Greg Bartram-US PRESSWIRE
This week, the Cleveland Browns take on the Pittsburgh Steelers for the first time this season. The Steelers are without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which certainly sets the stage for Cleveland to pull off a rare modern-day victory over their hated rivals.
This ranking says more about the Steelers' situation at quarterback this week than it does the prowess of Brandon Weeden. I actually think that Charlie Batch is a better fit for Pittsburgh's system to start at quarterback than Byron Leftwich was, but without Ben Roethlisberger, the fact of the matter is that everyone else on offense is going to have to deliver big time. Charlie Batch has a quick delivery and is accurate with those types of passes, but it presents the potential that he gets too predictable. The 37-year old Batch should have trouble avoiding the type of pressure that helped escalate Leftwich's pain a week ago.
Weeden delivered a couple of weeks ago at home when the Browns picked up their first division win against the Bengals. The Steelers' defense is one of the toughest to read in the league, though. Not many quarterbacks have had success against this unit, including Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco a week ago. At the same time, we can't afford to see a tentative Weeden -- we need the guy who is confident in his ability to make some strong throws down the field. Weeden has put together a decent rookie season so far, but now it's time for him to take the next step forward -- what better of a time than against the Steelers?
In the first seven games of the season, Trent Richardson averaged 14.7 carries per game. Over the last three contests, that number has skyrocketed to 25.6 carries per game. That doesn't even include the number of receptions Richardson has logged. He has been effective against opponents, but still has difficulty in short yardage situations. That might be where Cleveland should start looking to Montario Hardesty, who has shown a willingness to lower his head more rather than shifting around at the line.
The Steelers are still trying to figure out who their primary running back should be between Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, and Jonathan Dwyer. Dwyer is the hot hand right now, but Mendenhall is still technically the starter. The Steelers' backs don't do a lot of damage as receivers, although that could change if Batch needs to dump the ball off a lot. One of the big reasons Cleveland has an advantage here is that Pittsburgh can't afford to have a question mark of who the running back should be when they have a guy like Batch under center.
The Steelers would normally have the advantage here, but their wide receiver situation is very cloudy right now. Mike Wallace is no doubt a big threat at receiver, but what happens to the threat of his speed if a guy like Batch can't get him the ball deep? The Steelers' second receiver, Antonio Brown, has been out a couple of games with ankle injury and will be a game-time decision. After that, the Steelers are left with Emmanuel Sanders as their only regular receiver. There is no telling how much or how well the newly-signed Plaxico Burress will play. If the Browns were wise, they would lock on to tight end Heath Miller.
The receiving situation for the Browns has become less cloudy over the weeks with Greg Little and Josh Gordon catching the ball at a higher level. Reports indicate that Mohamed Massaquoi's reps could be increased significantly this week as he returns from a hamstring injury. Cleveland found a way to try to get some reps to their other three receivers last week, but again, there comes a time when there are just "too many cooks in the kitchen." If you're looking for a random prediction, don't you get the hunch that Joshua Cribbs will look to throw the ball after a reverse in this game?
The Steelers' offensive line is still a bit of a work-in-progress as right tackle Mike Adams still tries to get more comfortable in pass protection. Considering how well Cleveland's defensive line did against Dallas a week earlier, that's not a good thing for Adams. To his credit, though, Adams' run blocking has been attributed to the success of a guy like Dwyer in recent weeks. Maurkice Pouncey might be overrated, but he's still a solid center who helps provide a lot of stability to the line; without him, they would really be a mess.
Cleveland's pass protection continues to excel against any team they go up against. Now, it's up to Weeden and the receivers to capitalize on all of that time they are getting. The run blocking has still shown some progress since John Greco and Alex Smith started seeing reps a few weeks ago, but short yardage remains a priority. The continuity for Cleveland, and in my opinion the superior play from Mitchell Schwartz vs. Mike Adams, is the reason they get the advantage here.
As good as Cleveland's defensive line looked a week ago, you still have to factor in the fact that Dallas was really thin on their offensive line, similar to how the Eagles were think back in Week 1. The Steelers might still be relying on their veterans (Brett Keisel, 10 years, and Casey Hampton, 12 years), but they are still plugging the holes up front and letting the linebackers do the work they need to do to keep opposing teams from moving the ball.
The Browns thrust Ahtyba Rubin into a lot of reps last week in his return game from a calf injury, and he seemed to handle it well. After that, Cleveland maintained a healthy rotation between Phil Taylor, Billy Winn, and John Hughes. Cleveland needs to get pressure on Batch to make sure he never gets comfortable, which means Jabaal Sheard, Frostee Rucker, and Juqua Parker need to deliver for the second straight week.
Is there a better group of linebackers in the NFL than LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons, and James Harrison? Especially without Troy Polamalu right now, these are the guys who are doing all of the exotic things up front to limit the big plays on the ground. They will assuredly try to meet Trent Richardson in the hole, and I'd rather see Richardson run through them than try to escape to the edge.
A lot of eyes will be on Harrison, who has really left his mark on Cleveland the past couple of years. Colt McCoy can't get revenge this week, but his teammates can. I feel like a broken record when talking about the Browns' linebackers each week, so I'll stick to emphasizing one big key: lock on to Heath Miller. He's the type of target Batch will constantly be looking for, and it'll be frustrating if the defense doesn't pick up on that early.
|DB||that the secondary lost last week without him. The fact that Buster Skrine has been cleared to play is a big plus too. While Skrine has shown to be very shaky as a starting cornerback, he has not been a liability as a nickel back. I would love to see the Browns consistently bring an extra safety into the box this week and challenge Batch to beat them down the field.
The Steelers' defense, while solid, still desperately misses that X-factor that Troy Polamalu brings to the table. There is an outside chance he'll play, but bank on him sitting out once more. Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor are savvy enough to prevent the big plays, and cornerback Keenan Lewis has stepped up his game this season. Lewis is tied for the league league in passes defended with 18.
Shaun Suisham has connected on 21-of-22 attempts for Pittsburgh. The Steelers have done fairly well in the return game, ranking 6th in the league on kick returns and 18th in the league on punt returns. Kick returner Chris Rainey averages 27.8 yards per return. One of the reasons Pittsburgh lost by a score of 13-10 last week to Baltimore was the fact that Jacoby Jones had a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown.
Punter Drew Butler is near the bottom of the league, right near Reggie Hodges, which means he probably won't be booting the ball super deep if Batch gets backed up in his own territory. The weather will be cold tomorrow; can Phil Dawson keep his field goal streak alive? And, can Joshua Cribbs channel one of his classic return games against Pittsburgh's coverage units?
I still give Mike Tomlin a ton of credit for the way he manages the Steelers, and you know his team will be ready to play this week. Unfortunately for him, I don't anticipate Charlie Batch being a threatening quarterback at this stage of his career. I have been waiting all season long for Ahtyba Rubin, Phil Taylor, and Joe Haden to all be in the lineup at the same time. Barring an injury during warmups, we are finally going to get that. Cleveland's defense played intense against the Steelers last year, and I think they'll be more than ready and amped up to bring the heat again.
Given the Steelers' solid defense, there's no way I can project some sort of a blowout. Yards will be tough to come by for Cleveland, but Pittsburgh's struggles should set the offense up with some situations where they can manage a couple of field goals and a touchdown or two down the stretch. Many quarterbacks can rally a team from behind, but Batch isn't one of them.
FINAL PREDICTION: Cleveland Browns 20, Pittsburgh Steelers 13