KICKOFF: Thursday, 8:20 ET
TV: NFL Network (Bob Papa, Matt Millen)
PREDICTION: Steelers 30-16
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Steelers won the first meeting, 27-14 at home on Oct. 18, with QB Ben Roethlisberger throwing for 417 yards while completing nine passes of 20-plus yards. With WR Hines Ward's (hamstring) status in doubt and with Roethlisberger taking too many big hits behind poor pass protection, expect the Steelers to feature more of a run-based attack against Cleveland's injury-ravaged defense. Browns QB Brady Quinn has shown positive signs by throwing 112 passes the past three games with no interceptions. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has hinted at lineup changes for his struggling secondary, and that's where Quinn must attack effectively because he can't count on much from RBs Jerome Harrison and Chris Jennings against the league's top-ranked run defense.
FAST FACTS: The Steelers have won the past 12 meetings, and Roethlisberger is 10-0 against Cleveland. ... The Browns have lost 19 of their past 21 games.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
After Hines Ward questioned why Ben Roethlisberger did not play last Sunday, one week after a concussion, the quarterback was asked if he thinks Ward will play Thursday despite a hamstring injury. "Hines will do what's best for Hines, I'm sure," Roethlisberger said.
TE Heath Miller has caught just two passes in the past two games, by far his lowest two-game production of the season, and also dropped two during that span.
DE Travis Kirschke should return to start on the left side after missing four of the past five games with a calf injury.
QB Ben Roethlisberger has a career-high four 300-yard passing games this season, trying a team record.
WR Santonio Holmes needs 13 yards to have his first 1,000-yard season. His 987 yards leads the team and ranks seventh in the NFL.
DE C.J. Mosley was placed on injured reserve Monday. His right ankle was broken in the first quarter of the game against the Chargers. Mosley played in all 12 games this season, but he was making his first start against San Diego because of the knee injury suffered by Kenyon Coleman a week earlier. He finished the season with 18 tackles.
DE Derreck Robinson, a 6-4, 295-pounder who broke into the NFL as an undrafted rookie with the Chargers in 2005, was signed to replace injured C.J. Mosley. He played in 16 games with the Chargers in 2005-06 and seven with the Dolphins in 2007. He was out of football in 2008 and was in the Cowboys' training camp in 2009.
CB Eric Wright missed practice Tuesday with a recurring hamstring injury.
DE Kenyon Coleman missed practice Tuesday with a knee injury.
FB Lawrence Vickers missed practice Tuesday with a hamstring injury.
RB Jerome Harrison was limited in practice Tuesday because of an illness.
WR Brian Robiskie was limited Tuesday with a toe injury.
Pittsburgh needs a win to stop the bleeding, and coach Mike Tomlin says he's ready to shake up his lineup if necessary. Just do not expect major changes when the Steelers go to Cleveland to play the Browns on Thursday night.
Tomlin does not have many strong alternatives. He may start rookie Joe Burnett at left cornerback in place of William Gay, who practiced Tuesday even though he left Sunday's game with a concussion. Gay's play recently, though, might get him out of the lineup more than his head injury.
Ike Taylor, their most consistent cornerback since 2005, might find himself sharing some of the time at his position with rookie Keenan Lewis. Limas Sweed should get more time at wide receiver, moving up to No. 3 with Hines Ward likely out with a hamstring injury.
That might be it.
The Super Bowl champs are a down team after losing four straight, their longest losing streak since they lost five straight during a 6-10 season in 2003.
"It's real gloomy," offensive tackle Willie Colon acknowledged.
"Most of the guys in here haven't had this situation before," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "It's tough and frustrating, but we can't sit around here pouting because it's not going to change the outcome of the game we played. We have to move on and look forward to this week."
At 6-6, they rest outside the sphere of a wild-card playoff team and likely must win their remaining four to have a shot at one of the two playoff spots that go to non-division winners. After their game against Cleveland, the Steelers have Green Bay and Baltimore at home and finish at Miami.
"You've got to acknowledge the potential that this can be kind of a shaken group," Tomlin said. "We've swallowed a lot of late. We're going to have to become one with ourselves, if you will, individually and collectively. I'm going to be looking very closely at these men and it's going to provide quality information for me in terms of who legitimately is mentally tough and who can stand the test of some adversity, because we have some, and who's going to lead the charge more than anything, in terms of getting us out of this and winning a football game. I'm going to be very interested in who those people are, and who those people aren't."
Tomlin has talked the talk lately and his players have not been able to back him up. After losing to Kansas City, Tomlin spoke of it being "Redemption Sunday" in Baltimore, where they lost their third straight. The coach then promised to "unleash hell in December" and they lost to Oakland at home Sunday.
"I think he's just trying to change something," Colon said. "Obviously, what we got going on is not working. We lost four games in the fourth quarter. You never point fingers, but at the same time you have to make adjustments and kind of put us on the winning edge. He feels like he needs to make changes and he's going to do so."
The Browns have not beaten the Steelers since the first game of the series in 2003. The streak of 12 straight losses has a lot more to do with being dominated by Ben Roethlisberger than any mystical jinx.
Roethlisberger, from Findlay, Ohio, and the University of Miami (Ohio), is 10-0 against the Browns since the Steelers took him with the 11th pick in 2004. That was the year the Browns passed on Roethlisberger despite needing a quarterback to draft tight end Kellen Winslow Jr.
The Browns get the chance to stop the streak and cripple the Steelers' playoff hopes Thursday night in Cleveland Browns Stadium.
"A lot about him makes him unique," Browns coach Eric Mangini said. "He has great arm strength. He has the ability to avoid to his right and left and throw accurate passes on the move. He can scramble and hurt you that way.
"We had him last game when they were going to throw a screen. We had the screen covered. He was able to scramble to his right and pick up 13 yards. Not every quarterback can do that. He has a real good sense of where the rushers are and where he can escape to."
No one knows how well Roethlisberger escapes a pass rush better than the cornerbacks who have to cover the Steelers' receivers for what seems like an eternity. On Thursday, Eric Wright will have the unenviable task of covering Santonio Holmes, who leads the Steelers with 987 yards receiving.
When the Browns played the Steelers in Pittsburgh on Oct. 18 they sacked Roethlisberger three times and he still completed 23 of 35 passes for 417 yards and two touchdowns. He completed nine passes of 20 yards or more and threw two touchdown passes -- one 8 yards to Heath Miller and one 52 yards to Hines Ward.
Ward has a hamstring injury and might not play against the Browns. He caught eight passes for 159 yards in the game played two months ago. Holmes caught five passes for 104 yards. One covered 41 yards.
Roethlisberger missed a critical game against the Ravens on Nov. 29 because of a concussion. He has been sacked 30 times. Dennis Dixon, the quarterback who subbed for Roethlisberger, was not sacked in the Baltimore game. But despite the beating he takes year after year, game after game, Roethlisberger has completed 69.3 percent of his passes (255 of 368) this season for 3,145 yards because he is so good at buying time for his receivers to get open. The Steelers average 8.35 yards a pass play, fifth best in the NFL.
"It's difficult because the play is extended," Wright said. "The immediate route you could very well have it covered and covered well. A lot of times when you have great coverage on the initial route and it extends you're in a more vulnerable position.
"It's something you have to be mindful of and be ready to go. When a quarterback scrambles, anything goes. Guys just want to get open. You have to fight and claw and stay as tight as possible and not allow him to uncover."