As we approach this Sunday's contest featuring the Cleveland Browns against the Pittsburgh Steelers, each team is on opposite sides of the win/loss spectrum. The Steelers, at 3-1, are coming off of a bye week. Prior to the bye week, they were without their starting quarterback and were literally carried by their defense in two of their three victories. The Browns, at 1-4, have been a surprising team because they have been competitive in the fourth quarter of every game they've played in; that includes losses to the Buccaneers (3-1), Chiefs (3-1), Ravens (4-1), and Falcons (4-1).
Naturally then, just like the previous weeks, I expect nothing more than another competitive effort by the Browns when they travel to Pittsburgh this week. While I am not expecting a win against the Steelers this Sunday, something inside of me is actually a little more confident that we can beat Pittsburgh than the games in which I projected losses to the Ravens and the Falcons. Maybe it is just my fandom of wanting to win in the Browns/Steelers rivalry, or maybe there's something more to it...
The number of storylines in this week's rivalry game present the perfect build-up for a game of this magnitude. People outside of Cleveland and Pittsburgh might not care about this game so much, but in terms of that feeling you'll have inside of you any time a big play or a score is made, it'll be more intense than in any other game thus far this season.
In order to make this easier to read on the eyes, let's go to bullet point form to highlight the storylines this week:
Browns Are the Team to Beat: When these two teams last met (in Cleveland) in Week 14 last season, the Browns stunned the Steelers with a 13-6 victory. Cleveland's top two rushers had a combined 160 yards rushing against Pittsburgh. That involved Joshua Cribbs picking up yards in chunks from the Wildcat, and Chris Jennings pushing forward behind our offensive line for a steady 3.7 YPC average. The Browns featured no passing game, but that running attack was enough to muster 13 first-half points and drain time off the clock (with a 5+ minute drive) in the fourth quarter.
The Steelers were taken aback offensively when Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 8 times. The Browns sent pressure from a lot of different areas, as six different players notched sacks, led by Marcus Benard with two. For all the misery Cleveland had been through last year, Eric Mangini, Rob Ryan, and Brian Daboll found a way to beat Pittsburgh. The Steelers won't be lacking confidence when they face Cleveland, but they are the ones trying to seek revenge this week.
Roethlisberger Returns: Without Ben Roethlisberger under center the first couple of games, the Steelers were led by, with the exception of one game from Charlie Batch against the Buccaneers, lackluster play at the quarterback position. Their receivers didn't have many opportunities to shine either; if you look at the stats, it makes the Steelers' receivers look as if they aren't producing. In four games, Hines Ward has just 12 catches for 165 yards. Mike Wallace has 9 catches for 211 yards.
The lack of a solid passing game forced the Steelers to go to their running game, where Rashard Mendenhall has more than delivered with 89 carries for 411 yards (4.6 YPC) and 4 touchdowns.
Roethlisberger has looked good in practice, but who wouldn't after having Batch and Dixon? There's no doubt that the Steelers are a better team with Big Ben back under center, but it can't be assumed that he'll step in and dominate the Browns' defense. While Wallace is a more than capable deep threat, he's playing without Santonio Holmes this year, a guy who had become a favorite target of his the past few years.
Roethlisberger has had two weeks to prepare for this game, but fans have often complained with the gameplan of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. Is he going to be able to find a balance between getting Roethlisberger acclimated to the passing game again, while still getting Mendenhall enough touches to make sure he stays hot? Roethlisberger loves to take off and scramble around to improvse a play -- will his instincts work to the Browns' advantage in his first game back? On one hand, if you're Cleveland's defense, you wish Big Ben had still been suspended for six games, but on the other hand, you're still facing him in a game in which he could be rusty.
Another Debut at Quarterback: On the other side of the spectrum, you have Colt McCoy projected to make his first start as a member of the Cleveland Browns. This is a rough situation for McCoy to be thrown in to, since he hasn't had much work with the first-team offense. That should also work to his benefit in terms of what we saw in the preseason though. He played with an offensive line that I wouldn't wish on anyone, which really made it difficult to gauge his abilities.
