Cleveland has lost twelve straight and seventeen of the last eighteen contests to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Browns have not beaten Pittsburgh since Tim Couch shredded the Steelers in a prime time affair back in 2003. To make matters worse for the Browns, they are an injury-riddled team and sport the current worst record in football.The Steelers, meanwhile, are in a must-win situation if they are to keep their playoff hopes alive. At 6-6, another loss and they have no chance to secure a wildcard birth.
What does all of this mean as these two bitter rivals face off Thursday Night? It means absolutely nothing.
The Browns and Steelers are not playing very sound football - especially on the defensive side of the ball. Do not expect the normal throwback smash mouth AFC Central type of game. This one has shootout written all over it.
Steelers Offensive vs. Browns Defense
No quarterback in the NFL eats up a zone defense the way that Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger does. Big Ben is patient and allows his receivers time to find the soft part of the zone. Ben can become too patient as he will stand in the pocket and take the big hit.
The Browns have to blitz Ben at every opportunity. You simply cannot allow Roethlisberger to sit in the pocket and pick your defense apart without making him pay the price. Ordinarily it would be Shaun Rogers providing that pressure up the middle, but Rogers has been lost for the season. That means that players like Robaire Smith and Corey Williams must step up their game and get push towards the pocket.
If the line is getting push, it will make life so much easier for outside linebackers Kamerion Wimbley and new addition Matt Roth. Roth and Wimbley appear to have a feel for each other's style of rush as they tend to compliment each other well. Their pressure will also help to open up the middle for David Bowens, who has excellent pass rushing skills.
The Browns secondary was bad before Brodney Pool was lost for the season. They are now putrid without Pool's coverage skills. This group of defensive backs can make poor tight ends look like pro bowlers and they can make excellent tight ends look like Superman. The only chance this group has is to play very physical at the line and hope the pass rush can get to the quarterback before they get beat. Again, playing zone is not the answer against this Steeler offense.
Wide receiver Hines Ward is likely to be absent from this one. Ward is a huge loss in the passing game but he may be an even bigger loss to the run game. He is a tone setter for the physical blocking style the Steelers receiving corps bring to the table. That blocking is the difference between a seven-yard run and a twenty-yard run.
Rashard Mendenhall is the latest stud running back to fill the Steelers backfield. Rashard is big, fast and runs with power. He has a violent running style that can wear down the opposition. He is also somewhat careless with the football, as he has a tendency to run with the football away from his body. Each time he carries the ball, the Browns should be looking to slap, pull and tear at the football.
The Steelers line is made up of a large group of mauler types, yet this is a pass happy offense. The key match up in this one is the Browns outside linebackers against the Steelers offensive tackles. The winner of this battle likely is to win the game.
Browns Offense vs. Steelers Defense
The Steelers secondary right now is playing exactly like the Browns secondary - and that is not a good thing for this group of defensive backs. The absence of Troy Polamalu is obviously hurting the playmaking ability of this defense but there is more at issue than the absence of Troy. There is little communication with this secondary as receivers are being allowed to run free. They are making mental mistakes at an alarming rate.
Last week against the Raiders, the refs could have flagged the Steelers secondary for illegal contact on virtually every single play during the forth quarter. The defensive backs stopped moving their feet and would simply reach out and grab at the receiver as they ran past. Remember, we are talking about the Raiders receivers here.
The big question for the Browns is what exactly is the game plan for this contest? Will they come out throwing the ball around as they did against Detroit? Will they come out with a patient balanced attack like the one they did against the Chargers? Will they come out with another game plan consisting of three dozen wide receiver screens like those that they used against Baltimore's struggling secondary?
Quarterback Brady Quinn is showing some serious moxie as he goes through normal growth as a quarterback. After early struggles in which he was battered, beaten, and eventually benched, Brady has come back stronger with each struggle. This young man continues to impress me with his poise and confidence. I believe the difference is that the coaching staff is finally starting to show confidence in the young quarterback along with the fact that the offensive line is starting to grow as a unit.
The line has improved but the only true improvement will come in the off-season as the Browns look to upgrade the right side of the line. Floyd Womack and John St. Claire must step up their game in this one if the Browns are to have any chance for success. The key here however will be the play of rookie center Alex Mack against mammoth nose tackle Casey Hampton. Casey dominates virtually everyone he faces but if Alex can hold his on in a one on one match up, it will allow more help to go to the right side and also open up running lanes.
Nothing helps a young quarterback more than a tight end with great hands and the Browns may have found a diamond in the rough with the addition of Evan Moore. Moore has come from out of nowhere to do something no one thought a Browns player could do, and that is catching the football consistently. Moore was signed to the practice squad after being released by Green Bay.
To keep Quinn upright, the Browns must locate and punish linebacker James Harrison at every opportunity. When he is blitzing have the fullback to take him on. Use reverses and the wildcat to get a body on him. If you can slow down Harrison, you have opportunities for huge plays. If Harrison gets it going, he can wreck an offense.
I like the combination of Jerome Harrison and Chris Jennings running the football for the Browns. They are an interesting tandem as each has deceptive speed to the edge but also deceptive power. Jennings runs like a true power back despite his lack of size. This can make him a huge asset in short yardage situations.
The Steelers are extremely vulnerable in their coverage of kicks and punts. They are prone to giving up the big play and Joshua Cribbs is due to have a huge game in returns. Despite all the negatives surrounding the Browns, this is a very winnable game for Cleveland. They just have to believe in themselves and that has been the difference in the majority of the recent contests between these two clubs.