A Look at Cleveland vs. Pittsburgh

A divisional battle, a fierce rivalry game, the battle of two cities separated by a mere 135 miles. You have it, it's the Browns versus the Steelers and maybe, just maybe something is in store for the team from Pennsylvania.

A 4 ½ point dog in their home stadium on opening day, just the perfect scenario for what could be an exciting day on the lakefront for the Cleveland Browns. A perfect scenario you may ask, indeed. These Steelers are not the Pittsburgh powerhouse of old, and this is certainly not the Browns of 2006.

When talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers, we know a couple things. The offensive line will be trapping and the defense will be blitzing, off the team bus. Nothing changes in this regard, Pittsburgh football rarely changes, which is why this organization has tasted the success they have.

The difference between the two clubs separated by a mere 135 miles is quite simple. The Steelers under the direction of new head coach Mike Tomlin are going to be increasingly diverse on the offensive side of the ball and are going to do the unexpected. Offensively, the Steelers are not as fundamentally sound along the offensive, with Sean Mahan replacing the retired Jeff Hartings and Willie Colon replacing Max Starks, while Kendall Simmons remains an up and down type performer.

Mahan has been somewhat of a disappointment after coming to the Steelers via free agency from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Not the physical being of past Pittsburgh centers, Mahan will benefit from being surrounded by All-Pro Alan Faneca at left guard and Kendall Simmons at right guard. Colon could eventually emerge as a solid right tackle, and is considered no less that Starks' equal, but Colon provides a physical aspect which the Steelers like.

Under the direction of Tomlin and new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, the Steelers are going to spread the field much more often. Four receiver sets and the no-huddle offense will be part of the scheme, but the Steelers will still rely on running the football. This new offensive scheme in Pittsburgh is the type of system which quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has asked for over the past two seasons and he has looked solid in the Steelers five preseason contests.

The Steelers passing game facing off against the Cleveland improved pass defense should be an interesting challenge for both. The strength of the Cleveland defense lies in the defensive backfield. Cornerback Leigh Bodden has quickly become one of the better cover-comers in the game, while rookie Eric Wright has displayed solid cover skills in his limited time with the team. Facing a Pittsburgh offense which figures to show many three and four receiver sets, Daven Holly and Kenny Wright will see plenty of playing time. In the overall scheme of this game, the Cleveland defensive backs match up well with the Steelers, but the Browns will need to generate pressure on the quarterback and minimize the productivity of the Pittsburgh rushing attack to be successful. With the defensive backfield in good health, the Browns are confident in the ability of their defensive backs and will blitz to put pressure on Roethlisberger.

Adding, the Steelers offensive line did not do a solid job in protecting Roethlisberger during the preseason and the Browns are expected to mix up the blitz packages to get at the quarterback.

Cleveland has improved their anemic pass rush with the addition of outside linebacker Antwan Peek. Peek generally regarded as a good pass rusher with limited skills against the run and pass will need to make an impact, facing off against Colon and possibly a chipping tight-end or fullback. While Peek will garner attention, the heat of the Browns pass rush will come from the emerging Kamerion Wimbley.

Leading the team with 11-sacks in his rookie season, Wimbley is quickly becoming one of the better young pass rushers in the game today. Utilizing his tremendous quickness, Wimbley has the ability to beat tackles off the ball, and he has worked diligently throughout the off-season to improve his strength and technique. The left side of the Pittsburgh offensive line is its strength, with Marvel Smith and Alan Faneca holding court. Wimbley could be in for a long day, if Smith and Faneca are on top of their game.

The run first philosophy of the Steelers still exists, but the wrinkles put in by Arians will make this Pittsburgh team an increasingly difficult team to defend. Wide receivers Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes figure to put up big numbers in what could becomes a potent passing attack, and could be the factor in improving upon an 8-8 record in 2006.

Despite the notion Pittsburgh is going to be more diverse, expect plenty of running back Willie Parker come Sunday afternoon. Parker ran for over 200 yards against the Browns late last season, in a game which the Steelers as a team amassed over 300 yards rushing alone. Teams are going to look towards exploiting the Cleveland rush defense, with the Steelers being the first to test a revamped Browns defensive line which starts free agent acquisition, end Robaire Smith, Ted Washington, and potentially Orpheus Roye, if sufficiently healed from knee surgery early in training camp.

Smith and Roye are not the players they were a couple seasons ago, age and the battle scars have taken their toll. Washington is a large obstacle in the middle of the Cleveland defense, and he has not been effective at nose tackle, where the team needs help in the worst way. Depth along the defensive line remains a concern for the Browns, with Simon Frasier, Shaun Smith, and Ethan Kelley rounding out the balance of linemen on the roster. With Roye's questionable status, Smith and Frasier are going to be counted upon to fill the void.

When the Browns have the ball, the plan is to run the football. Much easier said than done, as the Pittsburgh run defense improved as the season progressed last season and there are no indications for a reversal of fortune prior to this game. Gone is Joey Porter, he is replaced by James Harrison, which may be an upgrade for the Steelers. Harrison is a strong outside linebacker and figures to give rookie left tackle Joe Thomas all he can handle in his NFL initiation.

While most of the focus is going to be on the Browns offensive line versus the Pittsburgh defense and the Cleveland ability to stop the run, an interesting tale could be in the making. Kellen Winslow, arguably the Browns best offensive player will be facing a Pittsburgh defense that struggles with athletic type tight-ends. During the second half of the 2006 season, the issue arose and throughout the preseason, the opposition attacked using the tight-end………Just some food for thought.

Facing this Pittsburgh defense should be an immediate challenge to the play calling of new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, the progress of quarterback Charlie Frye, and most importantly the consistency of an offensive line which has only practiced as a group.

Thomas was inserted into the starting spot early in training camp and has done reasonably well. To his left is Eric Steinbach, the prized catch of free agency for the Browns, but has been out of action due to a knee injury suffered in camp. Steinbach is 100-percent and ready to line-up. At center, Hank Fraley is a holdover from the 2006 season and appears much more comfortable, in his role and with the new offensive line scheme. Former Miami Dolphin center and guard Seth McKinney has been a pleasant surprise this summer. Recovering from neck surgery, McKinney has exceeded expectations and is the starting right guard. Kevin Shaffer, the starting left tackle in 2006 is now the starting right tackle. Due to a below average 2006 season, the drafting of Thomas, and suspension of Ryan Tucker, Shaffer is the starter.

Pittsburgh will blitz, blitz, and blitz some more, attacking the Cleveland offensive line until the Browns stop them cold or until the Steelers defense is beaten by Charlie Frye and company a few times. The Pittsburgh zone blitz is as good and disguised as any in the game today, with standout safety Troy Polamalu leading the charge. If let unaccounted for, Polamalu will create havoc, much more so than the customary, which we have grown to expect.

For the Browns to win this game, they must minimize the impact of the Pittsburgh rushing attack, win the battle on first down on both sides of the ball, play aggressively on both sides of the ball, and not turn the ball over. Charlie Frye will need to manage the game, the Browns must run the effectively to keep the game clock and chains moving. If the Cleveland offensive line proves they can protect Frye and beat the blitz, this is a game they can realistically win.

LA


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