In an ideal gameplan, McCoy's throws should be kept to a minimum, with a heavy dose of Peyton Hillis, Joshua Cribbs, and Mike Bell or James Davis. However, I'm not so sure that will be the case, because it would seem to require changing Brian Daboll's gameplan up to this point in the season. I mean, with Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace under center, did you really anticipate through five games that the Browns would be averaging 32.4 pass attempts per game despite having fourth quarter leads in most of their contests? To contrast, the Browns have been running it an average of 26.6 times per game. When the Browns went run-heavy with Hillis against Baltimore, there were 35 runs vs. 30 passes. We could very well see the same thing this week, which means McCoy might just see a lot more action than expected.
Is that a good thing? A bad thing? Something in the middle? The answer is, we have no idea considering the circumstances. The one thing we know is that if McCoy delivers a win against the Steelers (note: not a "Brady Quinn" win), he'll have taken down the best of the best and will become an immediate hero.
Peyton Hillis vs. Troy Polamalu: Whether he is banged up or not, we'll see a healthy dose of Peyton Hillis. Hillis made headlines when he drove the safeties of the Baltimore Ravens back, but this week he goes against the best: Troy Polamalu. The Browns had the benefit of not facing Polamalu or defensive end Aaron Smith in their victory last season. Polamalu is the ultimate playmaker, but I am dying to see Hillis collide with him one-on-one to see what happens.
Regarding how well other teams have run the ball against the Steelers, here is how their defense has fared:
The Browns usually favor running the ball in these areas, as expected:
The Browns should target the Steelers along the right side, where they seem prone to giving up a little bit more room to run. Hillis' and Bell's power might be enough to move that "average" a little higher if they fall forward on their runs.
Mike Bell Factor: We already debated the benefits of Jerome Harrison vs. Mike Bell in another thread, so that's not the issue here. The point to bring up is that Peyton Hillis toughed out a performance last week against the Falcons but doesn't seem to be 100%. If he needs to be taken out as often as he was last week, the Browns don't really need a "change of pace" back. That's where Bell can jump in and ideally pick up right where Hillis left off.
The issue with Bell is that when he is in the game, he's not accustomed to catching the ball, and I'm sure the Steelers know that. Or, as a counter argument, you could say that works to our advantage. Bell did catch 20 passes for 158 yards in his rookie season in Denver, and if he's left uncovered as an afterthought on a pass play, McCoy certainly won't hesitate to dump the ball off to him.
Ward Meets Ward: On one side, you have the Steelers' Hines Ward, one of the most physical receivers in the game who loves to hit people as if he was a defender. On the other side, you have the Browns' T.J. Ward, who received publicity for his hit on receiver Jordan Shipley a few weeks ago. Is there any chance we'll see T. Ward plow into H. Ward this Sunday? We can only hope. There's nothing better than seeing Hines without a smile on his face:
Division Implications: The Browns currently have a 1-4 record, and a win would move them to 2-4. When they made the postseason nearly a decade ago, they were a competitive team and also started with a 2-4 record. Cleveland already has one division win under their belt, and a second one would certainly start to create some buzz.
Pittsburgh, on the other hand, can't afford another division loss after having already fallen to the Baltimore Ravens in Pittsburgh.
There's no doubt that both teams are going to be in for an intense battle this weekend, and I'm anticipating another close game that comes down to the wire. I'll save my official prediction for Saturday, but here's a teaser: Colt McCoy will have the ball in his hands with the chance to lead a game-winning drive. Can the Browns pull off the upset and send Pittsburgh to their second consecutive loss of the season and against Cleveland? We certainly hope so.
Note: Please refrain from posting the Roethlisberger name jokes, which have gotten a bit old and detract from the discussion.