I have no idea how this NFL season is going to end. What I do know is it’ll probably be in the least likely way possible.
In a year full of twists and turns, the latest came Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Cleveland Browns 27-11 to officially move into contention for the AFC Playoffs. The graphic above showing the Black and Gold as the second AFC Wild Card team was valid for about three hours yesterday afternoon. That is, until Tennessee beat Oakland to move ahead of us by virtue of a head-to-head victory earlier in the season. Still, the fact the same team that started out 0-4 and got epically blown out by the Patriots a month back is even in the playoff race is utterly insane.
Welcome to the parity-driven, NFL!
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C’mon, you knew I was gonna use that video at least once.
This Sunday, the latest chapter in one of the most storied rivalries in NFL history takes place in Cleveland as the Cleveland Browns host the resurgent Pittsburgh Steelers. I’ve been loathe to use the p-word in association with the Steelers but in all honesty, the AFC is a complete disaster. Only the Broncos and Chiefs have broken away from the pack and would anybody be shocked if either or both were one and done in the playoffs? The rest of the conference is comprised of teams that have their strengths but also have some fatal flaws.
The Browns and Steelers are not as far apart as Steeler Nation would like to think. I’ve been hearing a lot of confident talk from Steeler fans acting like this week’s game is chalk. First of all, even when the Steelers were good and the Browns were abjectly terrible the games were tight. Rivalry games tend to have the affect of evening out talent levels.
Or does nobody else remember Josh Cribbs?
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I was going to write “But the Bungles still lose” except when you’re 2-5 and staring up at the entire division, you really shouldn’t throw stones. Such is life for fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
If you were busy yesterday taking your kids trick or treating or attending one of those adult Halloween bashes where you get to live out your childhood fantasy of being Batman while every woman is wearing a costume with the word “Sexy” attached (Sexy Nurse, Sexy Plumber, Sexy Maid, Sexy Butcher), you probably missed NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football. By the way, a dirty little secret of this season is the TNF games have actually been pretty damn good. They stumbled into a much better slate than ESPN got stuck with on Monday nights. It’s just hard to get used to watching NFL on days other than Sunday and Monday.
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The Pittsburgh Steelers had a bye last week. I’m sure most of them put the time to good use, resting some nagging injuries, catching up with their families… Perhaps a few even indulged in their favorite hobbies. For safety Ryan Clark that means finding the nearest video camera and blabbering away.
Clark appeared on his home away from home, ESPN’s First Take, where he had a chance to catch up with his old buddy Skip Bayliss. Of course the first question they asked was about the Black and Gold’s wretched 0-4 start. Not surprisingly, Clark downplayed the team’s woes, maintaining the team would rebound to make the playoffs. Shockingly, Dallas-based Bayliss agreed with him.
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Despite the Pittsburgh Steelers historically bad start to the season, there has always been a small sliver of hope that all is not lost. That hope is rooted in two factors. First, the Steelers were gifted with a relatively soft schedule. And second, the AFC North isn’t setting the world on fire.
The bye week giveth and the bye week taketh away.
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And never brought to mind?
The more quickly the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns is forgotten the better. I have to confess, I lost interest in this game about ten minutes in and started flipping to Red Zone in order to watch games that actually mattered. Considering nearly 15,000 fans attended yesterday’s season finale at Heinz Field disguised as empty seats, I have to think I’m not alone in my crippling apathy.
Pittsburgh is a football town. I would be insane to deny it. At the same time, Pittsburgh also backs winners. Oh, we still support our Pirates or Penguins when they fail but not nearly with the same fervor or in the same numbers as we do teams that win. The Steelers first meaningless game in six years and 15,000 people opted to skip it. The Rooney family, and by that I mean bungling meddler Art II, better not take this town’s support for granted or we’ll be seeing a lot more Pitt size crowds in the near future.
