Week 17 – Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers

Both the Browns and the Steelers enter this week as long shots to make the playoffs, grasping at 13.5% (Browns) and 11% (Steelers) chances to make the postseason. And beyond both having equal motivation in this game, the Brown’s rest advantage (1 extra day) is likely negated by the strong home field advantage the Steelers have enjoyed (we noted this long term trend in a week 9 matchup vs. the Bears), buoyed by Brad Allen’s staff and his 20% MORE penalties called on road teams this season. In other words, there are subjective edges in this game, but since they are going in opposite directions, there likely isn’t much value to glean here.

Ryan’s Season Totals

Assigned Games: 24-18-1 

Best Bets: 29-17, Up 1458%


  • Opening Line: Pittsburgh  -1
  • Current Line: Pittsburgh  +3.5
  • Over/Under: 41
  • Location: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA
  • Start Time: 8:15 PM EST, MON 1/3
  • Last Meeting: Steelers 15, Browns 10 in Cleveland earlier this year


The 23rd rated Steelers (by DVOA) have mostly disappointed those outside of the analytics community  that couldn’t see winning 7 of 9 one score games wasn’t sustainable (mostly inside the city of Pittsburgh), and their “11-game winning streak” was more aberration than anything. Yet, for those in the know, the offense and defense couldn’t have veered further from their expectations.

For the offense, Matt Canada was hired to bring some life into a stale offense that always seemed to be one LeVeon Bell, or one Antonio Brown away from being good. He promised to finally force Ben Rothlisberger to use play-action (if you’re not familiar, Play-Action passing is the most efficient football play, and Big Ben had refused to utilize for years, see here for more details), and to his credit the Steelers have nearly doubled their use of play-action this season from 11.8% ro 20%. He has also implemented some other “low hanging fruit”-type-tactics such as more pre snap motion and less runs into stacked boxes. Yet, he (or more likely Head Coach, Mike Tomlin) refuses to accept the most obvious “analytics tactic” optimizing 4th down decisions. As PFF pointed out last week, despite the fact it seems “Analytics are Winning” and we went from 0 teams in 2015 that made the majority (> 50%) of optimal 4th down decisions, to 15 teams in 2021 making the right calls (interestingly led by Cleveland at 83% correct decisions), the Steelers are NOT one of them. According to EDJ Sports, Mike Tomlin and the Steelers offense are the worst team in the NFL at making the correct call on 4th down. All of these 1 step forward, 1 step back tactical shifts have led the Steelers offense pretty much in the same place it was in 2020: 23rd in the NFL.

As for Cleveland, they were a team many believed to take a step forward in 2021, based on a much improved defense. Coming out of the draft and free agency last offseason, PFF had the Browns included in their list of 3 most improved teams, including the #1 most improved defensive secondary and #2 most improved DL. This improvement, particularly focusing on a holistic approach (improving a little bit everywhere, in lieu of bringing in one elite player) has not only worked, but completely “hit the mark”. According to the PFF current grades, the Browns Defense is the only team in the NFL to have ALL units ranked in the top ten (Overall #6, Run Defense #10, Tackling #9, Pass Rush #7, Coverage #5).

On the other side of the ball the Browns have issues. Baker Mayfield has seemingly taken a step back this year, and as an offense they have had to almost exclusively rely on their strong running game (#2 Rushing DVOA in NFL), which admittedly added a bit of a wrinkle: 13 personnel. As Sharp Football Analysis noted a few weeks back, the Browns and their heavy use of 13 personnel (the Browns have run 16% of ALL the 13 personnel plays ran in the NFL) has allowed the run game, and its play-action boot compliments(where Baker thrives), to help steady an offense that’s been dragged down by Baker’s regression.


  • The Steelers are 5-4 as 3.5-point underdogs or greater.
  • This season, six of Pittsburgh’s 15 games have gone over the point total.
  • Against the spread, Cleveland is 7-9-0 this season.

Bottom Line

In what’s starting to feel like “normal”, we have another game with rapid line movement, with NO COVID involved. This line has moved 4.5 points, between teams, across key numbers and may still be moving. Possibly as a great example highlighting how dynamic the market feels about these teams, take a look at how PFF and Football Outsiders differ in grading these teams: Football Outsiders has the Browns at 14th and Steelers at 23rd, yet PFF has the teams at 8th and 26th respectively. Our model calls for the Browns here, but we’re staying away. I will say though, if you want to chase steam, betting the Steelers on the moneyline may be the way to go, as it’s how the sharps are currently betting. You can tell this as currently 29% of the total bets placed have been placed on the Steelers at +155, yet 85% of the money is on Pittsburgh.

Prediction: Browns 20, Steelers 18The Picks: Steelers +3.5, UNDER 41

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