Teryl Austin hasn't exactly had to introduce himself to the Steelers' inside linebacker room this week, but the team's defensive coordinator is anxious to see what that group will look like for the remainder of the season now that it will be without both Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander.
He won't have to wait long.
With the Browns now without starting quarterback Deshaun Watson, the expectation is that Cleveland will rely even more on its running game than usual. And considering the Browns already relied on their running game a lot, the Steelers' revamped inside linebacker group will be heavily tested when the Steelers (6-3) visit Cleveland (6-3) Sunday in a critical AFC North matchup.
"We know they're going to run the ball and try to run the ball effectively," Austin said Thursday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "So we better make sure we have the right guys in the game. And I don't think that is a major schematic change or major or anything like that. It's just we know, we know Cleveland, and Cleveland knows us and we better go up and get ready for a tough football game."
These two teams met in Week 2, with the Steelers coming away with a 26-22 victory largely thanks to two defensive touchdowns. But Cleveland rushed for 198 yards on 35 carries despite losing star running back Nick Chubb in the first half to a season-ending knee injury.
That came when the Steelers were still trying to figure some things out with their run defense – and without star defensive tackle Cam Heyward available.
The Steelers prepare for the Week 11 matchup against the Cleveland Browns
The Steelers rank 25th in the NFL stopping the run, allowing 131.2 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry. But they've been better against opposing ground games of late, giving up an average of 109.0 yards per game and 4.1 per carry in their past three games.
But some of that was with Holcomb and Alexander. Holcomb was lost to a season-ending leg injury two weeks ago in a win over the Titans, while Alexander suffered an Achilles' tendon injury in last week's victory over the Packers that will end his season, as well.
That leaves only veteran Elandon Roberts remaining of what had been a three-man rotation at inside linebacker for the Steelers this season. With Holcomb and Alexander no longer available, the Steelers will continue to lean on three players at the position, with second-year pro Mark Robinson and four-year veteran Mykal Walker, who is expected to be elevated from the practice squad this week, filling the void.
"We have some guys," Austin said. "Obviously, we have Mark, who's been here. And then we have got Mykal, who's had NFL experience. He's a 100-tackle type guy, and he's played a lot of football games. So I think we'll kind of lean on those three and try to get the most out of those three and try to play to their skill sets."
The Steelers have a pretty good idea of what they have in Roberts – an eight-year veteran with 84 career starts under his belt – and Robinson, a seventh-round draft pick from 2022 who converted from running back to linebacker after his junior season at the collegiate level.
What they're learning more about is the skill set of Walker, a former fourth-round pick of the Falcons who has made 20 career starts, including 12 last season for Atlanta. Walker was productive for Atlanta a year ago, recording 107 tackles with 2 interceptions, 6 pass defenses and a sack, but figuring out how he fits into the equation with Roberts and Robinson is now the key for the Steelers moving forward.
And Cleveland, which will be starting rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson at quarterback in place of Watson, figures to be a stiff initial test of that depth. The Browns have the NFL's No. 2 rushing offense, averaging 147.9 yards per game despite not having Chubb available.
The Steelers have been better against the run in recent weeks, but Cleveland's Jerome Ford, who replaced Chubb earlier in the season after he was injured, had a 69-yard run against the Steelers, while last week against the Packers, A.J. Dillion got loose for a 40-yard run in an otherwise solid day for the run defense.
"Were still a work in progress," Austin admitted. "We gave up a big chunk last week that probably didn't need to be a big chunk. And so until we get those knocked completely out of our game, I'm going to say no, we're not where we need to be. But we're working that way. We're fighting to get there. And the nice thing is, we've won a lot of games while we're cleaning up a lot of mess. And that's really the truth of the matter. You know, too many chunk plays pass and run for us. If we take those out of our game, we'll be much better. Until we do, we're going to be in dogfights like we've been in every game."