Snapshot: Steelers-Browns

WEEK SEVENTEEN: Cleveland Browns (4-11) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-4)

KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
GAMEDATE: 12/28/08
SURFACE: Grass
TV: CBS (Gus Johnson, Steve Tasker)
SERIES: 112th meeting. The Steelers lead the regular-season series, 56-55, and are 2-0 against the Browns in the playoffs. For more than 55 years the Browns led the series against the Steelers, but beginning in 1994 the scale tilted decidedly in favor of Pittsburgh. The Steelers have won 23 of the last 26 games with the Browns, including a game in the second week of 2008 when they beat the Browns, 10-6.

PREDICTION: Steelers 23-6

KEYS TO THE GAME: QB Bruce Gradkowski, who was signed earlier this month, will start for the Browns. He has a slightly stronger arm than Ken Dorsey, but not by much and his grasp of the offense is uncertain. It all makes for a dicey situation if Cleveland falls behind early. RB Jamal Lewis is going to have to find a way to be productive against a bevy of run blitzes. ... The Steelers would love to jump out to an early lead and put it into cruise control while resting a few key players. The Browns' 29th-ranked run defense presents an opportunity for Pittsburgh to work on its fledgling ground game, especially in short-yardage situations. And with Cleveland's offense struggling mightily to put any points on the board, priority No. 1 for the Steelers is simply to avoid turnovers and injuries.

Key Injuries: Browns: QB Ken Dorsey (concussion/ribs) will not start; TE Kellen Winslow (ankle) is uncertain. Steelers: LT Marvel Smith (back) was placed on injured reserve this week; FS Ryan Clark (shoulder) is out.

Need to know: Lewis needs 92 yards to become the first Brown with consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons since Mike Pruitt. ... Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is 8-0 lifetime against Cleveland with a 96.8 passer rating.

PERSONNEL NEWS

Browns:
--The Browns had Christmas Day off.
--KR/WR Josh Cribbs is bothered by a sprained ankle.
--NT Shaun Rogers has an ankle injury.
--LB Leon Williams has a knee injury.
--TE Kellen Winslow missed three games with a sprained ankle but hopes to play against the Steelers.
--TE Darnell Dinkins has a rib injury.

Steelers:
--QB Byron Leftwich has not taken a snap since he played the entire second half against Washington Nov. 3, but his chances of playing in the second half Sunday are good.
--RB Gary Russell, whose duties have been largely limited to short yardage this season, also should get more extensive playing time Sunday.
--TE Sean McHugh likely will be used as a fullback Sunday, lining up in the backfield. McHugh has taken over for the listed starter Carey Davis at fullback.
--WR Santonio Holmes needs one reception to set a career high. He has 52.
--RB Willie Parker's poor performance this season (3.6 per carry) has been due in part to injuries, but it also opens the door for Rashard Mendenhall to compete to start next season.

INSIDE THE CAMPS

Browns:
Since playing Houston on Nov. 23, the Browns have lost three starting quarterbacks to injury -- Brady Quinn with a fractured finger that day (although it was fractured six days earlier) and Derek Anderson the next week with a torn knee ligament in a game against the Colts. Ken Dorsey was put on injured reserve Wednesday with a concussion after just three starts.

Bruce Gradkowski is next in line. He has been on the job with the Browns a little more than three weeks and will start Sunday in Pittsburgh against the No. 1 defense in the league.

Quarterback Richard Bartel was activated from the practice squad to replace Dorsey on the roster. Josh Cribbs could be listed as the backup to Gradkowski, but he sprained his ankle in practice Wednesday.

Gradkowski will be the 13th quarterback to start for the Browns since they returned to the NFL in 1999.

The game means nothing to the Steelers because they have clinched the second seed in the AFC playoffs and they cannot improve their status, but they are still the Steelers and they still love to mangle quarterbacks. The Steelers lead the league with 48 sacks.

Gradkowski is excited. He is from the Pittsburgh area and grew up waving a Terrible Towel. His first NFL start was in Heinz Field as a rookie with the Buccaneers late in 2006.

"It's an unbelievable experience going into Pittsburgh, a hostile environment," Gradkowski said. "They have great fans, just like us.

"It's going to be an exciting game. I grew up in Pittsburgh, so I know about the rivalry. I always said I'd love to play against the Steelers. I think it's more awesome playing against them in a Browns uniform."

Gradkowski threw three interceptions while completing 20 of 34 passes for 175 yards in his start against the Steelers two years ago. He was sacked five times. The Steelers won, 20-3, and got both their touchdowns off interceptions.

The Browns signed Gradkowski on Dec. 2, two days after Anderson was injured. Gradkowski played late in the fourth quarter against the Bengals after Dorsey was injured. He threw five passes and completed two for eight yards, threw an interception, was sacked once and had a passer rating of 8.3.

"It didn't last that long in Tampa, but he did get game experience," coach Romeo Crennel said. "He has got some limitations height wise because he is not the tallest guy. Also arm strength, but he is a pretty heady quarterback. He is also been somewhat of a pocket passer. He hasn't moved around out of the pocket much."

The Steelers have beaten the Browns 10 straight times and 23 times in 26 games. Gradkowski knows the Browns haven't scored a touchdown in five games and that no one is giving them a chance on Sunday. He also knows he is the fourth-string quarterback on a bad football team.

"I've been an underdog my whole life," Gradkowski said. "I don't think this is any different. We're going to prepare hard this week.

"This is a grind-it-out game. The weather is going to be cold. It's going to be a smash-mouth football game. We're looking forward to it."

Steelers:
Sunday's game against Cleveland at Heinz Field isn't much different from a preseason game except that it will go permanently on their record and coach Mike Tomlin plans to play his starters, at least until/if it gets out of hand.

That's OK with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has been in a slump lately.

"I think it's very important. Once you get to the playoffs, it's all about how well you're playing. Are you playing well or are you on the decline? We want to have the momentum on our side and really be playing good football as we enter the playoffs."

Except at the end of a few games, Roethlisberger has not done that lately. He threw two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, and lost two fumbles, one inside the Titans' 5, in a 31-14 loss at Tennessee last week. He hasn't had a 100 passer rating since he had four in the first six games. He's been sacked 13 times in the past three games and he's completed more than 57 percent of his passes just once in the past five games.

The Steelers need their quarterback to return to form, especially because they have been terrible on the ground lately too.

"We've got to get the whole offense clicking, running, passing, a little bit of everything," Roethlisberger said. "It's going to be a big game for us to really get the offense going."

Can offensive success against the lowly Browns alter what has happened the past several weeks?

"I think we can," Roethlisberger said. "I think we've got the mentality, the veteran leadership, that we can really get it going and see where it takes us."


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