As I said, I didn’t watch every minute of this titanic confrontation but I’ll give some thoughts on the bits and pieces I did see. The reason my will was broken early on had much to do with a mind-numbing first quarter which saw Todd Haley‘s stunningly inept offense piss around while rookie nobody Thad Lewis drove 70 yards on Dick LeBeau‘s top ranked defense. The Browns’ drive came to a screeching halt thanks to a Troy Polamalu interception.
Well, at least Troy made one play this season.
Speaking of finally making a play, Ziggy Hood finally made an impact himself. Unfortunately, it came in the form of taking out the knee of teammate Brett Keisel, who will undergo an MRI tomorrow due to fears he may have injured his MCL (which may or may not require surgery). On the plus side, with Diesel out, Mike Tomlin was forced to play Cam Heyward. Young guys on defense, what a crazy concept!
The defensive standouts, if you can call them that considering they were playing against a guy who has been cut from three different teams’ practice squads, were Lawrence Timmons and Cortez Allen. Timmons put the cherry on top of his break out season with two sacks and a fumble recovery. It only took 5 years but LT is finally playing like a mid first round draft pick. So I guess we should expect next year’s first to finally make an impact some time around 2018.
Meanwhile, Allen continues to make me look like a genius for tabbing him as a future starter – and a high-level one at that – in the secondary. Last week he caused three turnovers (2 INTs and forced fumble), this week he added another two FFs, one of which he recovered himself. Five turnovers in two weeks. That’s nearly more than the rest of the defense combined. Keenan Lewis played well this year but I don’t see how they can possibly limit Allen to a nickel role next year.
Lewis, by the way, is going to be a free agent at season’s end. The balky knee which limited him the past month acted up so if this was his last appearance in the Black and Gold it was a brief one. I imagine the team will try to keep him although they’d be foolish to overpay for a guy destined to be a #3 corner. Lewis’s probable exit will likely be part of a roster purge that made last year’s Veteran Armageddon look tame by comparison.
Casey Hampton was replaced for almost the entire second half by Steve McClendon. McClendon even got some good pressure on young Thaddeus begging the question why he sat on the bench for 16 weeks while all the old immobile guys stood around like their feet were stuck in mud. Even though the team doesn’t have a legit heir apparent at NT, it seems certain we’ll go into next year with McClendon and (provided he doesn’t kill anybody over the summer) Alameda Ta’amu.
The linebacking corps will also be undergoing a bit of an overhaul. Reports on NFL.com are that yesterday’s game was James Harrison‘s swan song in Pittsburgh. If so, Deebo made sure to get one final late hit cheap shot in for old time’s sake. Guess he’ll have to sit out his first regular season game as a Dolphin due to suspension. Ironically, that hit came on the very play where Thad Lewis threw his first (and only) career TD pass. While it looks like Jason Worilds will step in opposite the chronically injured LaMarr Woodley, the Steelers will have to use the draft or *gasp* free agency to find another ILB to pair with Timmons when they part ways with veteran Larry Foote.
Ben Roethlisberger – making sure to clutch his ribs in crippling agony after every throw so we knew the Big Drama Queen was TOUGH~! – played to the bitter end. Ben, who threw for only 134 yards but 3 TDs, managed to put together a couple nice drives in the fourth quarter, including his 23rd and final TD pass of the season to Plaxico Burress. Eight years, three Super Bowl championships and a prison stint later, the season ends with Big Ben to Plax for a TD. Fitting.
The only drawback to yesterday’s win (besides Keisel and Kelvin Beachum getting hurt. Since when did playing Right Tackle for the Steelers become the equivalent of wearing a red shirt on the USS Enterprise?) was the victory dropped the Steelers all the way to the 17th overall pick in the 2013 draft. That’s still plenty high to get a quality player, one who may be counted on to contribute a lot faster than rookies have in recent years. Whoever they take, this is going to be among the most important off-seasons in Steelers history.
