This week, the Cleveland Browns take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 11 of the NFL regular season. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
- The Steelers are reeling, having lost four straight games after a 4-1 start to begin the year. Through that losing streak, QB Ben Roethlisberger only missed one game with his knee injury, having had the benefit of a bye week for some additional recovery time. He might not have looked fully "back" yet in his first game back two weeks ago against Baltimore, but he lit it up against the Cowboys last week, completely 80.4% of his passes for 408 yards, 3 touchdowns, and no turnovers.
- We all know what Roethlisberger is capable of, because he’s beaten the Browns time after time. He won’t make the same mistakes that Joe Flacco does (Flacco often tries to gift defensive backs the football). Roethlisberger will try to wear a glove so that he can spin the ball better threw the high winds that are expected (around 30 MPH).
- I’ve had a changing range of emotions when it comes to QB Cody Kessler and how head coach Hue Jackson handled him. Leading up to the Ravens game, the writing was on the wall that Jackson commanded Kessler to expand the offense and get the ball downfield. There had to be some match-ups that Jackson felt Cleveland could have exploited.
- When Kessler was pulled at the half, I didn’t have a good feeling about it at all. But, we were seeing the same old Kessler. That version of Kessler — the one who doesn’t or can’t throw the ball downfield — will never be a long-term starting quarterback in the NFL. Now that I have more time to reflect, I think the benching can do some good to let Kessler know how serious Jackson is about expanding his game. Unfortunately for Kessler, the winds are expected to be ridiculously high this Sunday, so that presents a challenge for an already weak-armed quarterback.
- The Steelers will face some questions about whether they want to re-sign RB Le'Veon Bell this offseason. Some would say he can be the top running back in the NFL, but he comes with baggage of off-the-field issues and injury issues.
- After Bell debuted to an 18-carry, 144-yard performance in Week 4 against the Chiefs, he's only averaged 3.52 yards per carry since then (82 carries for 289 yards). He remains a big threat as a receiver, though, averaging 7.5 catches and 60 yards receiving per game this year. The Steelers get the edge at running back because Bell is a good all-around back and Cleveland has not been able to give their two guys very many touches.
- Speaking on the lack of touches, Cleveland has to find a way to get Isaiah Crowell more carries. He averages 12.1 carries per game. Over the last five games, that average is down to 9.4 carries per game. Crowell and Duke Johnson have to be one of the best receiving back tandems in the NFL. That makes it hurt all-the-more that the offensive line blocking for the running game has suffered with the loss of Joel Bitonio and then Cameron Erving playing center.
Wide Receiver / Tight End
- The Steelers’ production at receiver this year comes down to one man: Antonio Brown. Now, Brown is one hell of a one man wrecking crew, with 69 catches for 831 yards and 7 touchdowns. But it can be a bit limiting for an offense, and as a collective unit, I give Cleveland the slight edge with a now-reportedly-fully-healthy Terrelle Pryor, Corey Coleman, Andrew Hawkins, and Gary Barnidge.
- The X-factor for the Steelers could be tight end Ladarius Green. He was signed this offseason to take the place of Heath Miller, who retired. Because of injury, Green didn’t make his debut until last week, when he had 3 catches for 30 yards in limited action against the Cowboys. If Pittsburgh increases his workload this week, and you think about Cleveland’s issues with tight ends, it could be a big day for Green.
- Sammie Coates was all set to be the Steelers' big-time No. 2 receiver. He had 19 catches for 421 yards and 2 touchdowns over his first five games. His long catch in each of the first five games was 42, 53, 41, 47, and 72 yards. Over the past four games, though, he has just 1 catch for 4 yards. What the hell happened? Well, he’s playing with broken fingers, which not only hurts his ability to haul in passes, but has shattered his confidence too.
- Eli Rogers, an undrafted free agent from a year ago, has come up big over the past two weeks with 10 catches for 145 yards and 2 touchdowns. Besides him, tight end Jesse James has been the team's other contributing receiver with 28 catches for 231 yards and 3 touchdowns on the season.
- The Steelers’ starting offensive line includes LT Alejandro Villanueva, LG Ramon Foster, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG David DeCastro, and RT Marcus Gilbert. Foster and DeCastro are playing as good as a team could ask for at the guard position. Overall, the line has been steady, but not as proficient in run blocking. Villanueva has allowed five sacks on the season per PFF.
- We saw one of LT Joe Thomas’ lesser games last week against the Ravens, where OLB Terrell Suggs got the best of him a couple of times. Thomas could have been effected by the short week, as he’s been gutting through a knee injury all year. The extended rest period might do him a lot of good. Pittsburgh gets the edge because of my continued lack of faith in C Cameron Erving, and the uncertainty of who will play left guard in any given week.
- The Steelers run a 3-4 defense. Their starting defensive line includes DE Cameron Heyward, NT Javon Hargrave, and DE Stephon Tuitt. The group took a big hit last week with Heyward suffering a season-ending pectoral injury, though. He led the team with three sacks on the season. DE Ricardo Matthews will see some more work with Heyward out, and Tuitt, who typically plays every snap, will work from both the left and right sides instead of just the right side.
- Cleveland’s defensive line now consistently features the trio of DE Jamie Meder, NT Danny Shelton, and DE Emmanuel Ogbah. While I think Meder is more of a rotational player, I’d rather have that group in there than one that features DL Xavier Cooper. One of the big keys over these final six games is to try to get some more effectiveness out of DE Carl Nassib. I don’t know what the solution is, but hopefully Ray Horton can (gasp!) “scheme something up for him.”
