This Sunday, the Cleveland Browns will take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season finale. The Steelers still have a shot at the playoffs, but they'll need a win over Cleveland for that slim chance to remain possible.
To help preview this week's game, we reached out to Neal Cooling from Behind the Steel Curtain and exchanged five questions with him. Enjoy!
DBN: "Many Browns fans are hoping/wishing that the Steelers are finally getting old. What is the feeling amongst fans? Do the Steelers need a major retooling or are rumors of their death greatly exaggerated?"
Neal: "A broken clock is right twice a day. Eventually, all teams get 'old,' the question is whether or not that team can still be effective.
There are a few things that need to be considered when answering that question. The Steelers were without their defensive quarterback, Larry Foote, for all but two quarters of one game of the season. They had new starters at outside linebacker, cornerback, nose tackle, center (two of them), left tackle (two others, three if you count the game Levi Brown warmed up for), wide receiver, running back and tight end (David Paulson STARTED games for this team), not to mention scores of injuries to starters and back-ups alike all season.
This team's problem early on was a lack of continuity. Troy Polamalu has been playing linebacker this season, for cripe's sake. What's factual here is this team is averaging 29 points a game over its last eight games, and has a chance to go 8-4 over its final 12 games.
I think the 'Steelers are old' bit is just that, because if anything, it was too inexperienced in 2013. There is plenty of reason to think the future core of this team is in the process of taking the reigns, and the strength of the team was built after winning at least seven of their final 12 after an 0-4 start.
We'll see who gets hurt next, though."
DBN: "Browns traded the pick used for Shamarko Thomas. How has he performed for the Steelers this season?"
Neal: "He hasn't done much of anything this season. They used him as a nickel defender and a dime defender early on, but an injury in Week 10 against Buffalo held him out a few weeks. Veteran Will Allen took over that extra safety spot in the Steelers' quarters package and it's become a solid, versatile look. You can't expect a rookie fourth round pick to come in and outperform a veteran who's played in the defense previously. That's just not realistic.
Thomas's real value is in how he develops, not his unremarkable rookie season. He was a fourth round pick in 2013, but he'll be a third round pick in 2014, so the pressure is on him to step up. He'll certainly get an opportunity with at least one veteran safety (Ryan Clark) not expected back next season."
DBN: "According to mainstream media, Big Ben and Todd Haley hate each other. True or no?"
Neal: "I don't think they would be the best man in each other's weddings if they were getting married this summer, but ultimately, they want to succeed just as much as Norv Turner and Jason Campbell do. Pittsburgh's offense has been stagnant through much of Haley's tenure with the team, and I think there will invariably be some tension in the meeting rooms.
I've seen coaches and players go after each other in a meeting room, and joke around with each other after a win at the end of the week. Winning cures all.
Maybe those media reports were more based in isolated incidents, or maybe they were just flat-out wrong. I don't know, but one thing is clear; their offense is working pretty well now, and I'm curious to see how they'll finish the year against a good Browns defense."
DBN: "Browns and the Steelers now have defenses from the same family: what is the drawback of this defense and what does it need to have in order to be
at its best?"
Neal: "The strength of this defense is really up the middle; a powerful two-gap nose tackle, a smart strongside linebacker and a smart free safety who knows how to not get beat deep.
From there, agile and explosive outside linebackers who can push up field but also fill in zone coverage, combined with defense ends that can attack two gaps and push with enough force to eliminate separation from tackles and guards.
Top to bottom, the defense is about generating pressure through 11 players working in unison to create confusion. You have the main duties of players, but cornerbacks who cover mostly in zone can show man and blitz or drop to a cover 3. Defensive ends can stunt as a means to draw a tackle inside or to open up a backside rush from an inside linebacker who shifts out wide. Having a cohesive group of defenders who play technically sound and more than anything else, smart football, will be characteristics of this defense at its highest level.
The drawback is continuity. It's at its best when it has long-standing veterans at nose tackle, buck linebacker and free safety. It seems like many things fail to click when younger or new players assume those roles and fail to maintain the level the previous player set."
DBN: "Quarterbacks aside, (you guys keep Ben and we keep the poo-poo platter) would you trade the Browns roster for the Steelers roster?"
Neal: "I like the way the Browns have been developing their roster. I'll admit I wasn't big on Josh Gordon immediately (character issues and wide receivers are far too synonymous nowadays), but after watching him against Pittsburgh last year, I started getting worried. That worry turned into panic during the second half of the Steelers' win in Week 12. It then spread to the rest of the league, and you get all the rest.
Having Joe Thomas would be pretty sweet, and I think Alex Mack is an excellent center. Both will be costly soon, so that would be a concern. Steelers have the backfield advantage.
I keep waiting for Phil Taylor to really make The Leap, and perhaps I'm not seeing it, but I see him as a decent player right now. Should be better. Maybe he will be. Cameron Heyward is the 5-technique I'd want, but Rubin and John Hughes (what a great pick-up by Cleveland) are better than Heyward and Keisel/Hood. I'd take Jason Worilds over Kruger, Sheard over Woodley and..........jjjjjJones....over Mingo....?!?!? People on both sides will probably savage me for that.
Joe Haden is a captain on my All Non Steelers team, I'd take him over anyone else I've mentioned, probably. Ward's a tough dude, love his attitude, I can't pass on Polamalu though. The tandem of Clark and Polamalu is my deep secondary.
I have not given you an answer, and I'm not sure I can. I now fully understand the 'Quarterbacks Aside' qualifier to start this question. It really is the sum of the Steelers' whole is greater than the sum of the Browns' parts, but that's largely dictated by the quarterbacks. I might say, without them, it's a wash. "
Thanks again to Neal for taking the time to answer our questions.