Sunday will be the 107th meeting between these two historic rivals. In recent years the Steelers have owned this series but the Cleveland Browns still have a 55-51 overall record against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The game that remains fresh in the mind of the fans as well as the players was the last meeting in which the Steelers embarrassed the Browns but that beat down was justified in the eyes of many fans.
With certain quotes being spouted last year, such as the infamous, ""It's just another game to me, I know what it means to fans. The fans all get drunk and all hyped up. We can't get drunk before the game. We have to go out and play ball." It showed a general lack of respect for not only the fans but also the rivalry as well as the former players that put everything on the line when it came to the Browns/Steelers match up. Maybe the old fashioned butt whooping is enough to put some of that fire back into the players.
Steelers head coach Bill Cowher is a former Brown and at least in his eyes this was still a rivalry. When he had the Browns defeated there was no call for mercy. It was simply a beat down on Christmas Eve.
The Christmas Eve disaster in Cleveland is one of the reason that general manager Phil Savage has brought in many players from the area. He has been very public in his philosophy of finding players to beat Pittsburgh. Whether or not he has found enough of those players remain to be seen but this one is shaping up to be a classic battle.
The Steelers Offense
The Steelers offense has been up and down all year. Many have contributed this lack of consistency to the loss of several key players. Others have contributed this to the play and injuries suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisburger. I have to disagree with both assessments.
At some point during the off-season, the Steelers decided to become a passing team. Week after week, they would get inside the red zone and instead of pounding it out with running back Willie Parker, they chose to throw the ball. Interceptions happened and everyone was left wondering what happened to Big Ben.
Ben is still a solid quarterback. He still has the great arm and tremendous accuracy when catching defenders out of position. He is also one of those rare clutch players that will make the great throw at the end of games but he is not a quarterback that can put the entire offense on his back for 60 minutes.
Running back Willie Parker has been virtually unstoppable. He may lack ideal size but he is becoming a very effective back in short yardage situations combined with the speed to take it the distance anytime he breaks the line of scrimmage. Willie does an excellent job of running low and getting beneath the defenders pad level. This allows him to avoid those big hits that wear down the smaller backs and allows him to pick up those tough yards that were thought to be lost with the retirement of Jerome Bettis.
The Steelers are loaded at receiver. Hines Ward is the most complete receiver in the game. What makes Hines special is all of the little things he does so well. Great hands, excellent route running, good speed and always clutch. He will put his body on the line to make the big catch. He is willing to throw his body into the likes of Ray Lewis and Shawn Merriman in order to free up the running back.
Opposite Ward is a trio of talent in Santonio Holmes, Nate Washington and Cedric Wilson. Santonio Holmes is improving every week and once he improves at defeating the initial block, he will take his game to the next level. Wilson and Washington aren't as effective in the short game but they can get free deep down the field, usually off of the play action fake.
The emergency receiving option for the Steelers is tight end Heath Miller. It hasn't been the number of catches made by this potent tight end but the timing of those catches. He runs his best routes in 3rd down situations. He also understands how to work the seam, inside the red zone.
The Steelers offensive line is built for running the ball and it is no secret that they are running it behind monster right tackle, Max Starks. He wears down opponents with his size and power. He is also much improved in protecting the quarterback but he will struggle with the fast edge rusher. The Browns may look to test him early in this one.
Facing a Browns defense that is 29th in the league vs. the run, should tell everyone what the Steelers strategy will be in this one. They will pound the ball until the Browns prove that they can stop them.
The Steelers defense is struggling. They are not intimidating opposing offenses any longer. While their run defense remains stout, opposing offenses are throwing all over this defense. Part of the problem has been the lack of a consistent pass rush but the secondary has not allowed the front 7 enough time to get that pressure.
Offenses have used the quick slants and wide receiver screens in order to offset the blitzburgh defense, when the corners are off the line of scrimmage. When the corners have come up to jam the receivers, they have been beaten over the top.
The key for the Steelers defense is the play of nose tackle Casey Hampton. Hampton has dominated the Browns and he was the very reason that the Browns sought out LeCharles Bentley during the off-season. When Hampton is getting pressure the linebackers are coming free.
The Steelers linebackers have several things in common. They are big, fast and love to hit. There are players that make the tackle and then there are players that punish. This group punishes running backs and quarterbacks.
