The Steelers are on a current three game win streak and boast a 6-2 record overall. They are the bully on the block as they play a very physical style of football both offensively and defensively. As with any bully, you never want to get fancy but instead simply walk up and hit them as hard as you can directly in the mouth. (This is to be taken figuratively)
The Browns need to come out and make the statement that this game is going to be a war. The Browns simply cannot afford to sit back and allow the Steelers to impose their will.
By far, the Steelers greatest strength is their offensive line. No matter who leaves, they always seem to have someone ready to take over. The Steelers lose two starters in tackle Oliver Ross, guard Keydrick Vincent, and never skip a beat. In fact, this year's offensive line is actually showing signs of being better than last years line at the same point in the season. There is no secret to the Steelers running game, they invest wisely in the offensive line and develop those investments. You never see the major overhaul with this unit. When they lose players to free agency or injury, they promote from within and keep the core together.
The right side of this line has been physically dominating all year. The emergence of the second-year monster (6'-8", 340lb) Right Tackle Max Starks has been a major surprise. His pass protection is steadily improving but combined with Right Guard Kendall Simmons, they are moving people off the line with ease and they are option number 1 in that running attack. 10-year veteran, Jeff Hartings, anchors the Steelers in the middle. Hartings is not as quick as he once was but he is still capable of getting out into the second level and he is the glue that holds this group together. Ten years of experience at the center position is invaluable. Jeff has lined up with guard Alan Faneca and tackle Marvel Smith for 5 years running and it is just amazing to have that kind of stability from right guard to left tackle in the modern NFL, as this is also Simmons' 4th year as a Steeler as well.
Pittsburgh has a three-headed monster at the running back position with Willie Parker, Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis. Both Willie and Jerome are questionable but both are likely to see action. Fast Willie loves to get outside the tackles and use his speed to take it the distance. He is not afraid to run inside and this makes him an even more dangerous back. Duce and Jerome are straight ahead runners that look to run over people. They wear you down both physically and mentally. Look for the Steelers to use all three backs in this game.
At quarterback, it appears as if Charlie Batch will make his second consecutive start. Batch brings a bit of mobility and an effective short passing game to the table but (let's be honest) he is not a starting caliber NFL quarterback. Pittsburgh will look to take the ball completely out of his hands and for good reason. In the games in which Ben Roethlisberger did not start, the Steelers have failed to covert on third downs 19 of 20 attempts. With Batch starting again this week, look for the Steelers to become even more one-dimensional.
The Steelers have receiving threats in rookie TE Heath Miller, and also in receivers Antwaan Randle-EL and Hines Ward but with Batch at quarterback they won't get a great deal of respect as targets for this game. With that said, what the group does do very well is block. They like to get out and into the face of the linebackers, which makes the running backs even more dangerous. If they take the linebacker out of the play, opponents find it's tough bringing down these running backs on a consistent basis with defensive backs.
Defensively for the Steelers, it all starts with the defensive line. Similar to the offensive line, this group has been together for five years. Defensive ends Aaron Smith and Kimo von Oelhoffen along with nose tackle Casey Hampton understand how to play the 3-4 scheme as well as anyone does in football. They aren't the most physically gifted group but you just cannot underestimate how incredibly valuable their experience is. They do their job and that is to eat up blockers, free up the linebackers and make plays when the opportunity is there. They are not stars, but they are the lifeblood of this defense and they are the reason Pittsburgh has 23 sacks on the year.
The linebackers are somewhat banged up at the moment but this is an excellent unit. James Farrior (listed as doubtful) and Larry Foote are monster run stuffers as both have mastered the art of shedding blocks and shooting the gaps. If Farrior does not play it could get interesting with the inside run. When you look to the outside linebackers, once again you find a good group. James Harrison, Clark Haggans and Joey Porter are not stars but all know how to blitz and play the run. However, they are vulnerable when asked to drop back into coverage.
Troy Polamalu is arguably one of the leagues best safeties and to be honest Chris Hope is right up there as well. Both are playmakers with that ball hawking ability and they do not hesitate to come up in run support. I do question their ability to cover the speedy slot receiver, as both are a bit stiff in the hips when it comes to coverage.
Corners may be the weakest unit on this team in my opinion. Ike Taylor is a big corner that is very physical and he likes jamming and controlling the receiver early in the play. He really has benefited from a very good pass rush, as he can be beat deep if the quarterback has time. Deshea Townsend is a wily vet corner that knows how to play the position and while he may not be as fast as he once was, he can still turn it on and cover his man with experience.
Browns Battle Plan
The Browns' front three will not be able to penetrate the Steelers offensive line but what they can do is simply hold their ground. If they can do this, two things get accomplished. First off, it will allow the linebackers freedom to slide to the play and keep the running backs in front of them. The backers must slide and collapse once the Steelers commit to that particular run. By the defensive front holding their ground, the gaps become more defined and the options for the running backs become very limited. Secondly, it will prevent the defense from wearing down. It doesn't take as much effort and physical exertion to simply dig in and hold your ground as opposed to being aggressive and wearing yourself out against their more physical offensive line.
It is simple enough for the linebackers. Hit hard and play with discipline. Avoid being moved out of your gap assignments and do not be fooled with the play action pass. The Steelers are likely to challenge Ben Taylor and Chaun Thompson. This could lead to more playing time for Orlando Ruff this week.
The safeties must be ready to not only cover Heath Miller on those short dumps but they must also be willing to take on Staley and the Bus. You cannot have any shoestring tackle attempts in this game and expect to win. This may be the ideal game to get Pool and Jones more playing time. With Chris Crocker having a banged up shoulder, you do not want him taking on the big backs especially considering he does not square up on tackles but sticks that arm and shoulder in there to make the play which has resulted in injuries.
The Browns are likely to tighten up their umbrella defense and leave the corners Leigh Bodden and Daylon McCutcheon somewhat exposed on the outside. It is a bit of a risk but with Batch at quarterback, it is a risk worth taking. The real match up here will be Leigh Bodden covering Hines Ward.
The Bottom lines is stopping the run and turn this into a game of field position. Now if you can get the early lead 90% of the battle is over as you force the Steelers to do something that they simply do not like doing and that is throwing the ball.
The Browns must challenge the banged up linebackers and draw in the safety support. Whether Farrior plays or not this is the area to test and while the Steelers are one of the best run defenses in the league, running hard at them between the tackles will take its toll. Allow the right side of the offensive line the opportunity to take over this game. Terrell Smith and Corey McIntyre have to be on head hunting missions every play. No one likes having the fullback in his lap play after play and all it takes is a second of hesitation to turn a 2-yard gain into a 20-yard gain. If the running game is not working, do not give up on it but use it to set up the play action pass and the screen.
The run and screen will also set up the deep play behind the safeties, as the safeties will creep closer to the line. Last week the Packers (who do not have the weapons at receiver that the Browns possess) were getting open behind the safeties. If you can get Edwards or Bryant one on one downfield, allow them the opportunity to make the big play. Sometimes you just have to put it up and say go get it. It is time to find out if we have average at best receivers or true playmakers.
Overall, this is a very winnable game against our #1 rival. This banged-up Steelers team is extremely vulnerable. As long as we avoid making the big mistake, we have a very good shot of getting our first divisional win. It will all come down to execution and discipline.