Since 2000, the Cleveland Browns have beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers just five times, the most recent a 31-10 victory in October of last year. And while the rivalry has leaned lopsidedly toward the Steelers in a big way, that doesn’t mean the Browns should be completely counted out on Sunday when the two teams meet yet again. The odds may feel stacked against Cleveland, but the same could have been said last year when the Browns earned a substantial victory. After all, the Steelers are 5-4 presently and will be without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. There are weaknesses to this team that the Browns could exploit in Week 10 that could result in victory.
The first, of course, is the Roethlisberger absence. Landry Jones—and not Michael Vick—will get the start, with his experience in Pittsburgh’s offense trumping Vick’s overall greater NFL experience. But though Jones has the knowledge base necessary to run the full Steelers’ playbook, he’s nowhere near the quarterback that Roethlisberger is. In his three appearances and one start this season while Roethlisberger recovered from his Week 3 MCL sprain and bone bruise, Jones completed 28 of his 47 passing attempts, for 456 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions, while being sacked twice.
This limited showing this year doesn’t tell the full story of Jones as a quarterback. For the previous three preseasons, he’s been jarred by defensive pressure, throwing few touchdowns and being prone to fumbling. While the Browns haven’t had much success rushing the passer this year, to the tune of just 15 sacks earned, bringing pressure on Jones will be necessary on Sunday. And sacks aren’t always necessary—hits and hurries also take their tolls on a quarterback’s timing and comfort level. Rattling Jones is the key.
Jones isn’t as effective at spreading the football around as Roethlisberger is, which could bode well for the Browns’ ability to defend the Steelers’ myriad receiving weapons. First and foremost is Antonio Brown, who caught 17 passes for 284 yards last week against the Oakland Raiders and their struggling secondary. Cleveland’s secondary is also out of whack at present, with safety Donte Whitner and cornerback Joe Haden already ruled out for Sunday’s game. But that doesn’t mean that Brown will burn the Browns. In eight games against Cleveland, Brown has totaled 44 catches for 728 yards and four touchdowns, or an average of 91 yards per game. The main key, though, is for the Browns to hold him scoreless. Brown had six catches for 124 yards in Week 7 against the Kansas City Chiefs, but the Steelers still lost, 23-13.
The problem here is that the Browns have given up 18 passing touchdowns already this year. Granted, a lot of those touchdown passes were thrown by quarterbacks who are better than Jones, such as Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton. And even if Pittsburgh’s passing offense doesn’t find its footing, there’s still the run game and DeAngelo Williams to contend with. Cleveland has the league’s worst run defense, and the 32-year old Williams has been highly productive in the three games he’s started in place of Le'Veon Bell. Williams rushed 41 times for 204 yards and three touchdowns in the first two games of the season when Bell was suspended and he rushed 27 times for 170 yards and two scores last week against the Raiders, the first full start for Williams after Bell suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 8. Limiting the damage that Williams can reap is a top priority for the Browns. If Williams can run at will, that does two things: It allows the Steelers to control the clock and it keeps Cleveland’s offense off the field. And if the Browns are going to win on Sunday, they will need to lean on the offense—and particularly the passing game.
When the Browns are on offense, they need to stick to the air. When Pittsburgh’s defense is playing well, particularly up front, they can sack quarterbacks, cause chaos and end drives. And it’s an improved front seven this year, with the Steelers currently amassing 22 sacks through nine games, compared to 33 for all of 2014. But when they cannot, as was the case last week against the Raiders and up-and-coming quarterback Derek Carr, their weak secondary is unable to pick up the slack. They gave up 301 passing yards to Carr last week and four passing touchdowns. The defense ranks 26th in passing yards allowed and 18th in passing touchdowns allowed. While Cleveland’s offense is not going to be as efficient with Johnny Manziel at quarterback instead of Josh McCown, openings still exist for Manziel and company to take advantage of Pittsburgh’s weak secondary. All Manziel has to do is trust the after-catch abilities of his receivers and allow the Steelers’ poor tackling to take care of the rest.
The Steelers are not invincible. That the Browns have two wins and the Steelers, five, does not matter. What matters is that the Browns do have the capability of outplaying the Steelers this week, as long as they can magnify Pittsburgh’s weaknesses and minimize their own. “Any given Sunday,” is a cliche for a reason. It’s not about playing flawless football but rather for the Browns to make fewer mistakes than the Steelers on Sunday. Hope is not lost for the Browns in Week 10.