This week, the Cleveland Browns battle their division rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers. This is a critical game that the Browns need, and they should be favored to win based on the Steelers' road struggles and inconsistencies, coupled with the talent on Cleveland's defense. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
I hate Ben Roethlisberger, but that doesn't cloud my judgment that he is still an absolute gamer of a quarterback. I imagine the Steelers' offensive line being so porous that Roethlisberger is surrounded by several defenders, only to somehow escape and make a big play. The triumph comes when your defense finally takes the big man down, something that is actually happening more often this year. Nonetheless, Roethlisberger has proven that he is, by far, the best quarterback in the AFC North.
Jason Campbell we have to rebound in a major way after last week's clunker against the Cincinnati Bengals. Right now, I'd like to have some faith that he will rebound. It's not as though the Bengals schemed brilliantly to take away our receivers -- Campbell just had a bad day. He has played long enough in this league for one bad game not to linger in his head forever; if he is more on target this week, all we need is a somewhat competent performance from him.
The Steelers' defense isn't very good at defending the run this year and have given up some big plays. That makes it all-the-more important that Chris Ogbonnaya gets the early carries in this week's game; we can't afford to let the Steelers' defense build confidence by stuffing Willis McGahee early on.
Pittsburgh has been going with Le'Veon Bell as their starting running back since the London game against the Vikings. Bell is a bigger back, but despite being the best of what Pittsburgh has to offer, he is only averaging 3.1 yards per carry. Jonathan Dwyer hasn't been very good either, but he gets some backup work and has actually ripped off two long runs over the past couple of weeks. Bell has also been contributing as a receiver, averaging 3-4 catches and 34 yards per game.
I laughed a little bit earlier this season when I heard that the Steelers were going with Jerricho Cotchery as their third receiver. I'm not laughing any more, though -- in fact, you could make the case that Cotchery has significantly out-performer the Browns' Davone Bess in a similar capacity. In just the past three games along, Cotchery has 12 catches for 175 yards and 5 touchdowns. That has formed a nice complement to Antonio Brown, who is having an outstanding season, and other targets like Emmanuel Sanders and Heath Miller.
One might look at the stat sheet and think that Greg Little and Davone Bess struggled to get seperation in one-on-one battles last week against the Bengals (because surely, Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron will be double-teamed, right?). In actuality, I thought Little and Bess were receiving more attention to the defense, and Campbell was still targeting them over Gordon and Cameron! Odd. I like how our receivers stack up, but our quarterback needs to give them a chance now.
After evaluating last week's game, John Greco continued to be the player who seemed to be struggling the most on the offensive line. I still agree with the Browns signing him to an extension earlier this year, but I'm also happy that he's not scheduled to make a lot of money, because that is an area we should be looking to upgrade. Mitchell Schwartz' flaws have been covered up with extra support from a tight end or running back.
The Steelers' offensive line has continued to underachieve significantly this year, with last year's picks, David DeCastro and Mike Adams, continuing to not live up to expectations. Adams isn't even in the starting lineup any more. The run blocking is terrible. The pass protection has been reasonable enough for Roethlisberger to still be able to "do his thing" and extend some plays, but he's still taking a beating back there.
The Steelers have gotten some decent play from nose tackle Steve McLendon, but he is certainly no Casey Hampton (from his prime). Brett Keisel, the once-stellar defensive end, has been very inconsistent with his play and is questionable this week with an injury. The one positive for the Steelers' defensive line has been the play of defensive end Cameron Heyward, a first-round pick from 2011. Heyward, once thought as a bust, is now "coming into his own," per our Steelers affiliate.
Phil Taylor did not make any friends last season after delivering a hit on Steelers offensive lineman Kelvin Beachum, and it wouldn't be surprising to see some cheap shots taken against him. The Browns' depth and young talent on the defensive line is so much better than Pittsburgh's right now, it's ridiculous. Hell, Ishmaa'ily Kitchen, who has been designated as inactive for Cleveland the past few weeks, could probably start for the Steelers.
The Steelers did not retain James Harrison this offseason, but they didn't expect to lose Larry Foote to a season-ending injury. The hope for Pittsburgh was that first-round pick Jarvis Jones would be a steal, but that has not been the case at all. Jones still has years to grow, but right now, it looks like teams had a reason to be hesitant about drafting him. LaMarr Woodley hasn't been as effective for the Steelers in 2013 either.
The Browns will be going with Tank Carder at one of the inside linebacker positions this week to replace the injured Craig Robertson. Considering Robertson's struggles this season, that does not result in a significant dropoff for Cleveland at the position. The media pressure seems to be getting to the Browns in wanting to see Barkevious Mingo start racking up the sacks again; doing it against Roethlisberger would certainly be a way to make everybody happy.
Although Troy Polamalu still has his fair share of high-impact plays, his impact has been no where near as positive as it was in the past. Perhaps compounding the problem is the fact that the other safety, Ryan Clark, is having a pretty awful year. Ike Taylor, at 33 years old, has shown that he can still hang with some of the league's best receivers at a high level, but the rest of the depth in the secondary isn't the greatest.
Joe Haden is getting better by the week, if that's even possible. It's getting to the point now where teams can't even complete a simple pass against him. The one knock on the secondary has been the miscommunication issues in the red zone, something that again creeped up last week between T.J. Ward and Chris Owens. Roethliserberger has found Cotchery in that area a lot the past few weeks, so Cleveland needs to make sure they know who is covering who down there.
The Steelers do a great job in kickoff coverage, despite the fact that Shaun Suisham only averages a touchback on 30.8% of his returns. Suisham has been great of field goals too, connecting on 22-of-24 attempts. Suisham's career long is 52 yards, so it's safe to say that he doesn't have the strongest leg in the world.
At punter, Mat McBriar took over the job recently but is ranked right near the bottom of the NFL. RB Felix Jones has been handling kickoffs for the Steelers. WR Antonio Brown is the player to fear on punt returns. He averages 13.1 yards per return with three returns going over 40+ yards this season.
The Steelers get the advantage this week due to the Browns' debacle last week on special teams. Also, punt returner Armanti Edwards is now on IR, so that didn't last too long for him. There is a chance we might see defensive back Jordan Poyer return some punts; if not, Davone Bess will continue fulfilling that role.
The Steelers have surprised me with a couple of good defensive performances against the Jets and the Bills, but other than that, they've played like one of the worst teams in the AFC -- for them to be 4-6 right now is pretty remarkable. The disastrous second quarter last week against the Bengals was an anomaly that temporarily covered up the fact that Cleveland can be a dangerous team down the road. This week, everything will come together for a complete win, much like we saw against the Ravens a few weeks ago.
Cleveland Browns 24, Pittsburgh Steelers 14
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