In a Christmas Eve rematch of week 10, the Steelers will enter Cleveland Browns Stadium this Saturday looking to keep their playoff hopes alive. The Steelers are holding on to the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC and nothing would make Browns fans happier than eliminating the Steelers from the playoffs.
QB Ben Roethlisburger is wearing a protective device and glove in order to protect his injured thumb. Ben is having another stellar year, but with the injury, he is no longer able to stretch the field in the same fashion. The thumb seems to create a distinct wobble on those deep passes, which enables defenders time to recover and get under the ball. He still has the arm strength but a bit of the precision is lacking. The Steelers are offsetting this by relying on more crossing routes between the linebackers and safeties, and with the short curl routes.
Hines Ward simply dominated the first meeting with the Browns. Neither Daylon McCutcheon nor Ray Mickens were able to cover Hines as he racked up 124 yards on eight receptions of which five were first down catches. Hines will look to repeat this performance Saturday as his physical style of play is a difficult match up for the Browns secondary. The key to keeping Ward in check is getting under his routes and forcing him to go over the defender. Ward can go over the top but if you can get on the inside, he is not nearly as effective as his bread and butter is using his body to seal the defender and become more of a possession receiver that is hard to bring down.
Antwaan Randle El is a multidimensional threat running, catching and throwing. He is the Steelers deep threat as he has the speed to stretch the field. He will take the occasional reverse and run with it but more often than not, as the Browns saw in the first meeting, he will look for Ward deep down the sideline.
Heath Miller is in the running for offensive rookie of the year. He gives the Steelers that big physical target over the middle. He has been than advertised speed, but tremendous concentration and a great pair of hands makes him special. Miller simply does not drop anything he gets his hands on.
"Fast" Willie Parker was absent from the first meeting but he will be looking to shine on Saturday. Willie needs 63 yards to join this year's 1000-yard rusher club. Willie is an explosive back with the speed to take it the distance anytime he touches the ball. If the Browns are to have any success against Parker, they must stop him before he gets going. He is not a back that you are going to chase down - once he gets past that first layer of defenders more often than not he is gone for huge yardage. He is an excellent compliment to Jerome Bettis' physical style of running but he has not yet learned the patience of veteran back. Willie can often become too fast and does not allow the play to develop in front of him. If he learns to give his offensive line and secondary wave of blockers time to do their job, he will become an elite running back. For now, he is relying solely upon his speed to beat defenders to the edge.
Jerome Bettis is out there for one purpose only, and that is to wear down the defense. His physical brand of football frustrates and breaks teams down both mentally and physically. Combined with Willie Parker, these two backs are truly thunder and lightning.
The Steelers offensive line is back to doing what they do best, and that is powerful run blocking. They have battled a series of injuries but, at this time of year, no one has a healthy offensive line. Their pass blocking is becoming more and more suspect, especially at the tackle positions. This has forced rookie tight end Heath Miller, to stay in and block. Miller remains a serious threat in the passing game but his blocking has been a key ingredient, in the Steelers last two wins. The Steelers are running the stretch sweep to spread out the opposing front seven and when Miller gets a helmet on that inside backer, it is allowing Bettis and Parker the option of streaking down the sideline or cutting it back inside.
This front three is having a spectacular year despite a lack of numbers. Nose tackle Casey Hampton has the ability to penetrate and disrupt, despite the constant double teams that he faces on a weekly basis. Hampton fires off the snap using that one arm hook, shoves to get the center off balance, and throws his back into the guard. This move creates opportunity for the blitzer to shoot that gap and create havoc in the pocket.
Defensive ends Aaron Smith and Kimo von Oelhoffen do a great job of occupying the tackles and funneling the play back into the middle. When they are able to get up field, it gives the defense options. This allows the outside backers the luxury of either shooting over the tackle or play that shifting zone, as they mimic the receiver while maintaining zone integrity and taking away the quick slant and curl routes. This is a tremendous benefit to the secondary as the short coverage can become lax and the focus is now on the mid to deep patterns.
