We hate the Steelers. No doubt about it. With a big upset, we could all-but-kill our nemesis' chances at defending their title. Is it possible? Amongst Browns fans, there is a general feel of optimism going into this game. It may be misplaced, but it is not completely without reason. Namely:
1.) They are struggling. They have lost 4 straight. Including games at home to the overrated Bengals and the terrible Raiders and on the road to the average Ravens and really horrible Chiefs. They've battled injuries on both sides of the ball, locker room divisions, and pressure from fans and media. And they haven't handled any of it well. Their defense is filled with questions and their offense isn't scoring. On the other hand, they have lost these four games by a combined 15 points, so maybe a little bad luck is in there
2.) We are playing offense. In two of the last three games, our offense has looked like it belongs in the NFL. Quinn is in the midst of his longest stretch as a starter and looks more and more competent and comfortable (um, 7 TD and 0 INT in the last 3 games?!).
3.) Variables. We are still the underdog (currently, we are 10 point underdogs- according to sportsbook.com). And underdogs need variables. Things like- a home game, on a very short week, at night, historical rivalry, in terribly cold (19, wind chill 0), windy (31 MPH + whatever extra off the lake) and wet (70% chance of snow) weather. Also, injuries. You know that the Browns have been ravaged by injuries, but the Steelers are struggling too. Troy Polamalu is out, William Gay and Hines Ward are questionable. And even though the Browns have a bunch of injuries, it has lead to some surprises and solid play from guys we don't have much information on. (e.g., Moore, Roth, Trusnik, Adams, Rubin)
I'll still go through some of the numbers, but not in as much detail as normal. Partially because I don't have as much time (damn short week) and partially because I don't think these numbers mean much of anything given the above 3 factors.
As always, the numbers are all thanks to Football Outsiders.
When the Steelers have the ball
I was surprised to learn that the Steelers are currently ranked 9th in Offensive Efficiency by DVOA (17.3%). I was not surprised to learn that the Browns rank dead last in Defensive Efficiency (23.0%)- dropping two spots after the Chargers torched us for 30 points.
The Steelers are very good in the pass game (9th at 37.9% in DVOA) and very average in the run game (16th at 1.6%). The pass game is anchored by two of the least favorite Pittsburghers: my vote, Ohio's least favorite son, Ben Roethlisberger (9th in both DYAR and DVOA of all qualifying QBs) and Dirty Hines Ward (9th in both DYAR and DVOA of all qualifying WRs). Ward catching 71% of all passes thrown his way is pretty impressive. But that hamstring is going to be very difficult to warm up tomorrow. Santonio Holmes (15.3% DVOA), Heath Miller (15.8%) and Mike Wallace (18.4% DVOA) are also real good options. And while the Browns are actually good at limiting #2 WRs (-7.7% DVOA- that's better than average!!! 12th in the league), we are worst in the league against TEs (See what Antonio Gates did to us last week) and really bad against #1 WRs.
The Steelers usually give up a lot of sacks, because their line isn't very good and Roethlisberger holds on to the ball as long as any quarterback I've ever seen. This year they are 24th in the league, giving up sacks on 7.4% of all drop backs. The Browns rank 17th in the league, sacking the QB on 6.3% of opponent drop backs.
The Browns' defense against the run is about 10% worse than average, 29th in the league. Which is blah enough. But with all the injuries, especially to Shaun Rogers, we are probably worse than that. Not good considering the wind and snow and cold will likely force more running than normal. The mediocre running game of Pittsburgh is lead by the mediocre Rashard Mendenhall (19th in the league at 4.5% DVOA). Mewelde Moore (-19.5%) and Not So Fast Anymore But Still Faster Than Me Willie Parker (-26.6%) are having pitiful seasons.
