MEMORABLE SERIES MOMENT
Steelers 34, Browns 21
Nov. 13, 2005: Heinz Field
The last time the Pittsburgh Steelers played the Browns without Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers fumbled eight times, lost five of them, and Charlie Batch was intercepted three times in a 20-14 loss. That was Nov. 25, 2012. But that's not the one to look back upon. In 2005, the Steelers played the Browns at home and on a date in the season closer to this one. Batch started and completed 13 of 19 before breaking the pinky on his throwing hand late in the first half. Tommy Maddox replaced him but it was Antwaan Randle El who put the game away with a 51-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward off a reverse handoff from Duce Staley. Ward caught eight passes for 124 yards and the touchdown in the 34-21 win that kept alive a Super Bowl dream.
TALE OF THE TAPE
"Defensively, there's nobody that scares you. The kid, Danny Shelton, is what you would call a plugger. He doesn't change direction well. Karlos Dansby's still decent but there's nobody that scares you. Paul Kruger is probably the best pass-rusher. He's got that hop step where he tries to knock your hands down to get the edge on you. Barkevious Mingo should be on a milk carton. He just doesn't show up. The secondary, there's nobody who jumps out at you. Offensively I will say this: Johnny Manziel is better than I thought he was. I assumed he stunk. I still like (Josh) McCown better but Manziel made some throws that I would not have realized that he could make. Left side of that offensive line's good, although the kid from Florida State had a rude awakening last game. Cameron Erving, right? Well he gets run over by Wallace Gilberry and it was almost like a welcome-to-the-NFL moment. Other than that, I really like Gary Barnidge. He's good at double moves. Travis Benjamin's good but Barnidge is the one guy who jumps off the tape at you." -- Steelers Radio broadcast analyst Tunch Ilkin on the Browns.
Will Roethlisberger play?
Of course, reporting on practice is verboten, and Roethlisberger -- who's normally helpful with the media -- was told not to comment on how he performed or what he actually did. But Roethlisberger did get work and did say the decision truly is up in the air. But we can expect Mike Tomlin to lean on the guy who was the focal point of the game plan, Landry Jones, although Roethlisberger wants to play and will be difficult for the coach to turn down if his mid-foot sprain continues to improve. My guess is Jones will start and Roethlisberger will be available as an Earl Morrall type off the bench. Yes, a mid-foot sprain can make a quarterback look as old as Earl Morrall did in place of Johnny Unitas back in the day.
THREE QUESTIONS: With RS Jacoby Jones
Q: I'm sure a thousand people have asked you about the incident with Tomlin --
JJ: "Thousand and one."
Q: What did you guys say to each other? Have you guys spoken about it?
JJ: "We always talk before every game -- no, we never spoke about that -- but before every game we see each other and there's a mutual respect. Just playing ball."
Q: Did he break your stride?
JJ: (pause) "I slowed up."
Q: It looked like on one return last week you had blocking on the left but you ran right. Was that a result of being on a new team and not practicing?
JJ: "Yeah, I didn't know WHAT was going on. I was just out there running. I'm looking forward to playing Sunday after a week of practice."
What to look for from the Steelers today against Cleveland:
The Browns have the worst run defense in the NFL and the Steelers will most likely play with their backup quarterback, so their game plan should be easy to figure out. Right? Well, not according to Tomlin, who said, "The tape does not reflect the statistics." It's true that games rarely follow what the statistics predict, but last year the Steelers rushed for 127 (4.5) and 138 (4.3) against the NFL's worst run defense in a 1-1 split with Cleveland. DeAngelo Williams and Jordan Todman should find holes. If not, a Browns secondary minus cornerback Joe Haden and Donte Whitner, both concussed, should be ripe for the plucking as Jones has built upon his relationship with Antonio Brown on a daily basis.
The Browns are going to play Manziel at quarterback over effective veteran Josh McCown (ribs) according to NFL.com, which cited a source "with knowledge of the team's thinking." Uh, yeah, that's a new one. Anyway, Manziel will be without outstanding guard Joel Bitonio (ankle), who's replaced by the aforementioned rookie Erving. The Steelers will be without James Harrison but are deep with effective outside linebackers. Look for the Steelers to focus on stopping Browns runners Isaiah Crowell (3.3) and rookie Duke Johnson (3.0) and forcing Manziel to win the game by throwing to tight end Barnidge, 175-pound receiver Travis Benjamin and the always-awful Dwayne Bowe.
