PITTSBURGH – To understand the Cleveland Browns, “look more at their recent body of work,” says Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
The 2-8 Browns host the 6-4 Steelers this afternoon, and the Browns have a chance to beat the Steelers for only the second time in nine years because of:
B. Their recent body of work.
“I’ve really focused my efforts on their recent performances,” Tomlin said. And so shall we.
To break it down numerically, in the last five games, the Browns:
* Have won their two games, 7-6 over San Diego and 34-24 over Cincinnati.
* Have played teams with a .549 winning percentage. (Their opponents’ winning percentage in the first five games was .520.)
* Been outscored by only 1.2 points per game. (In their first five games they were outscored by 7.8 points per game.)
* Have improved by 0.7 yards per carry at the line of scrimmage (offense ypc. minus defense ypc.) over the first five games.
* Have improved defensively by almost 100 yards per game over the first five games.
The stats bear out what Tomlin has seen as the primary cause of the Browns’ improvement.
“The arrow is pointing up in one specific area for them,” Tomlin said, “their interior front of their defensive line.”
The specific individuals to blame are Phil Taylor (6-3, 335) and Ahtyba Rubin (6-2, 330).
Taylor, from Penn State, started the season on the PUP list with a pectoral injury. He was replaced by sixth-round draft pick Billy Winn and didn’t return until the ninth game.
Rubin, who ranked second in tackles last season among all NFL defensive linemen, missed three full games and most of a fourth with a calf injury. The only game in which both starting tackles played together was the last one, in which the Dallas Cowboys managed only 63 rushing yards on 21 carries.
“Those guys are big, stout men who specialize in shutting down the run,” Tomlin said. “They have been an awesome shot in the arm for them on defense.”
The only other second-half change on the Browns’ defense has been fourth-round rookie James-Michael Johnson replacing injured Scott Fujita at strongside linebacker.
Also, cornerback Joe Haden missed Games 2-5 with a league suspension for performance-enhancing substances, and then Game 10 with an oblique injury, from which he says he’s “90 percent” recovered.
Haden is a key part of a Browns pass defense that’s also improved drastically.
After allowing 12.2 yards per completion in the first half of the season, the Browns allow only 9.4 per completion, which is better than the Steelers’ 9.7 over the last five games and the Steelers’ pass defense ranks first in the league.
By the same token, the Steelers have improved defensively by 75 yards per game in the second half, or nearly as much as the Browns. And the Steelers have also shown great improvement in their running game.
After averaging 3.0 per carry in the first five games, the Steelers are averaging 4.7 per carry throughout the last five games.
However, the Steelers have been riddled with injuries of late.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be replaced this week by Charlie Batch, who may or may not have the offense’s top threat, wide receiver Antonio Brown, available.
Brown is questionable with an ankle sprain that’s knocked him out of the last two games. In the first of those games, the Steelers’ wide receivers had their worst production in 13 years, and last week the No. 1 receiver, Mike Wallace, lost a fumble, and then didn’t tap his second foot down on what would’ve been a touchdown, and late in the game didn’t seem to try for a low-but-catchable pass that would’ve put the Steelers in game-tying field goal range.
The Steelers, of course, will also be without Troy Polamalu, a ballhawk who is needed in secondary that’s intercepted only two passes this season.
If the Steelers can’t run, and Batch has trouble moving the chains through the air, the game could turn to special teams, where the Browns have a kicker in Phil Dawson who’s made 25 consecutive field goals and a return man in Josh Cribbs who’s returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in his career against the Steelers, an NFL record against one team.
Obviously, this game should be more difficult than the records would indicate. Tomlin, of course, agrees.
“They beat Cincinnati, they were in the Indy game, it was 12-14 in the fourth quarter of their Baltimore game, and last week they lost in overtime,” Tomlin said of the Browns. “They’re a competitive bunch. They play for 60 minutes. We respect them and our focus is on our preparation and ultimately our play.”
It had better be.