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Steelers face Browns clinging to hopes of earning postseason berth

Jan 1, 2023; Baltimore, Maryland, USA;  Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) dives over Baltimore Ravens linebacker Roquan Smith (18) for a fourth quarter touchdown  at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been overcoming the opposition in each of the last three weeks in order to keep their flickering postseason aspirations alive.

On Sunday, the Steelers (8-8) will need to either defeat or tie the visiting Cleveland Browns (7-9) and receive a bit of help in the process in order to reach the playoffs for the third straight season.

In addition to a win, Pittsburgh also will need a loss or a tie by both the New England Patriots (to the Buffalo Bills) and the Miami Dolphins (to the New York Jets) to qualify for the postseason. Should the Steelers tie the Browns, they’d need losses by both the Patriots and Dolphins.

Pittsburgh’s primary focus rests on defeating the Browns, and rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett likely will need to step up in order to have a hand in that. Pickett has paid modest dividends since assuming the starter’s role from Mitchell Trubisky.

“I think it’s reasonable to expect a sharp, hardworking, talented guy to get better with each exposure,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, “and particularly to do so rapidly at the initial stages of gaining experience.”

Pickett tossed a 10-yard touchdown pass to Najee Harris with 56 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter to lift Pittsburgh to a 16-13 victory over the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday. While unspectacular, Pickett has refrained from throwing an interception in six of his past seven starts.

“I want to be that guy that these guys can rely on and they know exactly what they’re getting every day,” Pickett said. “So, I’m going to continue to work on that.”

Harris erupted for a season-high 123 scrimmage yards (111 rushing, 12 receiving) versus the Ravens. He has rushed for a touchdown in each of his three career games versus Cleveland.

Harris, however, did not participate in Wednesday’s practice, albeit for non-injury/rest purposes. Wide receiver Diontae Johnson (hip), safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (ankle), defensive back Tre Norwood (hamstring), cornerback Arthur Maulet (illness), linebacker Myles Jack (groin) and offensive lineman Kevin Dotson (shoulder) also did not practice on Wednesday.

Like Pickett, Cleveland’s Deshaun Watson was not under center for the teams’ first encounter — a 29-17 victory by the Browns on Sept. 22. While Pickett was being taken along slowly since being selected in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, Watson was serving an 11-game NFL suspension for violating the league’s personal-conduct policy.

Watson has struggled to get back on track after a pronounced absence, guiding Cleveland’s offense to just three total touchdowns in his first 18 quarters. In the second half on Sunday, however, Watson tossed a season-high three touchdown passes in a 24-10 win over the Washington Commanders.

“Each week has been an opportunity for me to build my confidence and get back in that rhythm,” Watson said. “Each week has been a stepping-stone we’ve been — I’ve been — able to check off the box of what we want to improve and, you know, get ready for the next season.”

Running back Nick Chubb rushed for 113 yards in the teams’ first meeting. He sits 52 yards shy of joining Hall of Famer Jim Brown as the only players in franchise history with 1,500-plus rush yards in a single season.

Led by Chubb, Cleveland has rushed for 147.3 yards per game — sixth-best in the NFL. Pittsburgh, however, sports the league’s seventh-stingiest rush defense (106.5).

Amari Cooper had two touchdown receptions last week and also reeled in a scoring strike in the previous meeting with Pittsburgh.

Cooper, however, joined guard Joel Bitonio, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and defensive end Myles Garrett in sitting out Wednesday’s practice due to rest purposes. Tackle Jack Conklin (ankle), running back D’Ernest Johnson (shoulder) and cornerback Denzel Ward (shoulder) also did not participate in practice.

–Field Level Media