After the week one blowout, few imagined that the Browns would be just one game behind the Steelers at the midseason point. But that is exactly where the Browns are, and Cleveland has a chance to pull even with Pittsburgh this Sunday. On Sunday, fans are likely to be treated to not only another shootout, but perhaps one of the most exciting games of the year.
The Browns offensive line has simply been amazing at protecting the quarterback as they have given up just seven sacks in the last seven games. Pittsburgh put up six sacks in week one but five of those came with Charlie Frye at quarterback. The Browns will be without starting right guard Seth McKinney but Lenny Friedman did an excellent job against the Seahawks last week. The Browns also have veteran right tackle Ryan Tucker who played guard in preseason, and also received reps this week in practice. Tucker may be the best run blocker on this team and could help the Browns with that aspect of the game.
Left guard Eric Steinbach was limited in practice this week, but should start Sunday. Center Hank Fraley will certainly have his hands full against nose tackle Casey Hampton and he will need help from Steinbach to keep penetration out of the middle.
Rookie left tackle Joe Thomas has been better even than advertised. He has demonstrated the best pure footwork from a left tackle that I have seen from anyone not named Walter Jones. Thomas will certainly have his hands full this week as he faces off against outside linebacker James Harrison. Harrison is coming off of one of the best defensive performances in the history of the NFL. This should be a great battle to watch all game long.
Derek Anderson will have his third try against the Dick LeBeau defense. That experience gained is vital as Lebeau makes his living on creating confusion for the quarterback. Anderson likely was very disappointed as he watched film from the two times he has played against the Steelers. He should also be very excited for the opportunity once again. Derek has improved tremendously in every aspect of the game. His accuracy is more consistent but he still has plenty of room to grow in this area. His footwork in dropping back appears much more relaxed and not as hyper but he still has trouble setting his feet when asked to throw on the run. The marked improvement for Derek is in making his reads and progressions. This is huge against the Steelers as they will leave something open as they bring pressure but you have to make the quick and smart read to recognize that opening.
The Browns young quarterback has unbelievable confidence in his receiving weapons. He trusts those receivers to not only make the catch but also to make the spectacular reception. Those receiving options are making plays for their quarterback. Joe Jurevicius is Mr. Clutch picking up first downs seemingly in every make or break situation. Braylon Edwards has become one of the elite receivers in the NFL. When a receiver not only draws double coverage but is drawing three defenders, he has reached that elite level. The Steelers are not likely to employ that same defensive scheme used by the Seahawks last week and Edwards will find himself with one on one opportunities.
Kellen Winslow is playing each game as if it is his last. What he has been able to do with a separated shoulder along with a banged up knee is what makes us love the game of football. He is giving it everything he has on any given play. There is a lot of bad blood between Winslow and the Steelers line backing corps. Look for a great deal of big hits along with some trash talking as this will be a four quarter battle.
The Browns running game doesn't strike fear in anyone. Jamal Lewis is proving that he can pick up the tough yardage but his breakaway game has not been seen since Week Two. Still, Lewis remains a vital weapon for this offense. He is making the dump down and screen pass a substitute for the running game but this week he must be able to keep the defense honest with power running between the tackles. Use of the screen should be very effective in not only slowing down the pass rush but also making the defense pay for playing their coverage so deep.
The Steelers have the number one defense in football but they will certainly have their hands full as the Browns offense has become one of the best in the league. Everything starts up front with this defense. Casey Hampton has given the Browns nightmares over the years but he may have slowed a bit this season. What he has lost due to age, he is making up for with experience. Hampton does a great job at freeing up the blitzer to slide through the hole and make the play.
The Steeler linebacking corps parted ways with Joey Porter and the loss has yet to be noticed. James Harrison is becoming one of the most feared linebackers in football. Not only is he doing an excellent job of blitzing the quarterback and playing the run but he has surprised me with the improvement in playing zone coverage. He is doing an excellent job at reading the quarterback and sliding his coverage with the eyes of the quarterback. Stopping Harrison will be a huge task for the Browns.
Clark Haggans and James Farrior are having great years. Their physical size and the force they hit with have worn down running backs all year long. Listen for crash sound this week as they face off against Jamal Lewis and fullback Lawrence Vickers.
If there is a weakness to this defense, it is the secondary. The secondary will lose coverage but they have been protected by the fierce pass rush of the front seven. This week the pass rush isn't likely to be nearly as effective and I fully expect the secondary to be exposed.
