Steelers-Browns: 'This Game Actually Matters'

The Steelers and Browns usually end the season against one another. This year, they're wrapping up a series that could define each team's playoff chances.

The Pittsburgh Steelers head to Cleveland as underdogs for the first time since 2003, when the then 3-7 Steelers beat the Browns 13-6 to begin a turnaround into their second Super Bowl era.

The Browns are favored this time because of the way they rallied against the Steelers in this season's opener.

Trailing 27-3 at halftime, the Browns used a combination of no-huddle offense, misdirection passes, and a patient running game to tie the Steelers 27-27 with 11:15 left in the game. The Browns drove to the Pittsburgh 35 on their next possession, but a couple of incompletions and a couple of pre-snap penalties forced them to punt and the Steelers eventually won the game at the final whistle on a 41-yard field goal.

The Steelers understand this game won't be easy. They even seem to be braced for a community uprising.

"This is probably as big of a game in Cleveland in awhile," said Ben Roethlisberger. "I anticipate it being a hostile environment, maybe like nothing we've ever seen up there before."

The 3-2 Steelers can put some distance between them and the 2-2 Browns with a sweep of their AFC North series. To do it, they'll have to better handle the three aforementioned aspects of the Browns' offensive attack:

* No-huddle offense -- The Browns turned up the tempo right out of the second-half chute in the opener, and the Steelers were not only gassed at times they were confused. Some blamed the slow pace of the playcalling from the sideline, but certainly much of the communication problems had to do with new players and new positions in the opener. The Steelers say those communication issues have been fixed since then.

"Oh, man, that's a beautiful thing that we have now," said one rookie, defensive end Stephon Tuitt. "When we first started training camp it was teaching communication. Right now it's better than ever. Everybody kind of knows what everybody's doing. Nobody's nervous to talk to the partner beside them. We're like brothers with everybody communicating and understanding the defense as one."

Will the Browns run more no-huddle this time?

"Let 'em," said defensive end Cameron Heyward. "We'll be ready."

* Misdirection passes -- Browns QB Brian Hoyer is mobile and can throw on the run, and he tore up the Steelers with his ball-handling. The flow went one way, but Hoyer and the ball often went the other, and many times he found tight end Cameron Jordan wide open for a chunk gain.

How have the Steelers addressed this problem?

"Read our keys," said new nickel CB and last week's hero Brice McCain. "Read our keys, read our keys, read our keys. If your eyes are right, misdirection passes -- you'll be all right."

* Running game -- The Browns may be lacking at wide receiver with the suspension of Josh Gordon, but Hoyer has moved the offense efficiently because he's only turned the ball over once, has only been sacked five times, has the aforementioned athletic tight end, and most importantly has the NFL's fourth-ranked run game at his disposal.

That run game plowed through the once-proud Steelers run defense for 191 yards (6.2 avg.) in the opener, and it's not as if the Browns had Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly in their backfield.

Terrance West, a third-round rookie out of Towson, led the Browns that day with 100 yards on 16 carries. He had replaced an injured Ben Tate -- a former reserve with the Houston Texans -- after Tate had rushed six times for 41 yards. The third back, undrafted rookie Isaiah Crowell out of Alabama State, rushed five times for 32 yards and two touchdowns.

All three have continued to run effectively -- West 4.4 ypc., Tate 5.9, Crowell 4.8 -- and are healthy for this game against a Steelers run defense that has played significantly better the last three weeks.

After allowing 5.2 yards per carry against the Browns and Baltimore Ravens in the first two games, the Steelers allowed only 3.6 per carry against the Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Bucs, and Jacksonville Jaguars.

What have the Steelers done to adjust their run defense?

"Tackle," said Heyward. "And just be more physical at the line of scrimmage. If we don't win the line of scrimmage up front, that puts a lot of pressure on our DBs, even on our linebackers. We've got to set the tempo, stay in our gap, don't lunge when we tackle, make sure we wrap them up, and get them on the ground."

The Browns, obviously run the ball much better than the Steelers' last three opponents. They even stick with it when they fall far behind. In the second half against the Steelers, the Browns ran 20 times for 129 yards. Last week, after trailing the Tennessee Titans 28-10 at halftime, the Browns ran 20 times for 84 yards.

"Yeah, they're staying patient with the run," Heyward said. "You've got to give them credit. Some people would've abandoned the run. They're one of the few teams that sticks to their game plan and just tries to wear you down as the game goes on."

The Steelers will be aided, no doubt, by James Harrison's still-prominent run defense on the weak-side edge. More playing time from inside linebacker Vince Williams is also a chip that coordinator Dick LeBeau could use. Tuitt is also on the verge of more playing time. And maybe LeBeau can get a few snaps from massive rookie tackle Daniel McCullers.

"Of course, we're not where we want it yet," Heyward said of the team's run defense. "There were two runs last week that we gave up, but we just are starting to come together as a group and we're holding people under what they want to get."

All the Browns "want to get" is a split with the Steelers to announce themselves as contenders in the AFC North for the first time since that 2003 upset loss to the Steelers begat a five-game Browns losing streak and the start of a non-playoff skid that's lasted until this day.

"This is a game that usually is played in December, when sometimes our records aren't what they need to be in the playoffs," Heyward said. "But this game actually matters a lot more. And Cleveland wants to make a statement. They want to say they're back, and they want to say they can win this game."

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