This Sunday, the Cleveland Browns take on the Pittsburgh Steelers. To help preview this week's game, I reached out to Neal Coolong from Behind the Steel Curtain and exchanged five questions with him. Enjoy!
Chris: "Since the last time these two teams met, the Steelers are now without LB Ryan Shazier and CB Ike Taylor on defense. Pittsburgh also brought LB James Harrison 'out of retirement.' Talk about some of the guys who have seen playing time due to the injuries, and how they've performed."
Neal: "Harrison’s definitely the headliner, and while he’s not 2008 James Harrison, he’s done a bit better than I thought he would in a lot more snaps than I thought he’d get. The Steelers have improved since Week 1 in terms of pressuring the quarterback, but they’ll have to do a lot better against better competition. Joe Thomas usually makes whatever Steelers pass rusher he faces all but not on the field and I’m hoping the effort needed for the 6-foot-5 Thomas to bend down and stop the 5-foot-11 Harrison will be enough to cause back spasms or something debilitating enough to keep him out of this game, but not serious enough he can’t play and beat Baltimore and Cincinnati when he sees them.
Arthur Moats was considered to be the guy who would get the most snaps for the injured Jarvis Jones, but he’s not playing significantly more than Harrison is. He’s done fairly well so far too. There’s a feeling of lowered expectations for the position, and perhaps that plays into my opinion, but generally speaking, my thought is "Hey, that’s not too bad!" upon review of their win over Jacksonville. It was poor against Tampa Bay after playing well against Carolina (where they lost the three starters you mentioned).
Sean Spence has filled in for Shazier, and I’m not entirely sure Shazier should get every snap upon his return. The run defense has been vastly improved since Cleveland and Baltimore ran over, around and through them in the first two weeks of the season. I’ll temper that by saying Carolina was literally out of running backs after Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert were injured in Week 3, and neither Tampa Bay nor Jacksonville have much pop in terms of their running games (believe me I know, I’m the moron who has both Doug Martin and Toby Gerhart on his 1-4 Fantasy team).
William Gay moved from slot cover duties to the team’s starter in place of Taylor, and Brice McCain covers on the outside (with Gay moving back inside) in nickel situations. McCain had a rough go of it against Tampa Bay, but rebounded to play fairly well against Jacksonville. The injuries hurt the team’s already shallow depth, and the ground they lost appeared to have been made up against the Jaguars, so we’ll see what happens against Cleveland’s strong passing game. "
Chris: "The Steelers seemed to dominate the Jaguars this past Sunday when you look at the game stats, but it was a 10-9 game until Blake Bortles through a pick six in the fourth quarter. What happened that Pittsburgh wasn't able to score more on offense?"
Neal: "Seasonal allergies to patches of turf that exist behind white lines with the number 20 on it appear to be the main culprit. You’re going to be in a competitive NFL game if you get a touchdown, two field goals and a turnover in the opponent’s red zone (or close to it, I forget the exact numbers). That’s a lot of points left on the field.
We’ll get to this in your next question, but the team is force-feeding Antonio Brown the ball (note three consecutive plays targeting Brown inside the 10 resulted in one reception for no gain, an incomplete pass and a sack). Pittsburgh clearly felt it had an advantage with its passing game against a Jaguars secondary that had been shredded in their previous four games. They cut a guy, had a new cornerback start and appeared to have set off a nuclear bomb under the posteriors of the remaining defensive players. It’s a controversial statement, but I think Jacksonville’s defense held up fairly well overall. But, yes, the Steelers left a lot of points on the board. The team is gaining yards but not finishing drives, and it’s going to cost them as the season wears on."
Chris: "When was the last time a team was able to defend / shut down Antonio Brown? It seems like nobody in the NFL can stop him."
Neal: "You’ll have to check the stats to keep me honest here, but if a receiver in the NFL currently being targeted more than Antonio Brown, I’d be surprised. The Steelers know the level of talent he has, and it’s certainly justified to get him the ball. At the same time, the Steelers are the only team in the NFL with four players who have 20 catches or more (Brown, Markus Wheaton, Heath Miller and Le’Veon Bell), and Ben Roethlisberger had completions to every active pass catcher on the roster in the win over Jacksonville.
I think Jacksonville did a good job containing him. He had four catches and 60-some yards before a final play designed to extend an NFL record 20-game streak of five catches and 50 yards (the Steelers had the opportunity to kneel out the game after the 2-minute warning, but they felt they needed a first down and they needed to extend Brown’s streak. Don’t get Steelers fans started, a very sore subject). I’m not sure any player getting 12 targets a game is going to get shut down, but Jacksonville made Brown and Roethlisberger work extremely hard for every yard. Except the last few, but that’s another argument.
He’s an excellent player, worthy of first team All Pro right now. I figured to see the game’s top two statistical receivers in the AFC North this year, and maybe Gordon will join Brown after freaking out for 300 yards and three scores a game over the final six games of the season."
Chris: "In our Week 1 preview, you said that you'd rather not play against Hoyer (compared to Manziel) because you thought Hoyer would be a pretty good quarterback. Has Hoyer played up to the level you expected, or has he exceeded your expectations?"
Neal: "Ya know, I almost feel proud, in a way. I chatted with a few on DBN a few times last year and this offseason gathering their opinion on Hoyer, and it seemed like there were definitely some on my side of the fence, but a lot of them were against him. A few changed my mind a little bit, but generally, I’m not surprised he’s having the success he’s having. I am surprised, and did not expect, the lack of interceptions, though. Nothing against him, but quarterbacks with little game experience don’t protect the ball the way he has. I love his confidence, and what’s interesting to me is he’s doing a lot of the same things Manziel was praised for in college; he’s making things happen despite the odds being seemingly stacked against him. It’s sort of ironic the Browns draft Manziel for a lot of those reasons, and Hoyer is the one putting them on display (that’s not a shot at Manziel).
I really like quarterbacks who’s whole is more valuable than their sum. Hoyer gets every last drop of his ability out of himself every game, and while he’s physically limited, his 100 percent comes out every game, and that’ makes him a tough SOB to beat. Yes, my Hoyer Homerism is loud and proud, but my passion for teams doesn’t cancel out my passion for individual players, and I love how he plays the game.
That said, again, I hope Cleveland starts Manziel this week."
Chris: "The Browns are actually favored against the Steelers this week, which is a rarity. Do you agree with the oddsmakers, given the fact that Ben Roethlisberger is still a ridiculous 18-1 against the Browns?"
Neal: "I do agree, and I think it’s probably a perfect line at 2.5. A field goal will win this game, and I think it’ll be low-scoring (warning: I’m almost always wrong with my predictions). The Steelers’ defense is so hot-and-cold, just like the Browns’ offense, I can see this being a collection of big plays and dizzying momentum shifts. In the end, objectively but with someone else’s money (yours, if you’d like to give it to me), I’d take Cleveland in this game.
It’s going to be, I would think, the most insane crowd Cleveland has had since LeBron left, and that will definitely hold an advantage. The Browns are a scrappy, young team and the best way to bolster that is cranking the heavy metal up to 11 inside the stadium and terrify the opposing team. Black and gold fills EverBank stadium for "road" games against the JacksonBurgh Jaguars, but it’ll be a pro-home team crowd this week.
Like I said, though, I’m almost always wrong."
Thanks again to Neal for taking the time to answer my questions.