When the Browns have the Ball
The juggernaut that is the Browns Offense has juggernauted all the way up to 28th in overall efficiency. That's up 3 spots from last week. We now are a more efficient offense over the course of this season than the Chicago Bears. Wow. Before that Detroit game this didn't seem even close to possible. The Browns rank 30th in pass efficiency as a team and 23rd in run efficiency. Even with the Steelers' recent struggles, they are still a very good defense, ranking 13th against the pass and 6th against the run in DVOA- good for 10th overall. But before you get too scared, they were ranked 6th before former
bum off the street during the awful 08 Browns Season Browns legend Bruce Gradkowski torched them last just three days ago.* The Steelers miss Polamalu. And they, generally, are not playing well in the secondary.
*Seriously, Gradkowski had the career day of all career days. He passed for 308 yards (on 20-33 passing), 3 TDs (0 INTs), and a 121.8 QB rating. Not only were each of those numbers career highs, but he has never come close to a day like that in 24 other games in the league. The last time he faced the Steelers, as the Browns starter in Week 17 last season, his rating was 1.0. That isn't a typo. 1.0. Or 9.5 points WORSE than Derek Anderson's worst game in his career- also, DA's most recent.
Further emphasizing the struggles of the secondary, the Steelers are below average against every type of receiver, except running backs (usually covered by linebackers)- they rank 8th against throws to RBs. So if Quinn is going to keep having success through the air, it probably won't be to Harrison/Jennings/Vickers this week. Quinn is moving up the QB standings rapidly. He is 28th now in both DYAR and DVOA. And that is despite not having a receiver in the top 75 in DYAR or DVOA.
The Browns running game has benefited from variety. They get good contributions from Brady Quinn's scrambling, Josh Cribbs in the wildcat- both handing off and keeping, and reverses to Cribbs. So while Chris Jennings and Jerome Harrison aren't very good, their improving efforts with the (sometimes misplaced, and usually not frequent enough) creativity from other parts of the run game result in a decent unit. Again, this is going to be even more important because of the conditions. Each team will have plenty of runs. I won't mind seeing the wildcat a HUGE number of times. Anything less than 10 plays from that formation would be a disappointment in my mind.
We're number 1!! After several weeks in the 2 spot behind Minnesota, the Browns have taken over the top spot in overall special teams efficiency at 7.0% DVOA. The Browns have the #1 punt return team and the #5 kick return team. They are above average in each other phase of special teams. The Steelers are 31st in special teams overall, mainly because they are -30.6% in DVOA on kick coverage! That is an absurd variance from average for any special teams unit. In fact, only one other special teams unit is more than 15% from league average in either direction (Green Bay is -16% on punt coverage). Think about this. They are 30% worse than league average on kicking off. No team in the last 5 seasons has been 30% worse than average at any single part of special teams. (Only the Browns 2007 kick off unit has been 30% BETTER than league average). And only 3 times has any part of any teams' special teams been ranked more than 20% worse than average. We aren't just talking historically bad,this might be THE reason the Steelers are .500 against a weak schedule, despite having a top 10 offense and top 10 defense.
Special Teams is another unit that will be affected heavily by the weather. Again, variables. Good for the underdog. Phil Dawson seems to do well on bad fields, and while he has tired in past seasons late in the year, he should be fresh this year as he missed much of the first half due to injury. Josh Reed also has had success in inclement kicking conditions, given that he plays 8 games a year on the mush that is the Heinz Field "grass".
Conclusions and Questions
Like I said, this one is all about variables, not really the stats. Still, we need to have a sound game plan to maximize our chances at winning and salvaging some very good feelings for a very rough season. A win wouldn't erase everything, but its something the players, coaches, what exists of the front office, and the fans would feel very good about.
Three questions that will determine the outcome:
1. Will the weather effectively hide our defensive injuries and struggles?
2. Will the Steelers special teams continue to let them down- especially the kick coverage unit?
3. Can Brady Quinn exploit a struggling secondary, or if the weather is too bad, can he continue to avoid turnovers?
With a giant assist to Mother Nature and the ghosts of past Browns teams, I think we finally will avoid losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers!