Steelers ready to face new-look Browns offense Sunday
New quarterback. New running back. New wide receiver.
Sounds like the typical yearly turnover for the Cleveland Browns.
The only difference is, this turnover isn’t from last year. It’s from last month.
When the Browns visit Heinz Field on Sunday, Tyrod Taylor will be on the bench, Carlos Hyde will be carrying the ball for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Josh Gordon will be catching passes for the New England Patriots.
Those three players accounted for all three touchdowns the Browns scored in the season-opening 21-21 tie against the Pittsburgh Steelers. They also combined for 137 yards rushing, 197 passing and 20 receiving in that game.
Seven weeks later, the Browns have accelerated their rebuilding plan by replacing those veterans with three rookies on offense: No. 1 overall draft pick Baker Mayfield at quarterback, second-rounder Nick Chubb at running back and fourth-rounder Antonio Callaway at wide receiver.
“They are a group that presents some very specific challenges,” coach Mike Tomlin said this week, “and they are different in some ways than they were the last time we played them.”
At 2-4-1, the Browns remain in last place in the AFC North amid all of the changes, but they already have exceeded their win total from the 2016-17 seasons combined. The Browns have been involved in four overtime games this season and every game except for a 38-14 loss to San Diego has been decided by four points or fewer, a sign of the team’s competitiveness.
But with all of changes at the skill positions, did the Steelers bother watching film of the Week 1 matchup in Cleveland or did they begin preparations for the Browns with a clean slate?
“A little bit of both,” outside linebacker T.J. Watt said. “The tackles are the same, we saw Nick Chubb a little bit, and the wide receivers are still the same except for Gordon. There are still bits and pieces you can look at from an individual matchup standpoint.
“But you have to realize that even if all the components are there, the team has been evolving the past few weeks. You just learn what you can from that game and tie in things they have been doing in recent weeks.”
The first piece to leave was Gordon, who caught a 17-yard touchdown pass in the opener. Gordon, who missed almost three season because of drug suspensions, was traded to New England after he was inactive for the second game. The deal made Jarvis Landry the go-to receiver, put Callaway into a starting role and made tight end David Njoku a vital part of the offense.
“That puts more on the plate of the guys that are playing,” cornerback Joe Haden said.
The Browns turned to Mayfield in Week 3 when Taylor was injured against the New York Jets. Mayfield led the Browns to a 21-17 win and then helped spark a 12-9 overtime win against the Baltimore Ravens two weeks later.
Mayfield’s 1,090 passing yards are the most by a Browns quarterback through his first four starts and his 104.4 passer rating in a 26-23 overtime loss to Tampa Bay last weekend was the highest of his brief career.
Taylor got most of the first-team snaps in practice until his injury, so coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley have had to accelerate Mayfield’s development in the past month.
“It’s been a challenge, but I think we’re working through it,” Jackson said. “I think Baker has handled it extremely well. Todd and that staff have handled it extremely well. We’re doing everything we can to make sure he’s comfortable and that he can play at a high level.
“There are things as a young quarterback we all know, that it’s a process they need to go through to get where they need to be. I think we’re in that process right now.”
Mayfield isn’t as much of a threat to run as Taylor, who had 77 yards rushing, including a 20-yard touchdown, against the Steelers. But he isn’t afraid to take off when he gets outside the pocket as evidenced by the 43 yards rushing he had on four carries against Tampa Bay.
“Tyrod scrambles to run. Baker scrambles to pass still with eyes down the field,” Haden said. “He does a really good job of anticipating and throwing in small windows.”
Added outside linebacker Bud Dupree: “He wasn’t the No. 1 pick for no reason. We have to make sure we contain him.”
Chubb became the starting running back when Hyde, who had 62 yards rushing and a touchdown against the Steelers, was traded to Jacksonville a week ago. Chubb rushed for 80 yards and a touchdown against Tampa Bay.
Tomlin scouted Chubb heading into the draft after it seemed like the running back spent “eight years” at Georgia.
“Going through that process, it’s not surprising that they felt comfortable enough to move Hyde and feature him,” Tomlin said. “He’s a grown man, so we have to minimize his impact on it.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.