Browns vs. Steelers WR/CB Matchups: Jarvis Landry Gets Downgrade & More
Joe Sargent/Getty Images. Pictured: Jarvis Landry, Mike Hilton
Wide receiver-cornerback showdowns might be the most important individual matchups in football.
In this piece, I leverage snap data from Pro Football Focus (PFF) to project Wild Card Weekend WR/CB matchups for the Browns-Steelers game.
For more, see the FantasyLabs Matchups page, where we provide basic and advanced data — including fantasy and red-zone performance — for each offensive skill-position player based on his matchup.
As we get more clarity during the week on the injury status of receivers and corners, I will update my WR/CB projections.
Pittsburgh Steelers (-6) vs. Cleveland Browns (47.5)
Kickoff: 8:15 p.m. ET on Sunday | TV: NBC
Steelers Wide Receivers
If we exclude the three partial weeks that No. 1 receiver Diontae Johnson missed with injury, he has averaged 12.2 targets per game with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger this year.
That’s an incredibly elite number. Johnson is a volume monster.
But maybe … maybe he’s not good at football? Johnson has just 6.4 yards per target this year, which is a really low number for a wide receiver. As a point of comparison: Teammate James Conner has a career mark of 6.3 yards per target — and Conner is a 230-pound running back.
Even so, Johnson can do a lot of damage in any given week with his usage.
Across from Johnson is rookie sensation Chase Claypool, who is basically the bigger version of D.K. Metcalf.
- Chase Claypool: 129.8 speed score | 6’4″ & 238 pounds | 4.42-second 40 time
- D.K. Metcalf: 133.3 speed score | 6’3″ & 228 pounds | 4.33-second 40 time
And what Claypool has done in his first season is very similar to what Metcalf did last year as a rookie.
- Chase Claypool (16 games): 62-873-9, 109 targets | 10-16-2 rushing
- D.K. Metcalf (16 games): 58-900-7, 100 targets | 2-11-0 rushing
In the second half of the season, the Steelers have reportedly scaled back his usage to keep him from hitting the “rookie wall,” but in the postseason I expect to see him play well ahead of rotational No. 4 receiver James Washington.
Last week with quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Joshua Dobbs, Claypool looked like a grown man with 5-101-1 receiving on 11 targets.
In the slot, veteran JuJu Smith-Schuster plies his craft. Long gone are the playmaking days of 1,400 yards. Each year of his career, Smith-Schuster has exhibited less explosiveness.
- 2017: 11.6 yards per target
- 2018: 8.6 yards per target
- 2019: 7.9 yards per target
- 2020: 6.5 yards per target
But, like Johnson, Smith-Schuster has volume to his name. Since Week 8, he has averaged a respectable 8.8 targets per game. And he leads the team with 10 end zone targets.
Any week, Smith-Schuster can go for 70-plus yards and a touchdown because of his workload.
UPDATE (Sat. 1/9): CBs Denzel Ward (COVID-19) & Kevin Johnson (COVID-19) are still on the reserve list, but the Browns are optimistic that Ward will be activated by Sunday. Johnson is out.
CB Terrance Mitchell (undisclosed, not injury) missed practice on Friday & CB M.J. Stewart (calf) was limited all week, but both seem likely to play through their questionable tags.
If Ward plays, he will likely shadow Diontae Johnson while Robert Jackson goes to the bench. Mitchell will man up Claypool as he did last week, and Stewart will stay in the slot.
No. 1 cornerback Denzel Ward (COVID-19) and slot corner Kevin Johnson (COVID-19) both missed Week 17 and are uncertain to play this weekend.
If Ward is able to return, he will likely shadow Diontae Johnson.
One of the NFL’s best young corners, Ward is yet to have a subpar season since entering the league in 2018 (based on PFF coverage grades).
- 2018: 83.6
- 2019: 72.7
- 2020: 74.6
For his career, Ward has allowed just 6.0 yards per target on a 51.4% catch rate.
As for Kevin Johnson, he’s a slightly below-average cover man who has allowed a 74.5% catch rate this year — but he’s better than the backups likely to start this weekend.
Without Ward and Johnson, lone remaining starter Terrance Mitchell will probably shadow Claypool, just as he did last week.
A seventh-year, seventh-round journeyman, Mitchell is actually not a bad player. In not one season has he had a PFF coverage grade lower than 60 and for his career, he has held receivers to a catch rate of 54.0%.
But Mitchell also has never been the top corner on his team for an extended stretch, and against the Steelers last week, he allowed 4-88-1 receiving on eight targets.
As the de facto No. 1 corner in this unit, Mitchell is outmatched.
Opposite Mitchell, if Ward is out we should see undrafted special-teamer Robert Jackson, who has 55 coverage snaps in the NFL. Last week — in his first professional start — he allowed 6-129-0 receiving on 10 targets.
Against Diontae Johnson, Jackson will be nearly defenseless.
In the slot, backup M.J. Stewart will fill in for Kevin Johnson. This year, Stewart has allowed 10.1 yards per target. For his career, he has yielded eight touchdowns to just two interceptions.
With Stewart on him for most of the game, Smith-Schuster was 6-65-1 receiving on eight targets last week. Stewart is exploitable.
