The struggling 1-4 Cleveland Browns are coming off of their first win of the season as they defeated the Buffalo Bills in one of the most miserable contests I have ever had the displeasure of viewing. The Steelers have won back-to-back contests and their confidence is growing. They should be very confident as they have now won 11 straight and 16 out of the last 17 against the Browns.
Browns Offense vs. Steelers Defense
The good news for the Steelers is that safety Troy Polamalu is healthy enough to play. Troy is a true game changer in every since of the word. The bad news is that defensive end Aaron Smith will be absent for the remainder of the season due to a shoulder injury suffered against the Lions. Smith's value to the Steelers defense is every bit as important as the value of Polamalu. Smith is a powerful run stuffer with great hand usage.
With Smith out, the Browns might be able to do something most teams fail to do, namely, run against that potent Steelers front seven. Running back Jamal Lewis has struggled versus the Steelers but he is running very well and the Browns offensive line is coming together; especially in run blocking. The right side of the Browns line, along with rookie center Alex Mack, are creating running lanes. A healthy Lewis paired with Jerome Harrison gives the Browns a good combination at running back.
There are two potential game changing match-ups to watch on Sunday. The first is Alex Mack versus nose tackle Casey Hampton. Mack must be able to hold his own against the monsterous Hampton if the Browns are to have any chance on Sunday. If Hampton is able to push the pocket, the Browns have little chance in this one.
The second key match-up is Browns left tackle Joe Thomas versus the Steelers James Harrison. James is off to a terrific start on the season with six sacks and four forced fumbles in just five games. Harrison is the complete player at outside linebacker. Despite his lack of size, he is good against the run. But he's great against the pass as he is one of the best edge rushers in the game today. Thomas meanwhile is playing the best football of his career. He is locking down every defender he faces and taking them out of the game early by frustrating them with his quick feet and powerful upper body.
For the Browns, they have to run enough to keep the Steelers defense honest but teams beat the Steelers through the air. Their defense is suspect if your quarterback can remain patient and allow the play to develop in front of him. Cleveland should look to use more of a spread offense and get multiple targets into this secondary.
The Browns' Derek Anderson is coming off of the worst outing of his career, in which he completed two passes to the Browns and one pass to the Bills last Sunday. It poor showing wasn't all on Anderson, although he still needs to learn to tone down his velocity on close quarter throws.
Dropped passes are plaguing the Browns, and against the Bills it looked as if Quincy Morgan, Dennis Northcutt and Braylon Edwards were still wearing orange helmets. It is not only the number of dropped passes that is becoming an issue but the timing of those drops. These are drive-killing drops as they would have gone for first downs if completed and many are on third down.
I believe Brian Daboll is one of the most unimaginative coordinators to ever grace the side lines but he is also handcuffed due to the number of drops plaguing this offense. For whatever reason, Browns receivers not named Joe Jurevicius have had difficulty in catching the ball consistently since 1999. The Browns will continue to be a bottom tier team until they are able to change this negative aspect of their game.
Browns Defense vs. Steelers Offense.
Ben Roethlisberger has done it all as quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the scary part is that his game is still improving. Ben has become a deadly accurate passer with the ability to decipher defenses and also use amazing patience. He also has tremendous escape ability, which has plagued the Cleveland defense in the past. His one flaw is that he can become too patient and hold onto the ball for far too long. When this happens he tends to take vicious hits.
The Browns will be looking to land some of those vicious hits on Roethlisberger this Sunday. The Steelers offensive line is powerful but slow footed and the Browns may find success off of the edge with their outside linebackers. Kamerion Wimbley may be best suited going against left tackle Max Starks. Starks has long arms and he can bury anyone that comes head on, but he will often rely on those long arms and that power and forget about moving his feet.
The Browns front seven is improving, but the Steelers backs have to be chomping at the bit to get their shot at the Browns considering how much success they have in recent memory. The Browns must prepare for the speed and elusiveness of Willie Parker and the power and speed of Rashard Mendenhall.
The Browns secondary is showing improvement, and with a decent pass rush this defense can hold their own, but facing the Steelers receiving corps is a serious challenge. The physical style of play that Hines Ward brings to the table has become contagious as this entire group is looking to make the big hit that frees up the ball carrier. They use their physical style to free themselves, especially off of the play action fake. Look for the Browns to press the edges with safety support. They will look to drag out the play as long as they can and allow pressure to get to Roethlisberger.
The key here is for the Browns front three led by nose tackle Shaun Rogers to push the pocket back into Ben's face. This will be the perfect setup for pressure from the outside to be effective. Roethlisberger is difficult to bring down so it is vital the Browns are able to finish the play and do not allow him to break tackles as he will certainly make them pay for doing so.
There has been tons of speculation over the future of the Browns special teams ace Josh Cribbs. One thing is certain; Cribbs will be in a Browns uniform on Sunday against the Steelers. Cribbs has put together some memorable performances against Pittsburgh and the Browns will need another great showing this week if they are to have any chance against the defending champs.
Last, but certainly not least, is punter Dave Zastudil. Dave was the difference in last week's game as he pinned the Bills inside their five over and over throughout the contest. A similar performance would certainly go a long way towards breaking the Pittsburgh winning streak.