Clark Haggans and Joey Porter are very experienced edge rushers that rarely loose run containment as they blitz. However, both are showing signs of slowing down. This makes them extremely vulnerable when asked to drop back into coverage. The Browns will likely target both with the tight end screen to the area they just vacated when they blitzed. This could be interesting to watch if Paul Irons gets into the game Saturday. His speed could present a serious problem for the Steelers linebackers.
The inside backers consist of James Farrior and Larry Foote. Both are solid run stuffers but neither will provide a great deal of pass rush assistance and their coverage is becoming more and more suspect. The Steelers are offsetting this by dropping the interior backers into short to mid range zones while allowing strong safety Troy Polamalu to take over their blitz assignments.
Polamalu is becoming one of the most tenacious pass rushers in all of football. He is basically, an extra linebacker with amazing speed that will make plays all over the field. He should get strong consideration for defensive player of the year honors, even though his numbers are not spectacular. It is not the number of plays he makes but when he makes them and how vital those defensive stops are to the Steelers. He is a defensive game changer.
The corner combination of Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend are better than most
give them credit for but they remain a vulnerable area for opposing offenses
especially when teams can land that middle slant route. They are so concerned
with the deep pattern that it makes them slow to react and you can have big
plays with the run after catch but the quarterback must hit the receiver in
stride, as both are much-underrated tacklers.
Browns Battle Plan
The Browns must use the pass to set up the run this week. The Steelers are going to load the box to stop Reuben Droughns and take their chances with rookie Charlie Frye and the Browns suspect offensive line. Charlie must be given a variety of quick options with the occasional screen to slow down the Steelers blitzkrieg defense. Charlie will also need to make the quick decision as he feels the rush at his back but avoid hurrying the throw. Keeping Charlie's jersey clean may be the number one key to this game.
One option will be to use more of the three receiver sets. Frisman Jackson can be very effective from the slot at attacking the area vacated by a blitzer. His wide body can shield defenders and he has the speed to gain yards after catch. If the Steelers safeties are forced to come up and help the linebackers cover that slot position, Antonio Bryant and Dennis Northcutt will find themselves isolated and in one on one situations. Antonio made a bold statement after the last game and must back it up this week.
The Browns will need to be patient running the ball and take some of the burden off the shoulders of Reuben Droughns. Reuben is a second effort guy that rumbles for most of his yards after that first contact. The Steelers will wear him down in similar fashion to the first game, if he is the Browns only running back option. Lee Suggs will need to see two or three series this week, to keep Reuben fresh. His speed can be useful in getting outside the tackles and forcing the secondary to provide run support.
The Browns front seven have been abused all year in the running game and this week the Steelers will look to run the ball 40 plus. I am not sure if there is a solution to the Browns inability to stop the run with the personnel that they have available but to be honest, I would see what OLB Nick Speegle has to offer, I don't think it would be possible for him to be any worse. He has also shown to be an excellent tackler in special teams.
After reviewing the first contest, one of my biggest concerns is the play of the Browns' safeties. During the second half of that game, the safeties did not seem willing to make a tackle on the Steelers running backs. Several times, they ran with the play and never made any commitment to assisting in stopping the run.
The Browns corners must show up for this game. With all the attention given to stop the Steelers running attack, it is vital for the corners to become very physical and take away the quick timing patterns. The key will be the bump and run coverage. I do not believe you can beat the Steelers by playing off the receivers the way we did in the first game but instead attack the receivers and disrupt the timing of the play.
In the first meeting, the Browns were beat up physically and mentally after matching the Steelers intensity early in the game. The Browns made mental errors with penalties, dropped passes, overthrows, lazy blocking and lack of effort tackling. If the Browns are to have a chance, the mental game must improve and it has shown a great deal of improvement since that first meeting. I believe special teams star, Josh Cribbs will have a great game and if he can keep the Browns with a shortened field, Charlie will move the ball and put points on the board. Charlie has been blitzed by everyone and he may be more comfortable seeing the pressure than having to read zone coverage.
With my only prediction of the year, Browns win big 35-10.