Browns Wide Receivers
UPDATE (Sat. 1/9): WR Donovan Peoples-Jones (concussion) has cleared the league’s protocol and will play this weekend. WR KhaDarel Hodge (COVID-19) is out. With the return of Peoples-Jones, backup receiver Marvin Hall will shift to the sideline.
The Browns might be thin at receiver this weekend.
They are obviously already without No. 1 receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who suffered a season-ending knee injury on just his second snap in Week 7, and this week they will also be without rotational receiver KhaDarel Hodge (COVID-19).
On top of that, explosive rookie receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones (concussion) suffered a head injury last week and is yet to return to practice.
Since Week 13, Peoples-Jones has played as the No. 3 receiver, and in his four games with a snap rate of at least 50% he is 11-277-2 on 14 targets. With 15.2 yards per target, he is a true downfield playmaker — but I’m skeptical that he will play this week.
In his place, the team might go with speedy backup Marvin Hall. In his one game of action with the Browns — Week 16, when literally all the Browns wide receivers were placed on the COVID-19 reserve list — Hall had a 91% snap rate but was just 1-12-0 receiving on two targets.
But without Hodge and Peoples-Jones, the Browns will likely be more of a two-tight end offense this weekend. In Week 17, even with Hodge available, the Browns gave tight ends Austin Hooper and David Njoku more snaps than their No. 3 receivers.
- Austin Hooper: 51 snaps
- David Njoku: 49 snaps
- KhaDarel Hodge: 26 snaps
- Donovan Peoples-Jones: 13 snaps (left game early)
With heavy personnel, Jarvis Landry and Rashard Higgins might be the only Browns wide receivers we see for stretches of the game.
But the Browns will surely play in some three-wide sets, and when they do, Landry will be in the slot and Higgins will be on the perimeter with Hall.
Landry is a relative unexplosive player, but for a solid five-season stretch (2015-19), he averaged 1,086 yards receiving. Granted, it was on 149 targets per year — but at least he got his targets.
In his nine games this year without Beckham, Landry has team-high marks all around with 68 targets and 48 receptions. Since Week 7, Landry has been his former (high-volume, low-impact) self.
Without Beckham, it’s actually Higgins who has led the team in receiving. Since Week 7, he has amassed 546 yards receiving and 648 air yards. Although he has markedly trailed Landry with just 46 targets, he has been the superior producer.
UPDATE (Sat. 1/9): CB Joe Haden (COVID-19) is still on the reserve list and will not play on Sunday.
No. 1 cornerback Joe Haden (COVID-19) missed Week 17 and seems likely to miss this weekend. Since joining the Steelers in 2017, he has allowed just 6.9 yards per target with a 54.9% catch rate. His absence will be felt.
But the Steelers are No. 1 with a -19.8% pass-defense DVOA, per Football Outsiders. They didn’t get that ranking on the strength of just one player.
At right corner, Steven Nelson is also a very good player. In fact, since he joined the Steelers last year, he and Haden have been comparable.
- Steven Nelson (2019-20): 54.2% catch rate | 6.7 yards per target allowed
- Joe Haden (2019-20): 52.4% catch rate | 6.9 yards per target allowed
Nelson is likely to match up most with Higgins, who is a modest 3-68-1 receiving on five targets in two games against the Steelers this year.
In the slot, Mike Hilton has four years of starting experience and has held receivers to 7.0 yards per target since 2017. He’s not elite, but he’s an unheralded professional who does solidly above-average work.
Hilton will likely match up most with Landry, who was 5-51-0 receiving on six targets against the Steelers last week.
If Haden is out, Cameron Sutton will fill in for him at left corner. Although he’s just the No. 4 corner on the team, Sutton has played over 800 snaps since last year as a rotational defensive back and injury fill-in.
Lining up all over the secondary, he has held opposing receivers to 6.3 yards per target with a 59.0% catch rate. I’ll not go overboard in praising him — because he’s still a backup — but Sutton is certainly no worse than a league-average pass defender.
Wide Receiver Upgrades & Downgrades
- Diontae Johnson: Large downgrade
- JuJu Smith-Schuster: Large upgrade
- Chase Claypool: No change
- Jarvis Landry: Moderate downgrade
- Rashard Higgins: Moderate downgrade
- Donovan Peoples-Jones: No change
Steelers & Browns WR/CB Injuries
- Browns WR Donovan Peoples-Jones (concussion) is IN.
- Browns WR KhaDarel Hodge (COVID-19) is OUT.
- Browns CBs Denzel Ward (COVID-19), Terrance Mitchell (undisclosed) & M.J. Stewart (calf) are projected IN.
- Browns CB Kevin Johnson (COVID-19) is OUT.
- Steelers CB Joe Haden (COVID-19) is OUT.
Browns-Steelers WR/CB Matrix
Pos = left, right or slot WR or CB
Projected shadow matchups are CAPITALIZED
WR Exp = Wide Receiver Expectation: I rank from 3 to -3 how much I think we should adjust expectations for wide receivers based on matchups. 3: Large upgrade. 2: Medium upgrade. 1: Small upgrade. 0: No change. -1: Small downgrade. -2: Medium downgrade. -3: Large downgrade.
Thanks to Scott Barrett for providing me with some of PFF’s historical data.
Matthew Freedman is 966-750-36 (56.3%) overall betting on the NFL. You can follow him in our free app.
The Editor-in-Chief of FantasyLabs, Freedman is commonly called the Oracle & the Labyrinthian.