Will Art II admit the Todd Haley experiment has been an utter failure? Or will Boss Todd be given another year to electrify us with his vast array of bubble screens and end arounds? Who will replace the aforementioned losses on defense? Likewise, what will the team do with Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Wallace? Assuming both are gone, do they stick with what they got or introduce some fresh faces to the mix? Remember, every back except Chris Rainey is a free agent along with Manny Sanders. And for the love of pete, will they please fire special teams bungler Amos Jones? He’s so bad, the name “Bobby April” was actually trending locally when the team failed yet again to correctly defend a fake punt.
On a personal note, I want to thank my readers for allowing me to vent this season. It’s been a maddening year but being able to express my frustrations here certainly does my blood pressure a world of good. Even though you guys seldom comment, I appreciate all of you reading, from the old timers who’ve been with me since NPC to the newbies who stumbled upon this blog this season. I’ll still be updating whenever Steeler news dictates (and as I’ve said, we should be making a lot of moves this off-season) although not on a regular schedule. I hope you check in from time to time.
Thanks for reading. Hope you all enjoy a very happy New Year. And Let’s Go Steelers in 2013!
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Sorry for being overly negative although it’s hard not to be since for the first time in a very long time, the Pittsburgh Steelers are playing an utterly meaningless football game. The last time the Steelers entered the last week of the season with absolutely nothing to play for was the final game of the Bill Cowher era. Actually, there was something to play for that weekend.
The Steelers had been eliminated from playoff contention the week prior but the Cincinnati Bengals needed a win to get in. When asked what would motivate his team to play with nothing on the line, Cowher famously said “Misery loves company.” And his team responded by sending their long-time coach out a winner (and dumping the Bungles from the playoff race) with a clutch TD by Santonio Holmes in overtime.
While this week’s opponent, the Cleveland Browns, aren’t playing for anything either, I have a hard time imagining Mike Tomlin motivating his players in a similar fashion. After all, Fraud Tomlin couldn’t get these guys to play hard when the playoffs were on the line, how’s he gonna get them fired up for a glorified exhibition game?
How bad has it gotten? Local talk shows are taking call after call from members of Steeler Nation who actually WANT the Steelers to lose so they improve their draft position. I can’t say that’s a bad idea. Never forget the 2007 draft where Darrelle Revis went with the 14th pick and while we took Lawrence Timmons one pick later. Timmons has finally realized his potential this season although I don’t think anybody would be crazy enough to argue they’d rather have him over Revis Island. So who knows, perhaps a loss on Sunday is the difference between drafting a shutdown corner or a chronically underachieving linebacker.
Good grief, we’re talking about draft position and hoping for losses. Yes, it has come to this.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs BROWNS OFFENSE
The Browns offense will finish the year near the bottom of the league in points per game and total yards. Rookie QB Brandon Weedon has shown flashes of being a competent signal caller but enters the game having thrown more INTs (17) than TDs (14). Of course, it’s not all Weedon’s fault. Other than fellow rookie RB Trent Richardson, who was on track for 1,000+ rushing and 400+ receiving yards before he got banged up, the Browns don’t have much in the way of offensive weapons. Whoever takes over in the front office will definitely be looking to upgrade the skill positions this off-season.
EDIT: And of course late news out of Cleveland is both Weedon and Richardson are nursing injuries and won’t be active on Sunday. Evidently the Browns want to ensure they’re in position to take the next Revis so they’re endeavoring to field the WORST TEAM EVER. Even back-up Colt McCoy is sitting out because his testicles haven’t descended or some such nonsense. Which means all you loyal season ticket holders will get to see the NFL debut of rookie QB Thad Lewis. THAD LEWIS! SMELL THE EXCITEMENT!
Which brings us to the Browns’ sole motivation this weekend, rescuing coach Pat Shurmur’s job. Shurmur’s only been in Cleveland two years (although Cleveland years are like dog years, one feels like seven) but with a new owner used to winning – he was a minority owner of the Steelers – Shurmur’s wretched 9-22 mark may do him in. Knowing the Browns, they’ll probably fire Shurmur only to hire another retread like Norv Turner although we’ll
worry laugh about that when the time comes. For now Shurmur is their coach and he may very well need a win this Sunday to have any hope of keeping his job.
