KICKOFF: Saturday, 1:00 ET
TV: CBS, Gus Johnson, Steve Tasker
SERIES: 106th meeting. Cleveland leads the series 55-50, not including two Pittsburgh victories in their only playoff games. The series began in 1950. Since 1970 with the NFL merger when these two franchises moved to the AFC, the Steelers are 43-24. They are 16-5 under coach Bill Cowher, including a 6-3 record in Cleveland. The Steelers have won 10 of their last 11 games against the Browns, including a 34-21 victory Nov. 13 at Heinz Field.
2005 RANKINGS: Steelers: offense 21st (8th rush, 24th pass); defense 5th (3rd rush, 17th pass). Browns: offense 23rd (19th rush, 20th pass); defense 13th (27th rush, 4th pass)
PREDICTION: Steelers 27-17
KEYS TO THE GAME: A pair of 3-4 defenses will attempt to disrupt the passing games. The problem for the Browns is their defense allowed 159 yards on 41 carries in the first meeting, and that was with Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger out of the lineup. Still, Pittsburgh's offensive line isn't as strong as in recent meetings and the Browns will attempt to contain RBs Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis and come after Roethlisberger. Just as important for Cleveland is their own running game. They need RB Reuben Droughns to be effective from the outset to help control the clock and to alleviate pressure on rookie QB Charlie Frye. Frye has shown tremendous poise, but the speed and aggressiveness of the Steelers' defense will come as a jolting shock if he's stuck in third-and-long situations.
FAST FACTS: Steelers: Have won the past four meetings by an average of 11.3 points. ... Rookie TE Heath Miller needs one touchdown reception to tie Eric Green's 1990 franchise record of seven touchdowns by a rookie tight end. Browns: Have a seven-game losing streak against the AFC North. ... Have a league-low 28.6 touchdown rate inside the red zone (10 touchdowns).
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Browns front seven vs. Steelers RB Willie Parker: Coach Romeo Crennel has been drilling his players about staying in their gaps. The job starts up front with nose tackle Jason Fisk. Fisk has not been very active this season, but he made nine tackles last week. Crennel's attitude is if a player could do it once he could do it again,
Browns LDE Orpheus Roye vs. Steelers RT Max Starks: A knee injury prevented Ben Roethlisberger from playing when the Browns and Steelers played Nov. 13. He'll play Sunday, and the Browns' best chance of getting pressure on him comes from Roye. Roye had nine tackles in the game against the Steelers last month, tying a season high.
INJURY IMPACT: There is not a big drop-off from Jeff Faine to Mike Pucillo at center. Pucillo played well against Raiders nose tackle Ted Washington, but this week he'll have to deal with Casey Hampton, who is more
active than Washington.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Steelers: Marvel Smith returns to start at left tackle Saturday against the Browns in Cleveland, and that's a very big deal for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Smith missed four of the five past games for the Steelers and left in the first quarter of the other, and the team has lost three of them.
Smith made the Pro Bowl last season and may have done so again if he had not sprained both ankles. He's more than a Pro Bowler to the Steelers; he's one of their most valuable players, especially since their backup tackles are not strong. In Smith's absence, rookie Trai Essex started.
Pittsburgh went 15-1 last season when Smith and the rest of the offensive linemen started every game. When Smith missed 10 games in 2003 with an injury, they were 6-10.
"Hopefully, it's going to help," line coach Russ Grimm said. "He's played in there a lot longer than Trai has. He's a lot smoother on some things out there; a lot smoother technique-wise. He's been there a lot longer, played in more games. You're talking about an All-Pro tackle; basically that's what it comes down to."
The Steelers have won the past two games against two of the NFL's better defenses, Chicago and Minnesota, but Ben Roethlisberger hasn't exactly had a comfortable existence in the pocket. The Vikings sacked him four times and three other times forced him to scramble across the line of scrimmage. The Steelers had him throw quick, short passes against the Bears so he could get rid of the ball before his protection broke down.
"It's tough sitting back watching your team, not being able to go out and contribute and help us win games," Smith said. "It was the toughest period I've been through in a long time."
Smith had a sore shoulder before his ankle injuries; and the one good thing that came from his inactivity was that the time off also helped his shoulder heal.
"I'm not as sore as I would have been normally at this time of year," Smith said. "I feel a whole lot better now than I would have if I wouldn't have gotten that unexpected rest."
No other offensive lineman has missed a game this season, much as all five of them started all 16 games last season.
The player who is happiest to see Smith return is Roethlisberger.
"It's good to get Marvel back because of his experience -- and it's your blind side," Roethlisberger said.
Browns: Charlie Frye's main problems Sunday against Pittsburgh could be right in front of him.
Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton is one of the better ones in the league, and he'll be lined up against a backup.
Mike Pucillo will start in place of Jeff Faine, who will miss the season's final two games because of a torn biceps in his right arm.
Pucillo has been an extremely valuable backup for the Browns this season. He has started both guard spots, and played center in Oakland after Faine's injury.
But he's not the most imposing physical specimen.
He will be challenged by Hampton. If he controls the middle of the field, that will hurt the Browns' running game, which would allow the Steelers to dial up their plethora of zone blitzes.
If Pucillo can hold his own, though, it could help Frye pull off what would be a monumental upset.
STEELERS PERSONNEL NEWS
- WR Hines Ward is a second alternate for the Pro Bowl. That means two receivers
must drop out from the AFC for Ward to make his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl game.
- NT Casey Hampton is a first alternate to the Pro Bowl. He made his first Pro
Bowl in 2003, but was injured in the seventh game of last season and did not
- LB Joey Porter lost half a sack and the team lead when Elias Sports Bureau
split his sack of Brad Johnson Sunday, giving half to him and half to DE Kimo
von Oelhoffen. Porter has 7 1/2 sacks, second on the team to Clark Haggans'
- QB Tommy Maddox does not even take many snaps with the scout team since he's
fallen to No. 3 on the depth chart. Rod Rutherford, on the practice squad,
handles most of those duties.
- RB Willie Parker, trying to become the first 1,000-yard rusher in Pittsburgh since Jerome Bettis in 2001, rushed for 272 of his 937 yards in the first two games of the season.