Safety Troy Polamalu is a free lancing force but he is now in a system where he isn't allowed to take as many risks and it shows in his ability as a playmaker. Look for that to possibly change this week if the Steelers aren't getting the pressure from their front seven.
Ike Taylor is a ten-year veteran corner but his speed is starting to slip somewhat. His lack of size will also be a mismatch the Browns look to exploit. Whomever Taylor is defending, look for the Browns to target.
Ben Roethlisberger is having his best year as a Steeler. Ben has become one of the most difficult quarterbacks in the NFL to defend. His size and mobility is a nightmare for opposing defense. He is able to break tackle after tackle. He is a better quarterback once he breaks a tackle. For some reason anytime you see Ben avoid the big sack, he finds a way to make the defense pay. He is also throwing the deep ball better than ever thanks in large part to the speed of Santonio Holmes.
Santonio is one of the fastest receivers in the NFL. He has also grown by leaps and bounds when it comes to recognizing the defense and how to run his route. Early in his career he would settle for running into the defense and eliminating himself as a viable option. Now he is learning how to sit down in the soft part of the zone and how to use his speed to beat the corner deep. Keeping Holmes in check will be a very difficult task.
Hines Ward is a favorite target of Ben Roethlisberger but he will likely to be a target of the Browns secondary after the late hit on Daven Holly. Ward is similar to Jurevicius in his clutch time performance but what makes Ward special is his ability to block for the running game. Hines is one of those players that even opposing fans have a great deal of respect for because of the way he plays the game.
Tight end Heath Miller is having another solid year especially inside the red zone. The big physical tight end understands how to use his wide body to shield the defender giving Ben a huge target in tight situations. Browns safety Sean Jones has struggled with covering the tight end this year and the Steelers will look to test him early and often.
Running back Willie Parker has been the one problem that the Browns just haven't had any answer for. His speed through the hole is second to none. He gives the Steelers and inside/outside runner that can take over the game with pure explosion.
Up front the Steelers offensive line is held together by starting center Sean Mahan. Since taking over at center Sean has brought more athleticism to the position. He does a very good job at not only holding down the middle but also getting into the secondary. Sean can be vulnerable to the pure bull rush and that could set up for a tremendous battle with Shaun Smith.
The Browns defense is the worst in football but there are signs of life. This group has given up a lot of points and long drives but they have been coming up with the huge stop in recent weeks that have put the Browns over the top. In those crucial times the playmakers are stepping forward. In three of the Browns five wins cornerback Leigh Bodden has made that huge defensive play. Bodden has been plagued with injuries but he should be ready to go Sunday.
Shaun and Robaire Smith are learning the Browns scheme and it is starting to show. They have aided the Browns in their recently improved run defense and also at getting at least some pressure on the quarterback.
The Browns linebacker unit has struggled all season. Part of the struggle has been due to the absence of D'Qwell Jackson. Jackson may be healthy enough from an ankle injury to play this week but he is doubtful. In his absence Leon Williams has seen an increased role within the defense. Leon is improving and I believe this week could be his breakout game. His size and speed will be need to slow fast Willie Parker.
The outside linebackers for the Browns simply have not produced any pressure on the quarterback. Kamerion Wimbley is neck deep in a sophomore slump while Willie McGinest and Antwan Peek have yet to produce a consistent pass rush. The defensive line is playing better and the excuses for the poor linebacker play are disappearing. It is time for this group to step up and make a statement.
The Browns secondary have been hung out to dry by the lack of a pass rush from the front seven but individual play is starting to emerge. Leigh Bodden has come up big in crucial moments. Corners Eric Wright and Daven Holly have become solid pass defenders but no one can cover an NFL receiver for as long as this group is being asked.
Safety Sean Jones has also had his struggles but he is coming off of his best game of the year. Sean began the game with an interception and also had several key tackles in run support last week. Sean is one of the best players on this defense and his reemergence is needed if the Browns are to pull the upset.
The Browns coverage units have been slipping. They have missed several of what should have been easy tackles in the last few weeks. They must improve this week as Allen Rossum has the talent and speed to make them pay for a missed tackle.
Josh Cribbs is arguably the top return man in the AFC. Josh has developed that reputation and with that reputation comes respect and the opposition is kicking away from him. The Steelers will likely employ the same strategy as they try to avoid kicking to Josh. Their coverage team has been a weakness this year.
This game is likely to be a shootout and one big special teams play could be the difference.