Week 5: Cleveland at Pittsburgh

Save the fans in Cleveland, many seem to be dismissing the Browns in 2004. Cleveland is one of those small market teams that escape the scrutiny of the national eye. However, that doesn't stop the litany of predictions that fill the sports pages this time of the year. Even considering the last place finish of the Browns last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers should not look past this game.

Might the Pittsburgh Steelers get caught looking ahead to the big game the follow week against the Dallas Cowboys? The heated rivalry with the Cleveland Browns would suggest not, but the bad blood between these two teams seems to have followed Art Modell to Baltimore.

The new Browns still get fired up for the "big game," but the Steelers don't share the passion. You can bet that Cleveland will come to Pittsburgh to play. However, more often than not, Pittsburgh will come out flat and listless, almost as if they think they can sleepwalk to victory.

Joey Porter recently summed up this attitude when discussing the possibility of former teammate Jason Gildon ending up with the enemy, "Browns is not so bad. The Ravens, oh… that would hurt, that would hurt bad. I wish the best for him, but, oh, that would hurt right there if he went to those guys. Anybody but them."

Head coach Bill Cowher has fond memories of his time in Cleveland and former Steelers such as Orpheus Roye, R.J. Bowers and Earl Holmes have all made the journey north. If there is any hate there, it is one sided.

Simply put, when the Steelers take care of business against the Browns (and the division), they go to the playoffs. Pittsburgh is 10-2 against Cleveland during the regular season when Cowher's team makes the playoffs.

Really, the series against the Browns demonstrates Cowher's shortcomings all too well. The Steelers tend to be focused when they feel their backs up against the wall. But going into a game they feel they should win, they have a tendency to fall flat on their face.

In 2004, game 5 against Cleveland will demonstrate what kind of team Cowher truly has. If the Steelers are hungry and sense that no one else believes in them, the Browns will have big fight on their hands. If the Steelers disrespect the Browns, like so many around the NFL already do, Pittsburgh best play for high draft picks and get the young guns some experience.

This will be the bellwether game for the Steelers.

Knowing already that the Browns will show up with their "A-game," how can the Steelers secure a win?

First and foremost, Pittsburgh's defense needs to figure out how to neutralize QB Jeff Garcia. The Seattle Seahawks had some success against Garcia last season, blitzing him as much as possible. But the real key is to take away the running game and force Garcia to carry the team.

There are two ways to accomplish this goal. First, get a sizable early lead, forcing the Browns to catch up, likely meaning much more passing. The second option is to stuff the run, something that occurred in almost every San Francisco loss last season.

Surprisingly, Cleveland's defense turned out to be a strength last season. Butch Davis squeezed everything out of even the most marginal talents in 2003. If you can run over the Browns defense, like the Ravens did, you can put up points. However, most teams struggled to score via the air against Cleveland.

Only the defenses for New England and Miami gave up fewer passing touchdowns than the Cleveland Browns. On the other hand, San Francisco ranked 27th in that category. Jeff Garcia was often playing a game of catch-up.

To put it succinctly, the Steelers scored 13 points in each game against the Browns in 2003. One stood up and the other didn't. Pittsburgh needs to keep Cleveland out of the end zone.

Obviously, the issue in Cleveland is the offensive line. In fact, that's been the issue since the expansion Browns got their start. Injuries plagued the Browns last season, even more so than the Steelers. Center Jeff Faine, when healthy, should prove formidable. He can handle NT Casey Hampton and help establish the ground game that compliments Garcia's game so well.

RB Lee Suggs was the most pleasant surprise in Cleveland last season. Suggs' is a shifty runner with surprising power. His ability to start inside and quickly break outside has broken some big runs. This style of running, best exemplified in Fred Taylor, can give the 3-4 base fits. OLBs Clark Haggans and Joey Porter must be sure not to blow contain, forcing the play back to James Farrior and Kendrell Bell.

But if Faine or one of the offensive guards can get a hat on a linebacker, none of that will matter. Suggs is quick enough to take the play to the secondary and strong enough to endure the pounding.

Aaron Smith, Hampton, and Kimo Von Oelhoffen are the keys to victory for Pittsburgh in this game. They must control the line of scrimmage. If not, the Browns will light up the scoreboard.

Offensively for the Steelers, the game is ball control. The defensive line will play better if they can rest while the offense grinds up clock. Jamal Lewis' (Baltimore) big games against Cleveland skews the statistics a bit, but the Browns were 26th in the NFL in yards surrendered per running play.

The Steelers will need to be a bit better converting on 3rd down, but a healthier offensive line (and a stronger Kendall Simmons) should help RB Duce Staley reach the second tier of the defense, where he could do some damage.

Otherwise, as usual, the game will come down to the big plays that few can anticipate. Pittsburgh probably will not be able to overcome a touchdown by the Browns' defense or return game.

Cowher cannot do much about such fickle turns of the game, but he could get his team ready to play. That will make all the difference in 2004.

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