Here are five key storylines the Cleveland Browns will be aware of as they take on their Week 12 opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
#1 - Roethlisberger is a One-Man Show: Although this has been the case for a lot of games in the past, the same remains especially true in 2013: the Steelers are a one-man show, with Ben Roethlisberger leading the way.
The Steelers have regressed in a lot of ways, but that hasn't been because of Roethlisberger. He has willed this team back to a somewhat respectable 4-6 record with his usual antics of extending plays. His turnovers are up this year (between interceptions and lost fumbles, he has 15 turnovers), but again, that is a byproduct of Roethlisberger single-handedly trying to get the job done. When a guy has to give that type of effort week-in and week-out, mistakes are bound to pile up on the side. He is also being sacked an average of 3.6 times per game, the highest mark in his career. If the Browns can play good enough coverage on Roethlisberger, they will have plenty of cracks to take the big man down.
#2 - One Other Thread...But Nothing Going on the Ground: OK -- I take back what I said about the Steelers being a one-man show. In reality, credit needs to go to WR Antonio Brown as well. Brown has stepped up in a major way since the departure of WR Mike Wallace, and for whatever on-field body language WR Hines Ward used to drive us nuts with, Brown is approaching that same level with his demeanor (in other words, he fits right in to the Steeler culture). Brown has mastered the craft of being both a possession receiver and a big-play threat. He leads the NFL in receptions with 74, and is 5th in the NFL with 952 yards receiving to go along with five touchdowns.
With that said, the running game deficiencies for the Steelers have been a big problem for the Browns. This probably didn't seem possible, but Pittsburgh is actually worse in their running game than Cleveland is, averaging just 76.5 yards rushing per game and 3.37 yards per carry. Since making his debut against the Vikings, rookie running back Le'Veon Bell has led the way for the Steelers, replacing a bunch of ineffective backs like Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones, Isaac Redman, and LaRod Stephens-Howling.
Bell is a big, bruising back at 6-1, 244 lbs. He's had three decent games, and four rough ones. With the Steelers' struggles in run blocking, it's tough to get a gauge on whether Bell can be their back of the future or not. Based on how well Cleveland's run defense has been playing, though (third in the NFL in yards per carry allowed at 3.55), it's hard to imagine this being the week that he breaks out.
#3 - Falling Victim to Early Deficits and Big Plays: If you want to see one play that defines why this isn't the Steelers team of old, go and watch Terrelle Pryor running a quarterback keeper, untouched, for 93 yards against them a few weeks ago. Pittsburgh has also found themselves getting dominated early on in games, which can force the Steelers to abandon the threat of their running game as defenses try to tee off on Roethlisberger.
Back in Week 3, the Steelers were losing early on to the Bears, 17-0. A few weeks ago against the Raiders, they were losing 21-3. They were down 24-10 to the Patriots at halftime. The latter of those two games came in Pittsburgh's two most recent road games (speaking of which, they are just 1-4 on the road this year).
When Pittsburgh finally built up an early lead of their own last week against the Lions (14-0 at the end of the first quarter), by halftime, the Lions were leading 27-20...only for Pittsburgh to rally and win 37-27. It's tough to pin the Steelers as being as bad of a team as we thought when they were 0-4, since they have since gone 4-6. They are learning to find ugly ways to win, but the deficiencies are still present at so many positions.
#4 - Defense Finally is Over-the-Hill: For the past several years, prior to the season, I would project a decline in the Steelers' defense because too many of their players were getting older. Instead, they kept responding by continuing to be one of the best defenses in the NFL. In 2013, though, we can finally make the proclamation that the Steelers defense of old is no more.
On the defensive line, Casey Hampton is gone and Brett Keisel hasn't been very good. At linebacker, LaMarr Woodley has had an off year trying to replace the void left by James Harrison, and they lost Larry Foote for the season, forcing sixth-round draft pick Vince Williams into the starting lineup. The team's first-round draft pick, Jarvis Jones, has hardly made a positive impact. The same goes for fourth-round pick Shamarko Thomas, the strong safety who Browns fans were initially upset about Cleveland trading a draft pick to the Steelers so they could get him.
The secondary has been problematic too, despite the Steelers ranking better against the pass than they do against the run. At safety, Ryan Clark is making too many mistakes in coverage, and Troy Polamalu can't carry the defense by himself. Cornerback Ike Taylor is 33 years old, and the Steelers don't exactly have studs waiting in the wings to replace him. Between Pittsburgh whiffing on their offensive line draft picks in 2012 and their defensive draft picks in 2013, they aren't off to a great start in their effort to rebuild the team.
#5 - Special Teams Overview: The Steelers do a solid job in kickoff coverage; they rank first in the NFL in that department, and are the only team allowing an average of less than 20 yards per return. That stat is 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, although he has not attempted a 50+ yard kick this season. The longest kick of Suisham's career is 52 yards, so it's safe to say that he doesn't have the strongest leg in the world.
At punter, the Steelers recently waived Zoltan Mesko and replaced him with Mat McBriar. Both of their numbers are pretty much the same; in terms of distance and net average, McBriar and Mesko both ranked right near the bottom of the NFL. RB Felix Jones has been handling kickoffs for the Steelers recently, and he's had a couple of decent returns, but nothing too explosive. 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.