Playing Jones at QB would certainly sharpen the focus of a team that should have no reason to take the 2-7 and beat-up Browns lightly. So perhaps it's best not to ,rush Roethlisberger, no matter how hard he pushes his case. In the last five games, both teams have played above-.500 competition and the Steelers, as expected, are showing a whopping advantage at the line of scrimmage. Both teams have played shoddy pass defense but the Steelers have been much more efficient defending their goal line. The only plus for the Browns is that they have a few extra days of rest, but that hasn't helped their key players get healthy. Steelers, 26-13.
BY THE NUMBERS
22: The draft position in the first round at which the Browns have selected QBs Manziel, Brandon Weeden and Brady Quinn in the last nine drafts.
9: Number of wins the above trio of quarterbacks celebrated with the Browns in 36 combined starts.
70.8: Cumulative career passer rating of Manziel, Weeden and Quinn.
6: Draft position in the first round at which the Browns passed on Roethlisberger of nearby Findlay, Ohio, in 2004.
12: Number of games in which Roethlisberger has posted a 100-plus passer rating against the Browns.
* Jones' last college game at Oklahoma was the Cotton Bowl against Manziel and Texas A&M early in the calendar year 2013. Each quarterback had passer ratings over 124 and each threw for close to 300 yards, but Manziel's running was the difference. He gained 229 yards on 17 carries and scored two touchdowns in A&M's 41-13 win. "I was thinking about that the other day," said Jones. "One of my friends back in Norman was like, 'You could play against Johnny again. That could be exciting.' Hopefully it will turn out better for me this time."
* This would be Jones' second NFL start. He's guided the Steelers to wins in two relief appearances, but in his lone start at Kansas City three weeks ago Jones was intercepted twice and fumbled in a 23-13 loss. "I know we didn’t win the game, and the quarterback’s No. 1 job is to win," said coordinator Todd Haley, "but Landry went into a hostile environment with a brand new left tackle against a pretty formidable defense that was very good against the run. They were really one of the best groups we’ve seen. I thought he moved the football. He threw a touchdown. He probably had another one dropped. He did a lot of good things. The last snap was a sack-fumble. We can’t have that. But he had us in a position until late to win the game. I thought for his first start in the NFL it was a positive one for the most part. He has more experience now than he did then. If he is the guy then he has to go out and continue to grow and get better."
* Sean Spence might be the modern-day Plaxico Burress, who seemingly knew everyone in the league through either a high school or college game, all-star games, camps, workouts or just being a social gadabout. So, it was only natural to ask Spence about former Hurricane Duke Johnson, the Browns' rookie running back. "I've known Duke since he was a kid, watching him play at Liberty City Park in Pop Warner ball. He always was good. He was always special. But, yeah, I've seen him since he was like seven, eight years old and he was doing the things he's doing now, the things he did in college. He's emerging now. He can do it all. Special, man. Has game-breaking ability." Johnson might not be running the ball as effectively as he did last year at Miami, but his 35 catches are the most ever by a Browns rookie through nine games. His 369 receiving yards are fourth among NFL running backs.
* Brown's 306 yards from scrimmage last Sunday against the Raiders smashed the Steelers' team record of 256 set by Frenchy Fuqua in 1970. It also moved Brown up to sixth place on the team's all-time career total of 6,371. He needs just 35 yards from scrimmage today to pass Louis Lipps for fifth place. But even if Brown's targeted another 23 times -- as he was Sunday when 46 percent of the Steelers' pass attempts went his way -- Brown won't get the 2,463 yards from scrimmage he needs to pass John Stallworth for fourth place. "I don't care if one guy does it all," said Haley. "You need to move the chains and score points. Last week was a good example of that. A.B. made all the plays, and that was all right."
* Speaking of making all the plays, that seems to be the M.O. of Barnidge, the Browns' Pro Bowl tight end-in-the-making. Drafted by Carolina in 2008 in the fifth round out of Louisville, Barnidge spent five uneventful seasons with the Panthers before signing with the Browns in 2013. There he caught only 26 passes in two seasons but showed enough for the Browns to et Pro Bowler Jordan Cameron leave in free agency. And Barnidge has blossomed this season. He's caught 42 passes for 602 yards and six touchdowns. In his previous seven seasons he caught a combined 44 passes for 603 yards and three touchdowns.
“What I've also noticed is that when they play the Pittsburgh Steelers they bring their A game and they're ready to play. You throw the records aside. This is AFC North football." -- DeAngelo Williams, RB, on the Browns.
Preview of today's Browns-Steelers game at Heinz Field
MEMORABLE SERIES MOMENT