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Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns: 5 players to watch on ‘Thursday Night Football’

Vincent Frank

The Pittsburgh Steelers travel to Ohio to take on the Cleveland Browns in a huge rivalry game to open NFL’s Week 3 slate on Amazon Prime’s Thursday Night Football.

This is an absolutely huge game between two teams coming off ugly Week 2 losses. Pittsburgh fell to an average New England Patriots squad while the Browns blew a double-digit lead with less than 90 seconds remaining against the New York Jets.

As much as we hate to say it, this could be an early-season must-win game for both AFC North teams. Below, we check in on five players you should watch come Thursday evening.

Related: Sportsnaut’s Week 3 NFL power rankings

Malik Reed stepping into big shoes for the Pittsburgh Steelers

pittsburgh steelers at cleveland browns: malik reed
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

With star edge rusher T.J. Watt sidelined, this former undrafted free agent from Nevada is splitting time with veteran Tyson Alualu. Though, it must be noted that Malik Reed comes in when the opposing team finds itself in obvious passing situations. He’s more of a threat in those circumstances than a player in Alualu who has primarily suited up inside thoughout his career.

Through two games this season, Pittsburgh’s defense has been able to rack up seven sacks. Alex Highsmith leads the squad with three. Getting more production opposite him with Watt sidelined Thursday evening would make an already questionable Browns passing offense that much more inept. It won’t be an easy task going up against a Browns offensive line that’s yielded all of two sacks of Jacoby Brissett in as many games.

Related: Cleveland Browns schedule and game-by-game predictions

Martin Emerson must continue to play for the Cleveland Browns

pittsburgh steelers at clevland browns: martin emerson
Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Denzel Ward is among the best boundary cornerbacks in the NFL. Former first-round pick Greg Newsome continues to do his thing in the slot. Realistically, the only question mark in Cleveland’s secondary right now is the right cornerback spot. A rookie third-round pick from Mississippi State, Emerson has played in north of 75% of the Browns’ defensive snaps through two games.

Being thrown into the fire as a rookie cornerback is not great. And in reality, Emerson has struggled through two games. That includes allowing 7-of-11 passes thrown in his direction to be completed. The touchdown he allowed to fellow rookie Garrett Wilson against the New York Jets wasn’t great. He’ll be up against it taking on Steelers No.1 receiver Diontae Johnson Thursday night.

Related: Pittsburgh Steelers schedule and game-by-game predictions

Najee Harris’ dual-threat ability for the Pittsburgh Steelers

pittsburgh steelers at cleveland browns: najee harris
Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Whether it’s being banged up or something completely different, Harris just has not been the same player thus far as a sophomore as he was during a brilliant rookie season for the Pittsburgh Steelers. This team ranks 26th in the NFL in rushing offense and is averaging less than four yards per tote.

  • Najee Harris stats (2022): 25 attempts, 72 yards, 2.9 average, 7 receptions, 43 yards

For Harris, it has not been as much about poor run-blocking. Rather, he’s not seeing the field as well as last season. Too often, the former Alabama star is wasting open lanes.

If Harris isn’t going to have success on the ground, he at least must continue to provide Mitch Trubisky a receiving component out of the backfield against a darn good Cleveland Browns defense Thursday night. Ideally, he’ll also provide something of substance on the ground, too.

Related: Sportsnaut’s NFL Playoff and Super Bowl predictions

Donovan Peoples-Jones on the spot for the Cleveland Browns

NFL: Chicago Bears at Cleveland Browns
Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Outside of Amari Cooper, Browns wide receivers have struggled big time thus far this season. Peoples-Jones has caught 6-of-12 targets for 60 yards. He’s averaging a mere 5.0 yards per target. Despite this, Cleveland’s coaching staff likes what it sees in the former Michigan standout.

“I think Donovan has put himself in position to be real successful on the field because of what he has done prior to the game. His preparation has been outstanding. When I talk about preparation, there are a lot of things that go into preparation. One of the things is your fundamental preparation. He has worked extremely hard to be fundamentally sound at catching the football.”

Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea on Donovan Peoples-Jones

This now needs to show in live-game action. Brissett is limited throwing the ball. We know that all-too well. Going up against an underrated corner in Ahkello Witherspoon (35.1 QB rating allowed in 2021), Peoples-Jones needs to do more to help his veteran quarterback.

Related: 3 things Pittsburgh Steelers QB Mitch Trubisky must do to avoid being benched

Mitch Trubisky’s last chance to shine for the Pittsburgh Steelers

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

We know the narrative surrounding Mitch Trubisky in his first season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He opened the campaign favored to be the first quarterback benched around the NFL after rookie Kenny Pickett excelled during the preseason. It’s now been a mixed bag through the first two games of the campaign.

At issue here is Trubisky’s unwillingness to push the ball down the field and some real accuracy issues (59% completion). Pittsburgh ranks 29th in the NFL in passing while Trubisky’s QB rating is in the bottom seven. He’s also averaging a mere 5.1 yards per attempt.

If the Steelers come up short with Trubisky struggling Thursday night, he could find himself riding the pine. They have games coming up against the Bills, Buccaneers, Dolphins and Eagles ahead of a Week 9 bye. It could soon become apparent that this team is not a contender, leading to Mike Tomlin and Co. rolling with the youngster under center.