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Cleveland Browns vs. Pittsburgh Steelers: Positional Breakdown & Notes

Troy Polamalu meets Peyton Hillis

While I feel like I hate the Baltimore Ravens more, the anticipation of a Cleveland-Pittsburgh game is second to none as a Browns fan. Even last year, amidst a dismal season for head coach Eric Mangini, suddenly everything seemed right when the Cleveland stunned the NFL community.

This year, a victory over Pittsburgh might not be as much of a "shocker" as it was last year given the team's competitiveness through five games, but it would still surprise the hell out of a lot of people. It's not the most ideal situation that Cleveland has to throw a rookie quarterback in their for his first career game, but this is a huge opportunity for Colt McCoy to "define" his legacy in Cleveland. Will he come through and be endeared by fans around the city?

Here are some notes heading into the game, followed by my positional breakdown and prediction for the game:

  • The biggest question I have leading into this game is how Brian Daboll will utilize Colt McCoy in his first career start against one of the best defenses in football. I've come to the opinion that Daboll will give the rookie a lot more throws than expected, perhaps between 25-30 attempts.

    In the preseason, McCoy's passes were often short (although that was partially due to the poor offensive line). I think the Browns will spread the field and try to allow McCoy to attack the middle of the field with Evan Moore, Ben Watson, Peyton Hillis, and Joshua Cribbs. The reason I think we'll go with a lot of passes? Well, we weren't "supposed" to with Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace either, but we did.

  • I look for Ben Roethlisberger to get off an an aggressive start on his first series, something he notoriously does, but get intercepted as Rob Ryan anticipates it and hides a safety back for a double team. After a slow start, I think he'll gain some steam in the second quarter and then start to catch fire in the second half. Hopefully the Browns capitalize on as many first-half opportunities as they can and are then hold their ground in the second half as the Steelers settle for field goals.
  • The Browns have ruled out QB Seneca Wallace, RT John St. Clair, and DE Robaire Smith. I find the Smith injury being somewhat compelling since it could mean we'll see the debut of DE/LB Jayme Mitchell, acquired from the Minnesota Vikings a few weeks ago.
  • I hate to seem like I'm making such a big deal about Mike Bell's playing time this week, but I am curious as to whether this turns out being an "underrated" move by Mangini when it's all said and done. I say we'll try to catch Pittsburgh off guard by throwing him a pass or two as well. Screen passes have been guarded heavily to Hillis, so maybe one to Bell would be more surprising.
  • Hopefully McCoy plays well enough this week and doesn't get hurt so we don't have to see Brett Ratliff in action. Since Wallace is already ruled out, I wonder if Jake Delhomme will be the emergency third quarterback, or possibly even the No. 2.
  • I mentioned earlier that I think McCoy will get between 25-30 passes. Ideally, I'd wish a lot of those pass attempts would instead be Wildcat plays involving Joshua Cribbs. While Daboll used Cribbs pretty often last year against Pittsburgh, he still has a tendency to under-utilize him.
  • In terms of one-on-one matchups, as I mentioned earlier in the week, I'm intrigued by the thought of Troy Polamalu colliding with Peyton Hillis, and Hines Ward colliding with T.J. Ward. In one match-up you have high energy/technique vs. toughness, and in the other one you have two players on opposing sides who love to hit hard.
  • I had my worst week ever last week in picking games, as I went a pathetic 4-10. I'm embarrassed to even mention that type of week, but it's the reason my overall record (bottom of post) is so terrible.
  • The game thread will go live at 11:00 PM as usual.

Position-by-Position Breakdown

Pos Adv Reason
QB - Hmmm, a rookie quarterback making his first start, or a Super Bowl winning veteran? This one is undoubtedly favors the Steelers in terms of experience, but there are some unique variables for both quarterbacks.

Ben Roethlisberger is playing in his first game of the season, which always poses a threat of him looking "rusty" to start off. Colt McCoy is playing in the first game of his career, and he hasn't had a lot of work with the first team offense. We don't exactly know how he'll perform with that unit, but history says that the Steelers make it difficult for the top quarterbacks to have good days moving the football.
RB - In the first half of games this year, Rashard Mendenhall has had 41 carries for 154 yards (3.8 YPC average). In the second half of games, he has had 48 carries for 257 yards (5.2 YPC average), and that doesn't include the 1 carry for a 50 yard touchdown he had in overtime against Atlanta.

My point is that Mendenhall seems to get better in the second half of games after he has received some touches in the first half. I expect Pittsburgh to pass more than usual in the first half, perhaps limited Mendenhall's effectiveness for the entire game. Peyton Hillis says he should be at 100%, and given his tough running and the nugget on Mendenhall, I'm ranking this position as "even."
WR - You can throw away everything statistically about the Steelers' receivers for the first several games, because now Big Ben is back. Hines Ward is a proven receiver, Mike Wallace loves going deep (watch out secondary!), and Heath Miller is an often-targeted tight end. Rookie third-rounder Emmanual Sanders, who has been inactive, should play too and could be another target for Big Ben. It's tough to say who Colt McCoy will throw the ball to, because besides him targeting Bobby Engram (cut) in the preseason, he didn't work with our starters.
OL - The Steelers' offensive line has played better than expected this year, but now they'll be playing with a quarterback who has a much different style of play. How they will react to pass rushers after Roethlisberger tries to improvise remains up-in-the-air. Joe Thomas had his worst week as a pro against Atlanta at the hands of John Abraham. I expect him to get back on track against Pittsburgh, and McCoy will love having a good line in front of him compared to what he saw in the preseason.
DL - Robaire Smith will be out in this game with a back injury, which means someone needs to step up in the starting rotation. Alex Mack handled Casey Hampton fine last year, but it's not even really worth explaining any of the defensive rankings that are in Pittsburgh's favor -- all of their units have proven to be the best of the best in the league.
LB - Marcus Benard's breakout game came against the Steelers last year, as he notched two sacks. Will he be able to generate any pressure this time around? Pittsburgh's James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, James Farrior, and LaMar Woodley are good at pass rushing and stuffing the run. They'll certainly present a challenge for Peyton Hillis when he runs to reach their level.
DB - Even as a Steeler, Troy Polamalu is my favorite defender in football to watch (when he isn't facing the Browns). Pittsburgh features a good secondary, but as Ryan Kelsey pointed out, they are below average when it comes to covering "other" WR's, such as the #3's and #4's. Could that mean we'll spread the field and trust McCoy? Although the Browns' secondary did pretty good against Atlanta last week, Roethlisberger has to be salivating at the thought of buying some time and throwing it deep against our secondary.
ST - I thought about making this category "even," but I keep forcing myself to remember that opposing teams continue to gameplan to get the ball away from Joshua Cribbs every week. I don't think any other return units in football get that kind of respect; however, I wish Cleveland was able to find a way to make teams "pay" even more for their short kickoffs.

Despite the fact that McCoy is starting, I think this game will follow a very similar script that the majority of our first five games have followed. Cleveland will get off to a nice start offensively while Roethlisberger is a bit cold. After the second half, Roethlisberger will start getting things together en route to taking a fourth quarter lead on a touchdown pass mid-way through the fourth. Colt McCoy will have an opportunity to lead a fourth quarter drive with a decent amount of time left, but needing a touchdown, something will go wrong and crush our spirits on the road.

FINAL PREDICTION: Pittsburgh Steelers 23, Cleveland Browns 17.