Will dreary week end on winning note?

The Pittsburgh Steelers host the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, but ominous signs portend another heartstopper for the defending champs.

PITTSBURGH – Dreary news greeted the Steelers this week with the loss of Aaron Smith, and the sun hasn't come out since.

Troy Polamalu returned, but, judging from practice, he won't be the same player he was in the opener. He might be half that on Sunday against the visiting Cleveland Browns.

Willie Parker returned from his turf toe injury and tested his new steel-enforced shoe, but his hard-running replacement, Rashard Mendenhall, wrestled with the flu.

It's been a damp, rainy and cold week in Pittsburgh, one that has ‘Cleveland Browns' stamped all over it. Off the signs, few would be surprised by a strong effort from the Steelers' northern rivals.

"They may have some issues on offense," said Steelers tackle Willie Colon, "but on film they're playing decent. They're playing hard."

Quarterback Derek Anderson has actually fared well against the Steelers. Last year he had the Browns at the Pittsburgh 20 facing 4th-and-7 with 3:24 left, but his coach – his former coach – opted for a field goal in the 10-6 loss.

In the 2007 opener, Anderson played well enough in relief of starter Charlie Frye to send Frye packing in a trade. And in the second game that season, at Heinz Field, Anderson drove the Browns late, but Phil Dawson missed a 52-yard field goal attempt in a 3-point Steelers win.

Anderson hasn't beaten the Steelers, but he's performed better than most Browns during the Steelers' 11-game win streak. That's why few Steelers believe his 2-for-17 passing performance last week in 6-3 win at windy Buffalo is a sign of what's to come.

"It was a fluky thing for Derek," said Ben Roethlisberger. "He's a good quarterback."

The problem for Anderson in Buffalo wasn't so much the wind, but the nine drops – according to the Associated Press – by his receivers. It's a corps that's been depleted by the trade of Kellen Winslow in February, the release of Joe Jurevicius in March, the sentencing of Donte Stallworth in June, the injury to Syndric Steptoe in August, and the trade of Braylon Edwards 10 days ago.

Those players accounted for 65 percent of the team's total passing yardage and 64 percent of the touchdown catches last season. Anderson now throws to rookie receivers Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie, along with veteran backups Josh Cribbs, Mike Furrey and Chansi Stuckey.

It's a group that shouldn't threaten a Steelers defense that can instead concern itself with stopping rejuvenated running back Jamal Lewis.

"That's what you guys said about Chicago," Steelers free safety Ryan Clark told reporters who thought Bears quarterback Jay Cutler would be limited by his inexperienced wide receivers.

Yet, the Steelers had to respect the speed of the Bears' receivers. Against the Browns, they'll encounter Massaquoi, who ran a 4.66 40 at the pre-draft combine, and Robiskie, who ran a 4.59. They're clearly slower than the Bears' 4.2 sprinters.

"Well, which one of the Chicago receivers ran by us?" Clark asked, knowing the answer was none.

"That's the thing you guys have to realize: There's like one Mike Wallace in the world. He's that guy who's so fast that no matter what you do he's probably going to beat you deep unless you turn around and run. But these other guys who clock at 4.2, 4.3, if you play your technique and if you study film and know ‘this is the formation where those guys go deep,' you don't have to back up. You just need to do your job. These guys, they go get it."

Massaquoi has only 11 receptions for 195 yards this season, but Clark pointed out that the second-rounder from Georgia caught 8 passes for 148 yards two weeks ago in the Browns' overtime loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

With Lewis running hard again, and Cribbs returning kicks, and the young receivers in rebound mode, it's possible the Browns' offense won't be as bad as the 1-4 record and laughable stats might indicate.

In fact, it's possible – even plausible – that Cleveland's NFL-worst run defense can right itself behind Shaun Rogers and stop a Steelers running attack that could be confused by the return of Parker.

The division of labor at running back is yet another question mark for the Steelers, who'll stack it alongside the Smith loss and the Polamalu recovery.

It just might be another week on the edge for the defending champs.


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