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GOT NUMBERS? Previewing the Cleveland Browns @ the Pittsburgh Steelers

Finally, it is the weekend.  Football is here and we can stop clicking through thousands of comments about semantics and non-football bickering by Steelers fans (and a couple of our... special posters that are susceptible to these conversations).  It is time to put that all aside and talk football. 

In writing these previews, I usually go through what we can expect to happen on each side of the ball by using this year's stats from Football Outsiders.  There is one big problem for that approach this week.  Each quarterback in this game will be making their first starts of the year: Ben Roethlisberger because he is a creep, Colt McCoy because high ankle sprains are what the cool kids are doing. 

This is a problem for the numbers, not only for the QBs, but for the entire passing games of each team.  Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch are very different QBs in terms of talent and skill sets compared to Roethlisberger.  McCoy doesn't have the years of experience of Jake Delhomme nor Seneca Wallace- no this is his first year in the league.  And his first game will be against Dick Lebeau's defense. 

Realizing there will be a huge gap- I'm totally disregarding passing and receiving numbers- let's go forward with the usual stuff...

When the Steelers have the ball

It has been years since the Steelers have been a run-first team.  Smartly, they have relied on really good receivers, a QB that is hard to bring down and makes plays and running after they have established the pass.  The Browns were able to disrupt this formula in Cleveland last year by getting to the quarterback, AND bringing him down- probably the more difficult of the two when playing Big Ben. The Browns have been much improved in all areas defensively.  DAVE ranks them 19th, just 2% below average.

We've been told (and told and told) that the Steelers O-Line has improved.  Well, last year they were 29th in adjusted sack rate- giving up a sack or intentional grounding on 8.5% of all drop backs.  This year? they are 26th in adjusted sack rate- giving up a sack or intentional grounding on 9.3% of all drop backs.  Now, the sample is small because they haven't thrown the ball all that much.  However, Roethlisberger is a lot of things (e.g., a tool, a creep), but I don't think anyone would argue that he will improve his team's sack rate.  The Browns are 8th in sack rate.  Simply, the Browns must get pressure on Roethlisberger. Because the corners have been the weakness for the Browns.  They are 31st in defending passes against #1's and 20th against #2 WRs.  And the Steelers have a solid 1-2 combo in Mike Wallace and Hines Ward.

On the ground, look out for Rashard Mendenhall.  He ranks 11th in DVOA (11.5% better than league average on a per play basis) and 8th in DYAR.  Though the Browns are equally good against the run (12% DVOA). 

When the Browns have the ball

Even if all the Browns were healthy, the offense would have a challenge.  The Steelers are one of the best defenses in the league.  They are 25% better than an average defense, ranking them 2nd in DVOA.  We will be starting our #3 QB, who happens to be a rookie who as never played a regular season game in the NFL and looked like a bad combination of bland and uncomfortable in the preseason.  But Colt McCoy says all the right things and has a heck of a college career, filled with huge games to fall back on.  Not that he did all that well against great defense at Texas.  And not that Texas' spread offense is totally translatable to the NFL.  But, its something.  The good news on the injury front is that Peyton Hillis sounds like he'll be closer to 100% healed from his thigh injury.

The Steelers are 4th in DVOA against the pass, -17.2%.  However, looking a little deeper, they are actually significantly below average in defending passes to "other" WRs (read #3, #4 guys), TEs, and RBs.  Maybe McCoy can his Chansi Stuckey on some of his signature short crossing routes or Ben Watson and Evan Moore working the seems (less confident in his ability to do this).  But perhaps the highest hope we have in the pass game is Peyton Hillis.  The Steelers are 28th in defending passes to RBs, and Hillis is 5th in DYAR amongst RBs coming out of the backfield and 20% better than the average RB on a per play basis. The other obvious strength in our passing game (save last week) is pass protection- and matches strength with strenght.  We only give up sacks on 4.9% of drop backs- good for 7th in the league.  The Steelers' sack rate on defense is 7.7%, good for 6th.

But let's be real, the Browns aren't going to rely on McCoy's arm.  They are going to rely on Peyton Hillis and the run game.  Hillis ranks 20th in DYAR (i.e., he is the 20th most valuable runner) and slightly above average per play.  He moves the pile forward, never gives up on a play, hits (and injuries) defenders before they hit him, and has a nose for the 1st down line and the goal line.  That's why he is 6th in success rate at 58%.  But he hasn't had to face a defensive front this good.  Because one doesn't exist.  The Steelers are first in DYAR against the run, 37% better than average.  Ugh.

Special Teams

Josh Cribbs has dominated the Steelers on special teams in the past.  The Steelers were awful in coverage and Cribbs exposed them. Last year, we were a clear #1 in special teams DVOA, the Steelers were 28th.  But not this year.  The special teams seem to get slightly better every week, but still not up to standard.  And the Steelers have gotten much better.

Pittsburgh ranks 8th, led by their really good kick return unit and solid coverage units.  But Jeff Reed has had some problems, missing 4 FGs.  The Browns rank 18th overall in special teams, dragged down by below average return units.  Cleveland's strongest phase of special teams has been kick coverage.

Thoughts and Conclusions

McCoy is a huge wild card.  I expect some throws to Hillis and Watson on first down, with some short throws to Stuckey and Cribbs to get him comfortable.  But Pittsburgh defense is too good to expect much success on the ground or air.  If we can pull the upset for the second straight time in this rivalry, it will be because of our defense getting to Roethlisberger and neutralizing Mendenhall.  If Cribbs can breakout of his return slump, that would help too.  I'd like our chances a lot more if the wind chill was negative 10 and we were in Cleveland. But what the heck, I don't think I've ever picked the Browns to lose against Pittsburgh, why start now?

Browns 16

Steelers 16

(I also picked a tie last year for the game in Cleveland).