Cleveland Browns (2-7) at Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4)
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger injured his foot last week against the Raiders and, though he’s gotten some limited practice in this week, the injury is typically a multi-week one and he’s not expected to play in this game against Cleveland, ahead of Pittsburgh’s bye next week. Landry Jones would start in his absence. That’s a big deal, as the Steelers have really struggled offensively this season without Roethlisberger. In the 3 games he’s started and finished, the Steelers have moved the chains at a 77.08% rate, as opposed to 66.48% in their other 6. Jones is better than Michael Vick, who was making starts earlier this season in Roethlisberger’s absence, but he’s still a clear downgrade under center.
It’s not just the Roethlisberger injury. The Steelers have lost running back Le’Veon Bell and left tackle Kelvin Beachum for the season with injuries, while Maurkice Pouncey has yet to play and may not return this season. That’s 4 key starters from last year’s dominant offense, which had next to no injuries. On the defensive side of the ball, James Harrison is expected to be out, which means the Steelers could also be without one of their top defensive players. The Browns have injuries too, missing cornerback Joe Haden, safety Donte Whitner, and left guard Joel Bitonio, but Haden and Whitner have missed significant time this year already and haven’t played well when on the field. The Steelers rank 18th on the season in rate of moving the chains differential, as opposed to 28th for the Browns, but, given all of their injuries, they should not be favored by 6 points here at home.
That’s relevant for more than the obvious reason. Good teams tend to beat up inferior teams going into a bye, as home favorites of 6+ are 59-20 ATS before a bye since 2008. However, small home favorites struggle going into a bye, probably because they get caught looking forward to the bye. Home favorites of 1-5.5 are 39-63 ATS going into a bye, over the same time period. The Steelers are favored by 6, but I think the logic of the latter trend applies better here. The Steelers are in a bad spot anyway, as teams are 29-49 ATS as home favorites off of a win by 1-3 points as favorites, since 2008. The Steelers won by a field goal as home favorites against Oakland last week. Despite that, the public is all over them and I love fading the public whenever it makes sense, as they always lose money in the long run. It makes sense here.
It also helps that the Browns are in their 2nd straight road game, following their loss in Cincinnati last week. Teams are 122-87 ATS as road underdogs off a road loss since 2008, including 100-59 ATS when it’s their 2nd of 2 road games. Historically, teams cover at about a 65% rate in that situation. This is because teams tend to do better in their 2nd straight road game than their first one, but lines don’t really adjust for this. Teams are 211-214 straight up in their 2nd of two road games since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 0.46 points per game, as opposed to 296-419 straight up in their 1st of one road game since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 2.99 points per game. I’m taking the 6 points with confidence.
Pittsburgh Steelers 20 Cleveland Browns 19
Pick against the spread: Cleveland +6