What? Know Thy Enemy on a Wednesday? This can mean only one thing: Thursday Night Football! And if you thought ESPN picked a lousy slate of games, man, you ain’t got nothin’ on the NFL Network.
It seems like every year, the AFC North is a three horse race. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are the two thoroughbreds in the hunt pretty much every season. The third horseman alternates between the Bengals and the Cleveland Browns. When one is up, the other is usually down.
During the 2009 Super Bowl Hangover year, Cincinnati took advantage of the opening by winning the division before flaming out spectacularly in their lone playoff game. Last year, the Bungles were a mess, hijacked by the clown show being put on by Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco. It was the Browns turn to look like a legitimate NFL franchise. Even though they didn’t win many games (5), rookie quarterback Colt McCoy led the team during a surprisingly competitive stretch which had people believing in a bright future for Cleveland.
Oh, those silly silly people…
The Browns are back in their customary position of irritating little bugs while the Steelers are the windshield headed right toward them tomorrow night.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs CLEVELAND OFFENSE
McCoy made his first NFL start against the Steelers last season. I vividly remember people making all sorts of jokes about poor Colt and his impending destruction at the hands of the Black and Gold wrecking machine. In fact, McCoy played surprisingly well, completing 23 of 33 passes for 281 yards and rallying his team late in the fourth quarter before the Steelers pulled away. Of course, we met again on the final weekend of the season and Pittsburgh utterly destroyed them despite most of our starters resting in the second half.
In his second year, McCoy has experienced a bit of a sophomore slump. He’s completing less than 60% of his passes and has thrown for a paltry 2,500 yards while posting an ugly 14/9 TD-INT ratio. He’s been battling a balky knee but should start tomorrow as he needs some strong performances down the stretch to convince the Browns to not take a quarterback in next year’s draft. If his knee acts up, the even more inept Seneca Wallace would replace him.
I shouldn’t put all the Browns’ failures on Colt. The front office hasn’t exactly surrounded him with a wealth of talent. Madden cover boy Peyton Hillis has completely fallen off the map, raising questions whether the Browns will bother re-signing the pending free agent. If he can get his act together, Hillis is exactly the kind of back the Steelers have struggled with this season. Of course, he’s not the player the Steelers are most worried about.
Mike Tomlin has been on fire this year. From his opening week “We were grape squashers.” to his epic dissing of Jacksonville (“I understand that might have been a big game in Jacksonville but that’s old news.”), Tomlin has come up with new and entertaining soundbites on a weekly basis. This week, he produced the nugget quoted above in reference to noted Stiller Killer KR/WR Josh Cribbs. But verbal genius like that really must be heard so you can hear the full audio by clicking here.
The Steelers special teams have performed extremely well this year, capped by last week’s effort which produced both a turnover and punt return for a TD. I haven’t talked much about special teams because I usually use that time for sammitch makin’ but the coverage has been quite good this season. Bryant McFadden may be useless as a corner but since getting demoted to special teams specialist, he’s excelled at the role. He and Stevenson Sylvester are always around the ball.
Tomlin wouldn’t rule out LaMarr Woodley but he’s expected to miss yet another game after rushing back a little too early last weekend. The Steelers would be insane to risk him seriously aggravating his hamstring on a game they should win without his services. James Harrison played like a man possessed against Cincy and Jason Worilds had his best showing since being inserted into the starting line-up. Mister Woodley isn’t going to make that much of a difference against a horrible offense like Cleveland’s.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs BROWNS DEFENSE
The Browns defense has one of the weirdest splits I’ve ever seen. Their pass defense is currently the top ranked unit in the NFL. However, their rush defense is one spot above dead last. The good secondary numbers are no doubt a by-product of playing the same soft schedule and parade of crappy QBs the Steelers have feasted on this season. It’s also not unusual when a team is really bad in one area, such as stopping the run, their other numbers will look great because if you can gash them for 10 yards every carry, why bother throwing the ball?
Ben Roethlisberger and the offense looked great last week, throwing the ball as effectively as he has all season. Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown are shaping up to be the best WR duo the team has had since, dare I say it, Swann and Stallworth. What really made the difference last week was the team’s improved red zone production, a clear result of the team making a much more concerted effort to establish a running game. Rashard Mendenhall had so-so numbers but made several really nice runs around the goal line. Redzone Redman continues to be impressive in somewhat limited action.
Ironically, Redman’s YPC is higher than Mendy’s while Rashard’s numbers in short yardage are better than Redzone’s. Perhaps Mendy should be the red zone back while the Steelers feature Redman more as a primary back between the 20s.
Looking past any team, even a miserable one such as the Browns, is a mistake. However, this is a game that on paper the Steelers should win with minimal effort. In a perfect world, they’ll put the Browns away early, perhaps feed Hines Ward a few more balls in an effort to get him to that magical 1,000 catch mark before he departs to play his final couple season down in
Pittsburgh West Arizona. Then the Steelers will get a nice mini-bye with a ten day break before they have to travel out to San Francisco with the season’s last big test against the resurgent 49ers.