A wild Week 2 concludes this evening with a "Monday Night Football" doubleheader. The Saints and Panthers get the show started early at 7:15 p.m. ET, shortly followed by the Steelers and Browns at the typical 8:15 start. Most of us will be flipping back-and-forth between games, enjoying the rare perks of having more than one option on a Monday night. Personally, I like to tunnel in without distraction. So I will check things out in Carolina for the first hour before getting locked in to the feature matchup of the night.
I’m a sucker for a Browns-Steelers or any AFC North rivalry game, especially when it’s a meaningful one. Now that the division is suddenly up for grabs after the Bengals' 0-2 start, Monday feels more important than your typical Week 2 contest. Going into the season, the AFC North was clearly viewed as one of the deepest divisions in football. You could legitimately make a case that any of the four teams could end up in the playoffs. After a lights-out preseason from QB Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh failed to cover in the opener as home underdogs in an embarrassing 30-7 loss to San Francisco. However, Cleveland did not disappoint bettors. The Browns delivered in the home dog role with a 24-3 win, led by a dominant defense that carved up Cincinnati’s offensive line.
Everyone has heard the cautionary tales of Week 2. Teams are never as good or as bad as they looked the previous week. We are seeing both examples in Monday's matchup, knowing the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle. If that weren't the case, 99% of the handle would be on Cleveland tonight. Instead, we are left wondering if two points is two points too many to hand Mike Tomlin in his second consecutive game as a home underdog. Before I break down how I’m betting on tonight’s game, let’s look at the key matchup that paved the way to my wager.
Can Pittsburgh protect Kenny Pickett against Browns' new-look defense?
The 49ers defense punished Pickett in Week 1. He was under constant pressure that resulted in five sacks, and the young quarterback was forced into two interceptions. The Steelers went three-and-out on their first five drives of the game, with three of those drives netting negative yardage. Pickett was clearly rattled by the pressure, which likely has new Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz smelling blood in the water.
Along with an aggressive new scheme, Cleveland landed DE Za'Darius Smith to give the Browns' pass-rush some teeth outside of Myles Garrett. They saw immediate results, bottling up the Bengals for 142 total yards and 2.6 yards per play. Is it repeatable? Maybe not to that extent, but the Steelers are still in for a long night on offense. The Browns defensive backs are coming off a strong performance against the best wide receiver trio in the NFL. There is a trickle-down effect to Diontae Johnson not being in the lineup. It allows Schwartz to allocate 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, is going to go a long way in determining whether Pickett can lead the Steelers to their first win.
The Mike Tomlin Effect
We love patterns as bettors, but try not to get too caught up in the trends. Mike Tomlin is rightfully one of the most respected coaches in the league. He holds an NFL record of 16 straight non-losing seasons to start 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 through his coaching career (16-5-3 ATS). However, he was a home 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 an underdog. You can view it as a prime bounce-back spot or that last week was a sign of things to come.
There is a reason the total on this game is 38. Both teams are going to struggle with their opponents' pass rush. T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith will wreck the right side of the Browns offensive line to exploit the loss of Jack Conklin. Kenny Pickett will be running from Myles Garrett for all four quarters. It’s what happens next that leads me back to the Browns. Even without Conklin, Cleveland will be able to effectively run the football 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. Also, Monday will only be his 15th start in the league. A veteran defensive coordinator like Schwartz will have an edge, considering he can fire up some confusing looks while unleashing Garrett and Smith at the former first-round pick. The Steelers offense will look improved, but I am skeptical it can get the job done against a deeper, more balanced team in Cleveland. I’d bet the Browns as long as it remains under a field goal.