Key Match-ups: Steelers-Browns

Neal Coolong examines the key match-ups in today's game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns.

Steelers LBs vs. WR Josh Cribbs

The Browns at Bengals game in Week 16 could be the worst game played in the NFL this season. The only redeeming aspect of Cleveland's abysmal offensive performance was the effective use of WR Josh Cribbs out of shotgun on designed runs. Cleveland motioned FB Lee Vickers toward center, and snapped to Cribbs, who faked hand-offs to RB Jamal Lewis before cutting off right guard. Cleveland did this three times for 23 yards on their first possession, but CB Leon Hall returned a Ken Dorsey pass 50 yards for a touchdown. That drive held two of Cleveland's five first downs over the game, but Cribbs only got two more carries after it.

Pittsburgh isn't likely to play many of their regular players for very long, but should take caution in keeping the momentum of a strong second-half of the season. Their linebackers are far superior to Cincinnati's, and if they are in there with Cribbs in shotgun, gap discipline and aggression – two staples of their defense this year – should keep Cribbs in check. Look for Cleveland to try this a bit more this week, because third-string passer Dorsey is out with a concussion, and fourth-stringer Bruce Gradkowski will start for the Browns.

C Justin Hartwig and Gs Chris Kemoeatu and Darnell Stapleton vs. NT Shaun Rogers

Rogers backed up his preseason hype by earning a Pro Bowl berth in 2008. The Browns, however, are the league's 29th-ranked rushing team. They are coming off a 38 carry, 171 yard performance by Cedric Benson, who was averaging 3.3 yards per carry going into the game.

Clearly, the Browns can be run on, it's just a question of keeping a body on Rogers. He has a very quick first step, and plays with a high level of intensity. If Pittsburgh plans to keep its players as far from injury as possible, then a simple rushing attack focused on zone blocking with Hartwig and either Kemoeatu or Stapleton on Rogers is their safest bet. Cleveland lacks run supporters at every other position on the field.

Steelers defense vs. QB Bruce Gradkowski

Several of the Steelers defensive players were on the roster in 2006 when Gradkowski was starting for Tampa Bay. The Pittsburgh product threw three interceptions that game, and was sacked five times – twice by Joey Porter and once each by Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel and Deshea Townsend. Gradkowski started two more games in Tampa Bay, and will make his first start since then on Sunday.

Cleveland is forced to go with Gradkowski after Dorsey's concussion, Brady Quinn's broken finger and Derek Anderson's knee injury. Under Dorsey, Cleveland had 182 total yards. Gradkowsi was 2-for-5 for eight yards and an interception. He also took a sack. With more time to prepare, Cleveland may be able to interject some spontaneity into their offense with a quarterback seldom seen in two years. Cleveland's season is beyond lost, but getting their first win over Pittsburgh in 12 tries will be enough motivation for them.

QB Byron Leftwich vs. CB Brandon McDonald

Regular starter Ben Roethlisberger isn't likely to play very long Sunday, and Leftwich will look to perform similarly to how he did against Washington in Week 9. He stepped in for Roethlisberger and threw for 129 yards and a touchdown in the second half. He signed a two-year contract with Pittsburgh at the start of the 2008 season, and with Roethlisberger firmly entrenched as the team's starter, Leftwich needs to perform in the opportunities he gets if he wants to get a starting job after the 2009 season.

McDonald has been up and down in his two-year career, but has three interceptions in Cleveland's past four games, he's beginning to show the potential the Browns hoped to see from him. He's an athletic, play-making defender who takes risks when the ball is in the air. Leftwich has a cannon for a left arm, and may be tempted to buy into McDonald's deeper cushion, which he uses to cut off the in and out routes.

The Coolong Scorecard
Steelers Unit Browns
x Quarterback  
x Running backs  
x Offensive line  
x Wide receivers  
x Tight ends  
x Defensive line  
x Linebackers  
x Defensive backs  
x Special teams  

Neal Coolong writes a blog called "On The Black Side" and his match-ups column appears weekly on Steel City Insider.

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