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Steelers vs. Browns: NFL Week 17 Preview and Prediction

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Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

This week, the Cleveland Browns (3-12) take on the Pittsburgh Steelers (9-6) in Week 17 of the NFL regular season. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.


Position-by-Position Evaluation

Pos Advantage Reason
QB The last time Ben Roethlisberger faced the Browns, he came in the game early as a backup. With the use of only one foot, he stood in the pocket and launched pass after pass downfield without any pressure to the tune of 379 yards and 3 touchdown passes.

Cleveland is forced to start Austin Davis this week since Johnny Manziel is out with a concussion. The last time Davis played against the Bengals, he looked like a competent quarterback but had no help around him. The Browns' Week 17 starters over the past five years are Seneca Wallace (2011 vs. Pittsburgh), Thaddeus Lewis (2012 vs. Pittsburgh), Jason Campbell (2013 vs. Pittsburgh), Connor Shaw (2014 vs. Baltimore), and now Davis.
RB Even though Ben Roethlisberger torched the Browns through the air back in mid-November, the Browns' defense held DeAngelo Williams to 54 yards on 17 carries (3.2 YPC). Williams has been a big part of the Steelers' passing game in his five games since facing the Browns, averaging 5 catches for 43 yards. The Steelers really aren't utilizing a backup; Williams is their workhorse from start-to-finish with Le'Veon Bell gone.

Isaiah Crowell's season can be broken down in spurts. During his first five games, he had 62 carries for 240 yards (3.87 YPC). Over his next six games, he had 52 carries for 95 yards (1.83 YPC). Over his past four games, though, he has 56 carries for 318 yards (5.68 YPC). The Browns' change in run blocking philosophy has significantly cut down on the amount of times Crowell is being hit in the backfield, and the line has been opening one or two big holes a game that he's able to shoot through. I'm factoring the Browns' running game over the past four weeks, and that gives them the advantage. Did you know: the Browns are now the 19th-ranked run team in the NFL, and 15th in YPC?
WR
TE
This one is a no-contest. Antonio Brown is one of the top-5 receivers in the NFL, and Martavis Bryant's straight-line speed burned Pierre Desir and Charles Gaines every other play the last time these two teams squared off. Markus Wheaton and Heath Miller have been involved in the Steelers' passing game more over the past month as they've started running the ball less. The Browns' secondary appears to thin to cover all four of those players.

The Browns will be without Marlon Moore in addition this week, and Darius Jennings led the team in receiver snaps last week. Travis Benjamin needs 87 yards receiving to reach 1,000 yards on the season, but he only has 9 catches for 87 yards over his last three games. Gary Barnidge is much more likely to reach 1,000 yards on the season, needing only 23 yards to get there. He's only had less than that amount once this season. Dwayne Bowe, Taylor Gabriel, and Terrelle Pryor are the team's other options, but none of them have contributed much in 2015.
OL The Steelers' offensive line is the same as the last time these two teams met: Alejandro Villanueva at left tackle, Ramon Foster at left guard, Cody Wallace at center, David DeCastro at right guard, and Marcus Gilbert at right tackle.

Earlier this season, I still gave the Browns the advantage -- with three Pro Bowl caliber players -- when Cameron Erving was replacing Joel Bitonio. With Both Erving and Austin Pasztor starting, though, the amount of detrimental plays from the guard positions evens things out.
DL Pittsburgh's starting defensive line includes Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt on the ends and Steve McLendon at nose tackle. McLendon has done well against the run, while Heyward is a good all-around player who leads the team with seven sacks. The Browns' defensive line had their best collective game of the season versus the Chiefs last week, in part because they stayed fresh when the secondary actually stopped the opposition on 3rd-and-long situations.
LB The Steelers' outside linebackers are Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones, a pair of former first-round picks. They haven't provided the pass rush Pittsburgh was hoping for, as they've combined for 0.5 sack over the second half of the season. At inside linebacker, Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons form a solid unit that gives Pittsburgh the positional edge over Cleveland.

I still haven't seen Nate Orchard become a physical speciman, but at the end of the day, I've always said that a player who makes one- or two big plays per game is doing their job. Orchard has 3 sacks and 1 interception over his past 3 games -- can he keep it up against Pittsburgh? Paul Kruger has had a much better second half of the season, even if he hasn't been logging a bunch of sacks. Armonty Bryant will be inactive again.
DB Pittsburgh's secondary features William Gay and Antwon Blake as the starting cornerbacks and Mike Mitchell and Will Allen as the starting safeties. When I asked our affiliate what position needed to be upgraded they offseason, they said cornerback and safety. As good as the Steelers are in some areas, I don't think they could get very far if they do make the playoffs, thanks to their porous secondary.

With all of that said, the Steelers still get the advantage at defensive back because the Browns will be without Tramon Williams, meaning either Pierre Desir, Johnson Bademosi, or Justin Gilbert will start at one of the cornerback positions. They might have been able to get away with lesser defensive backs against the Chiefs, but not against a Steelers group with several playmakers.
ST Pittsburgh's kicker is Chris Boswell, a rookie who has come in as the team's fourth kicker this year and finally provided some stability. He's connected on 27-of-29 kicks, including two from beyond 50 yards. Travis Coons is 24-of-28 on his kicks, with all four misses coming on blocked field goals.

Markus Wheaton is now returning kicks for Pittsburgh, with Antonio Brown on punt returns. Travis Benjamin might have a couple of shots at punt returns this week, as Steelers punter Jordan Berry is toward the bottom of the NFL in his averages.


Prediction

I think Cleveland's secondary, despite being limited, will do a better job this time around against Pittsburgh's receivers. The Browns are just too thin at quarterback, wide receiver, offensive guard, and cornerback to keep QB Ben Roethlisberger down for long, especially when they are seeking a playoff spot.

Pittsburgh Steelers 28, Cleveland Browns 13

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