Joey Porter sets the tone for the linebackers. He is the fiery leader and if he is getting off to an early start, it is a long day for the quarterback. He usually saves his best game for the Browns.
The Steelers main defensive weapon is safety, Troy Polamalu. Troy suffered a concussion and may not play this week. If Troy is out, the Steelers will have a difficult time in containing Kellen Winslow.
The Steelers secondary is very overrated. They will however make plays on the ball, especially when the quarterback is telegraphing the pass. Thus far they have been forced to play off the line of scrimmage giving up the short yardage in order to protect the deep ball. This could be a problem when presented with the pure size of the Browns receivers.
The Browns continue to struggle offensively. Quarterback Charlie Frye is coming off of his best game as a Brown but once again too many points were left on the field in Atlanta. No mistakes were made and that is a positive to build upon.
Charlie has taken a beating this year and he is likely having flashbacks of the Christmas Eve disaster in which he was sacked 8 times and hit on every play. It will be vital for Charlie to get rid of the ball quickly. Whether it is with a quick strike or throwing it away, he can not take the punishment that he endured last year.
The key to protecting Charlie will be center Hank Fraley. Hank has been one of the few bright spots along the offensive line but he will have his hands full when facing off against NT Casey Hampton. If Hank is giving up ground in the middle, it will force Charlie into the arms of the blitzing linebackers. If Hampton is demanding the constant double, the inside linebackers will be shooting up the middle with nothing to stop them.
Left tackle, Kevin Shaffer will have his hands full in recognizing where the blitz is coming from. The Steelers will look to overload that left side and it will be up to Kevin to prevent Charlie from becoming one with the turf. His first duty will be to stop Joey Porter. If you stop Porter, you will be forcing someone else to make the play.
The Browns have no running game and with Reuben Droughns injured, it may not improve this week. The Browns could look to use Jerome Harrison and while he has the talent to run the ball, he is not very effective at picking up the blitz. Jeff Davidson may look to use the two tight end sets and attempt to pound the ball but one option would be to use two fullbacks just to protect the quarterback and throw all over the weak Steelers secondary.
The Browns should look to use the same type of attack that they used in the 2002 playoff game. Throw early and throw often. If you want to run the ball, run the draw. If you want to run it outside, use the little swing pass out to the back. You hate to put everything on the back of your young quarterback but this is where the Browns will have their only advantage.
Tight end KW2 is a mismatch no matter who covers him and this week, he should find himself open a great deal. The Browns will use the quick wide receiver screen as well as the 7 yard slant to set up the home run to Winslow. Receivers Joe Jurevicious and Braylon Edwards will be asked to pick up yards after the catch. As long as they are gaining some positive yards, it will force the defensive backs to play tighter coverage.
As the defenders creep closer to the line and Pittsburgh brings their linebackers on the blitz, this will put Kellen matched up one on one against the safety. It will also give Edwards and Jurevicious huge opportunity to take that quick slant the distance. One missed tackle and it is a race.
Defensively the Browns must remain patient and play to stop the run. The key in stopping the potent rushing attack of the Steelers is the Browns defensive line. They must get some push into the backfield. Willie Parker hits the open lane as hard as any back in football. By getting some push the lane shrinks and the inside backers can be patient and allow the back to commit. Without the push, there are more options and if the linebacker makes the wrong decision, they are in a footrace with one of the fastest players in the game.
While the inside backers are looking to stop the run, the outside linebackers will be looking to stop the outside run on the way to the quarterback. They will also have an opportunity to disrupt the passing game by dropping into the quick option passing lanes. The Steelers love using the slant to avoid the pass rush, especially with Ward and Holmes. Sliding into that route should allow opportunity for the turnover as this is a timing play and not a long read.
The Browns secondary remain one of the most injury plagued units in all of football, but they continue to perform well on a weekly basis. Sean Jones and Brodney Pool should have another good game as Ben has not made the best of decisions this year but their run support is just as important as anything they can do against the pass.
This is a must win game for both teams. As always, it will be a game full of vicious hits and lots of emotions. The team that can keep their head in the game should walk away with a victory.
Special teams play will be a huge factor in this one. The Browns special teams have been the highlight of this year's team and will have a decisive advantage against the Steelers. Keeping the Steelers backed up and forcing long sustained drives is a must.