- The Steelers’ starting inside linebackers are Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons. At outside linebacker, it’s largely a four-man rotational group between Arthur Moats, Jarvis Jones, James Harrison, and Anthony Chickillo. Shazier and Timmons are the strength of the linebacking corp, but there has been a level of disappointment there — they aren’t playing up to the level I would’ve expected of them.
- The outside linebackers for Pittsburgh don’t feature any standout players, with the 38-year old Harrison often being relied upon to still play as if he was in his prime. The outside linebackers have combined for six sacks on the season.
- I gave Cleveland the edge here because I was that impressed with the first half performance of OLB Jamie Collins last week. Don’t underestimate the impact that a guy like that can have on a front seven, and he can inspire some confidence in the other players as well. His playing reps also put ILB Demario Davis in a better role, seeing fewer reps while ILB Christian Kirksey continues to be an everydown player. The depth after those three guys is ugly, but as I’ve said before, Cleveland typically operates from the nickel anyway instead of running a 3-4 defense.
- The Steelers' starting secondary includes CB Ross Cockrell, FS Mike Mitchell, SS Robert Golden, and CB Artie Burns. Veteran CB William Gay is now manning the nickelback spot. Gay is effective in the slot, so the big matchup to watch for is whoever Burns, the Steelers’ first-round pick, is covering. He’s had a so-so rookie year, but has been targeted a lot.
- Pittsburgh has some questions at strong safety with respect to who will start; rookie second-round pick Sean Davis rotated with Golden last week and has been taking the first-team defense reps this week in practice.
- For the Browns, CB Tramon Williams did not practice all week and is listed as questionable. If he can’t go, expect CB Joe Haden and CB Jamar Taylor to start. In nickel situations, Taylor will move to the inside with CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun going outside.
- If I was breaking this down separately, I would make the cornerback position “even.” The safety position would normally favor the team opposite Pittsburgh, but as we all know, no team has it worse at safety than the Browns. One wrinkle that I’m not sure fans realize still is that Ed Reynolds started at free safety last week. He didn’t do anything special, but he appeared more competent at doing his job than the other options on the roster.
- I don’t know if teams are going to be trying many field goals with 30 MPH winds this Sunday. This is a game where Mike Tomlin, despite missing four two-point attempts last week, will probably especially go for two instead of the extra point. Their kicker, Chris Boswell, is 9-of-13 on the year. He had a 90% conversion rate last year. I am not giving either team the edge at kicker this week due to the conditions and low number of attempts by both clubs.
- Statistically, Jordan Berry and Britton Colquitt, the Steelers’ and Browns’ punters, are about as even as you can get this season.
- If active, Justin Gilbert and Fitzgerald Toussant will be back on kickoffs for the Steelers. The Browns will have George Atkinson and Ricardo Louis on kickoffs. Neither group has an edge over the other. The one spot where I give Pittsburgh the edge on special teams is at punt return, where Antonio Brown is fielding the ball. However, if the winds are as they say they are, it might force the returners to be cautious and call for fair catches or just let it go.
This year, we are listing predictions for multiple staff members here at DBN.
Chris Pokorny: “If you look up-and-down my colleagues’ predictions, they are predicting the Steelers to blow the Browns out by 21 to 35 points. I can see why — the Browns are 0-10, and we’re so used to Pittsburgh coming in here with Ben Roethlisberger and lighting Cleveland’s defense on fire. This is the week I see things going in Cleveland’s favor.
Pittsburgh is on a four-game losing streak, and I have doubts as to whether the winds will allow the Steelers to take advantage of Cleveland’s safeties. The Steelers just lost the leader of their defensive line, Cameron Heyward, for the season. Pittsburgh isn’t great at stopping the run to begin with, which our line will thrive off of after having faced top-ranked units like the Jets and Ravens in recent weeks.
I think the Browns come out heavy with the running game and just keep on pounding away. Pittsburgh will have a costly turnover at some point, and then the pressure will mount on them -- ‘are we really going to lose five in a row, and to the Browns no less?’ We’ve seen the Browns have several halftime leads this year, only for them to not look prepared in the second half...at all. One of these weeks, even if it’s just frickin’ dumb luck, that’s going to change...and against what better of a team than the Steelers?” Browns 22, Steelers 19.
Matt Wood: “Browns get rolled. Antonio Brown sets the NFL record for yards in a game. I'm serious.” Steelers 38, Browns 10.
Jon Stinchcomb: “The Steelers losing skid ends here. They always play hard and fast against the Browns and this time will not be an exception, especially against such a historically bad team.” Steelers 34, Browns 10.
Zach Miller: “This one is gonna get ugly, real damn fast. Ben throws for like 5,000 yards. Bell has 400 yards from scrimmage.” Steelers 41, Browns 6.
Josh Finney: “I predict Clevelanders will be napping and hanging Christmas lights long before halftime.” Steelers 37, Browns 16.
Dan Lalich: “Ben Roethlisberger is fragile, so let's say Jamie Meder rolls up on his legs or something forcing him out of the game early. This leads to one of the most difficult games to watch of the season. Kessler can't get anything going, and whoever the Steelers backup QB is can't remember his playbook.” Browns 11, Steelers 5.
Who do you think will win, Browns fans? Let us know in the comments section below!