Stop Antonio Brown.
This mantra is what every player on the Cleveland Browns defense — its much-maligned secondary, most importantly — must repeat to one another over and over this Sunday.
Will Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden play? This is going to be a key question entering Sunday’s game. Haden hasn’t played the best this season, but it is still better than going with struggling rookie Justin Gilbert. So how do you stop Brown, defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil?
“It’s a group effort,” he said. “The 11 guys out there, knowing where he’s at. He’s a good player. We’ve got good players, too.”
But maybe not at cornerback, even with Haden. In the first meeting Sept. 7, Brown finished with five catches for 116 yards and a touchdown. It’s not just the big plays — Brown’s touchdown was 35 yards — but the third-down conversions. The Browns defense needs to get off the field and turn the ball over to their new and improved ball-control offense. This week, coach Mike Pettine says the team’s defense is “pissed off.” Welcome to the party, coach. So are we.
The crowd will be loud. The intensity will be evident. It is time the Browns play an entire four quarters of football. Remember that first quarter against the Saints earlier this year? It was key to put the Browns in position for a victory, but the Saints stormed back midway through that game. Four quarters of playing at that high-level intensity is difficult, but much needed if this team wants to compete in the AFC North.
So far the Browns are 0-2 against division opponents this season. We all know the history against the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals isn’t pretty. We all know if the Browns want to be taken seriously within this division and within this league. To achieve that, the Browns need to start beating the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals. And guess what? The Browns talent level is on par with at least the Steelers and Ravens.
While the Browns defense does feature some inefficiencies, it is the offense that has shined.
The Browns will score points Sunday. The Steelers defense is not the same and a big reason why is no dominant nose tackle. Remember the years of Pro Bowler Casey Hampton? He would command double and triple teams freeing up the linebackers to roam and make plays. This year, the Browns offensive line is grading toward the top of the league and giving their three running backs holes to make plays. Blocking this Steelers front seven doesn’t seem nearly as daunting.
Thanks mostly to the offensive line, Ben Tate showed why last week, when healthy, he is a No. 1 back. He displayed great vision, quickness and some speed and power, as he earned more than 100 yards rushing. The Browns will be able to run the ball, control the clock and score points against this Steelers defense.
In recent seasons, the Steelers have not played their best at Cleveland. Since 2009, the Steelers are 3-2 in Cleveland with the Browns winning in 2012 (20-14) and 2009 (13-9).
This is not going to be the 2005 Christmas Eve Massacre all over again. The Browns are playing with confidence and, even more importantly, talent.
Winning more consistently within the AFC North needs to begin now. What better opponent to begin with than the Steelers?