People who have read Dawgs By Nature over the years know that I'm one of the first guys who will be optimistic about the Cleveland Browns' chances of winning on any given Sunday. Heck, just a few weeks ago, I was still trying to play out the potential playoff scenarios for Cleveland. Heading into the season finale against the Steelers, though, I have to ask myself: do the Browns really even stand any legitimate chance at beating the Steelers this Sunday?
On Friday, head coach Pat Shurmur officially ruled the following players out:
-QB Brandon Weeden
-QB Colt McCoy
-RB Trent Richardson
-TE Jordan Cameron
-CB Sheldon Brown
That is in addition to players who have already been placed on injured reserve, such as WR Mohamed Massaquoi, LB James-Michael Johnson, S T.J. Ward, and S Usama Young. Let's take a quick look at who will be filling in at some new positions against Pittsburgh:
Thaddeus Lewis at QB
One of the downsides to carrying two veteran quarterbacks in camp this year (Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace) was the fact that your other developmental quarterback, Thaddeus Lewis, didn't see much action. He had been a part of Pat Shurmur's system longer than any of the other quarterbacks as a backup, though, and was able to play near the end of the first preseason game against the Lions. Here was my review of him at the time:
The quarterback I really wanted to see among the backups was Thaddeus Lewis. He delivered big time, leading the team to a touchdown-scoring drive and then a game-winning field goal drive. I can definitely see why Rams fans were excited about this guy in the past. Granted, one game isn't a small sample size, but I appreciated the command of the offense he seemed to have, making adjustments and even running a little bit of the hurry-up offense.
In an ideal world, he could bring that same type of confidence to this week's game against the Steelers. The problem is that this is an entirely different type of game -- playing against first-string defenders, particularly on a defense that will be loading the box? Shurmur already indicated earlier in the week that the game plan would be toned down a bit if Lewis were to start. Our offense was predictable before, and now it's about to get even easier to read.
Montario Hardesty at RB
This is almost a catch-22 scenario for Montario Hardesty fans. They finally get to see him unleashed for a full game, perhaps to get a better gauge as to whether some of our running game problems were due to poor blocking or the running style of Trent Richardson. Again, though, you could stick any NFL running back in the backfield against the Steelers and they'd have a difficult time. Pittsburgh ranks 2nd in the league against the run, and 1st against the pass.
The good news is that the offensive line is healthy for Cleveland. When the Browns beat the Steelers in Cleveland, Richardson had 85 yards on 29 carries (2.9 average). Hardesty had 14 yards on 2 carries (7.0 average).
I think it's safe to say that Ben Roethlisberger has been pretty bad since returning from injury, and that his wide receivers have been awful in the clutch all season long. Still, when these guys are at their best, Roethlisberger will buy time outside the pocket and find one of his receivers deep.
Cornerback Sheldon Brown's consecutive games streak (175 games) will end this week, as he has been ruled out with a concussion. Joe Haden will still be in there, but he's really the team's only "legitimate" starter in the secondary this week. Who else cringes at the thought of Buster Skrine, Trevin Wade, Eric Hagg, and Tashaun Gipson playing the rest of the positions? Granted, I like some of those guys for certain roles, but collectively, they shouldn't be starting together, and they are.
There is some good news for the Browns, though. They are healthy in the trenches: the offensive and defensive lines are both at full strength. With both teams not playing their best football right now, this game could very well be won at the line of scrimmage. The Steelers aren't exactly coming into this game at full strength either. Two of their most prominent players, CB Ike Taylor and WR Mike Wallace, aren't playing this week. The Steelers' running backs are pretty terrible up and down the depth chart, too. Cleveland is playing on the road, though, and whether this team will be motivated in what appears to be Shurmur's final game remains to be seen. It is Pittsburgh, though, so if they aren't motivated, then that is on the players.
What do you think will go down this Sunday? Let us know in the comments section and in the poll below.