Everyone knows what this game means. The teams hate each other and so do the fans. This is a national broadcast on Sunday night against the Steelers. What more could one ask for? How about "a win".
Be loud and be proud because the fans can make a difference in what should be a very close game filled with big plays and bigger hits.
The Steelers offensive line is weak in the area of pass protection, especially along the interior but this is a big powerful line that moves the defense. The Steelers have always had a tendency to run from center to right but with LG Chris Kemoeatu this unit is becoming much more balanced in where they run the football. Chris has incredible leg drive combined with a powerful punch can drive defenders off the line. He must improve in pass protection but he is becoming one of the better run blockers in this league.
Balanced run blocking is paving the way for "fast" Willie Parker. Willie is not only fast but he is running with great vision and anticipation. He is showing few signs of rust following his season-ending injury last year. Willie has been a nightmare for the Browns defense putting up 617 yards rushing in his last 5 contests against the Browns. If the Browns can't stop Parker from getting into the open field, it will be another long day for the Browns defense.
While the Steelers will be focused on their running game, they have a potent passing attack whenever they desire to use it. Bruce Arians has put together an excellent scheme for this offense. He enjoys using multiple receiver sets to spread out opposing defenses. This prevents the opposition from loading up to stop the run. Once the defense becomes focused upon the run, the pass is available and it is the reason why QB Ben Roethlisberger completed 13 of 14 passes against the Texans.
Ben's mobility and physical strength as much as his arm strength has devastated the Browns defense. The Browns have proven that they can get pressure on Ben but they have failed to finish. When you allow Ben to escape, he finds a way to make you pay.
A major contributor to the Steelers success in the run game is the effective blocking of the receivers. They are the reason a 7 yard run from Parker can quickly turn into a 70 yard run. Santonio Holmes is much improved in this area thanks to the tutelage of Hines Ward.
Ward is the grinder receiver, making the tough catches over the middle, while Holmes uses his amazing speed to stretch the field vertically. Also TE Heath Miller is a potent weapon in this passing attack. Considering how the Browns struggle with pass catching tight ends, Miller could see a lot of balls coming his way on Sunday.
S Sean Jones will be absent from this contest due to injury. That is very bad news for a defense struggling to find not only consistency but also an identity. Throughout preseason and continuing against the Cowboys the Browns defense appears to be in a state of mass confusion.
Let's be realistic, this unit despite all the upgrades, looks worse than the defense fielded by the Browns in Romeo's first season as head coach. They do nothing well. There is no pass rush. The secondary lacks communication and discipline. The linebackers do not tackle well and do not fill the space created by the front 3. They do not stop the run and do not create turnovers.
On the bright side, there is no where to go but up for this defense. The main issue with this defense is confidence. They are better than what they have shown thus far. If they can come out and hit the Steelers hard, this defense is capable of doing great things this year.
One thing that has not changed in Pittsburgh is their blitzkrieg defense. The Steelers employ a run blitz towards the quarterback philosophy. They fill the gaps to prevent the run but continue towards the quarterback.
The Steelers do a fantastic job of confusing the offense by disguising where their blitz is coming from and also disguising who is dropping into their zone coverage. They will put 6-8 defenders up on the line and as the offense makes their call, some will blitz, some will drop back into coverage. This puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the center to make the correct line call and also on the quarterback to make the correct read.
The emergence of LB James Harrison as a pass rushing force has been instrumental in the improving Steelers defense. Harrison is proof that if you put in the work, great things can happen. Harrison isn't the only linebacker that has stepped up their game. Second year players, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley appear much more confident and also more comfortable in the Dick LeBeau system. Not only have their pass rushing skills improved but they have vastly improved in their zone coverage.
NT Casey Hampton made headlines by reporting to camp overweight but that weight does not stop him from being the best nose tackle in the game today. Casey's size and power creates a mismatch against any center. The key to this contest is the match up of Hampton vs. the Browns center Hank Fraley.
Although the secondary does appear to be improved, it is still the weakness of this defense. Deshea Townsend is banged up a bit and that will not help against the likes of WR Braylon Edwards. The Browns will likely test the secondary at every opportunity.
With the Browns defense likely to struggle once again, even more pressure is now placed on the shoulders of the offense. The best chance the Browns have to win is to turn this game into a shootout. In order to do that, the key players for the Browns must step up their game.
WR Braylon Edwards had the worst game of his career versus the Cowboys. Braylon has the potential to be the best receiver in football but he must learn to have a very short memory. He has both a size and also a speed advantage in this contest.
QB Derek Anderson is developing a bad habit as a quarterback. It is easy to become totally focused on Edwards and TE Kellen Winslow due to their amazing talents but cutting the field off in half doesn't help the quarterback nor the receivers. Anderson must go through his progressions consistently. Getting the young receivers involved in this offense will not only help their confidence but it will also make you a better quarterback and open up the big play for the two big weapons.
RB Jamal Lewis has struggled against the Steelers potent run blitz scheme. That will likely not change this week but the Browns must run enough to keep the defense honest. If the Browns decide to use the RB screen to get Jamal involved, it could pay huge dividends. The screen was available against the Cowboys blitz happy defense but the Browns went away from it to early. Use the run and the screen to slow the defensive aggression. When you take away the Steelers aggression they become a rather ordinary defense.
The return of special teams ace Joshua Cribbs could not come at a better time. Cribbs has given the Steelers nightmares. His ability to keep the Browns offense playing on a short field was instrumental in the offensive success last year. Not only is his return ability valuable but also his coverage on special teams is instrumental for the Browns.
Shantee Orr deserves a special mention due to his outstanding play against the Cowboys. He was released on the final day of cuts and headed back home, only to find himself recalled to Cleveland. Orr is tremendous on special teams' coverage and his presence along with Cribbs could keep the Steelers facing long drives throughout this contest.
Warning!! This is a rant that has no place in a preview article.
The decision to not go for it on 4th and 3 with nearly 12 minutes to go in the 4th quarter was one of the absolute worst coaching decisions that I have ever seen. It is hard to tell your players to give it their all for 4 quarters when the head coach quits after just after 3. This is the kind of decision that can end up defining a season.
Herm Edwards said it best, "You play to win the game."