving on to the matchup of the evening.
I’m a sucker for Browns-Steelers or any AFC North rivalry game, especially when it’s significant. Now that the division is suddenly up for grabs after the Bengals’ 0-2 start, Monday seems more important than the typical Week 2 contest. Going into the season, the AFC North was clearly seen as one of the deepest divisions in football . One could legitimately argue that any of the four teams could end up in the playoffs. After a brilliant preseason from QB Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh failed to cover its first game as a home underdog in an embarrassing 30-7 loss to San Francisco. However, Cleveland did not disappoint bettors. The Browns played host to a 24-3 win, led by a dominant defense that sculpted Cincinnati’s offensive line.
Everyone heard the cautionary tales of Week 2. Teams are never as good or as bad as they seemed the week before. We see both examples in Monday’s game, knowing that the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle. If that weren’t the case, 99% of the control would fall to Cleveland tonight. Instead, we wonder if two points is two points too many to hand to Mike Tomlin in his second straight game as a home underdog. Before I explain how I bet on tonight’s game, let’s take a look at the key matchup that paved the way for my bet.
Can Pittsburgh protect Kenny Pickett from the new Browns defense?
The 49ers defense punished Pickett in Week 1. He was under constant pressure which led to five sacks and the young quarterback was forced into two interceptions. The Steelers scored three times in their first five drives of the game, three of which totaled negative yards. Pickett was clearly rattled by the pressure, which likely led new Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to smell blood in the water.
Along with a new aggressive scheme, Cleveland landed DE Za’Darius Smith to give the Browns’ pass rush some teeth outside of Myles Garrett. They saw immediate results, bottling the Bengals for 142 total yards and 2.6 yards per play. Is it repeatable? Maybe not to that extent, but the Steelers still face a long night on offense. The Browns defenders are putting in a great performance against the best trio of wide receivers in the NFL. There is a ripple effect with Diontae Johnson not being in the lineup. It allows Schwartz to give more attention to George Pickens, while providing solid coverage to buy time for the pass rush to get home.
The Browns’ defensive front, or the Steelers’ ability to neutralize them, will go a long way in determining whether Pickett can lead the Steelers to their first win.
The Mike Tomlin effect
We love models as punters, but we try not to get too caught up in trends. Mike Tomlin is rightfully one of the most respected coaches in the league. He holds an NFL record of 16 consecutive unbeaten seasons since the start of his career. His accomplishments make you want to believe the man can do anything. He has been one of the best bets you can make as a home underdog during his coaching career (16-5-3 ATS). However, he was a house dog last week, when the Steelers suffered the most lopsided home loss of his tenure. Last season, the Steelers covered the spread in 3 of 4 games following an ATS loss as underdogs. You can see it as a prime pick-up point or that last week was a sign of things to come.
There’s a reason this game’s total is 38. Both teams will have trouble with their opponents’ pass rush. TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith will destroy the right side of the Browns offensive line to take advantage of the loss of Jack Conklin. Kenny Pickett will replace Myles Garrett for all four quarters. That’s what happens after he brings me back to the Browns. Even without Conklin, Cleveland will be able to run the football effectively behind a solid offensive line. Christian McCaffrey steamrolled the Steelers defense for 152 yards on 6.9 yards per carry. Having Nick Chubb, one of the most consistent running backs in the league, takes so much pressure off the quarterback.
Pickett doesn’t have that luxury. Additionally, Monday will be just his 15th league start. A veteran defensive coordinator like Schwartz will have an advantage, considering he can throw some confused looks while unleashing Garrett and Smith on the former first-round pick. The Steelers offense will look improved, but I’m skeptical it can get the job done against a deeper, more balanced team in Cleveland. I would bet on the Browns as long as he stays under a field goal.