For the Steelers, this may be the last hurrah for some familiar faces. Casey Hampton took a pay cut to come back one more year and although the team doesn’t really have a heir apparent waiting in the wings – unless you count that drunken imbecile Alameda Ta’amu – he may not be back next season. Then there’s James Harrison. Although our old pal Hennessy will be heartbroken to hear this, there is real talk that Harrison and his $9 million salary will not be back in 2013. I think that would be a mistake since Deebo has shown he can still play at a very high level when he’s reasonably healthy but remember this is the same team that cut Greg Lloyd and Joey Porter when they still had a little gas left in the tank.
It’s the Steeler Way.
Despite a season filled with injuries to key players and lacking in game-changing plays, the Steelers D will almost certainly finish the year ranked first overall for the third time in the past six years. Dick LeBeau has been telling his guys that he intends to come back next season so barring another Bruce Arians fiasco from Art II, our D should still be pretty good next season no matter who he has to coach.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs BROWNS DEFENSE
The only upside to having one more game left in the season is you only have one more game to watch the Steelers’ excruciatingly pitiful excuse for an offense. The defense certainly struggled the first month or so of the season but when the story of 2012 is written our inept offense is going to bear the brunt of the criticism for things going so horrible wrong. And deservedly so.
Todd Haley was brought in to take them to the next level. Instead, everything has gone backwards. Ben Roethlisberger regressed. The Young Money crew regressed. The running game regressed. I don’t know if Boss Todd will be back next year – my money, or rather the money inherited by the Deuce, says yes – but let’s hope things improve next year.
Contrasted with the last appearance in the Black and Gold of some veterans on D, this may be the last time we see some young players on offense in our colors.
Mike Wallace (EDIT: Wallace has a sore hammy and is sitting out. Wow, this really is a glorified exhibition game. Do you guys really expect me to watch this?) and Rashard Mendenhall are undoubtedly playing their last home games in Pittsburgh. Wallace simply wants too much money and while I think he’s a very skilled receiver, he’s not the kind of difference maker worth throwing a huge contract at to keep around. Mendy, well, I don’t think Tomlin likes him and as time has gone on the feeling has become mutual. I think he’s a perfect example of a guy who needs a change in scenery to get their career back on track.
Where that leaves the Steelers, however, is anybody’s guess. If Haley truly wants the Steelers to run the ball more often and effectively than his predecessor, the team probably needs to invest in a top flight back. Neither Jonathan Dwyer nor Isaac Redman have looked like they should be considered featured backs. Meanwhile, we once thought the Steelers receiving corps was an embarrassment of riches but subtracting Wallace and with Manny Sanders spectacular flame-out, we’re left with Antonio Brown and… Jerricho Cotchery?
The Steelers aren’t going to make any off-season decisions based on one game. Mendy can gallop for 250 yards or Wallace can catch 200 yards worth of passes and I’m sure it won’t affect what the team does with them this off-season. What we do know is tough decisions have to be made so we don’t find ourselves in this exact same situation next year. And what is certain is the team that takes the field next September will look quite a bit different than the one we see on Sunday.
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Yes, playoffs. I’m talkin’ about playoffs.
Blame Roger Goodell. The Ginger Dictator, in his ongoing quest to go down in history as the worst commissioner of any sport ever, floated the idea of expanding the NFL playoffs from 14 to 16 teams yesterday. Just what football fans need, more .500 teams in the playoffs! Of course, everybody knows the real reason he proposed this ludicrous idea is to deflect attention away from how badly he botched the Saints bounty case.
Hey, always remember the Pittsburgh Steelers were the only team to vote against the new CBA.
Ginger couldn’t have picked a worse year to bring up expanding the playoffs. If there were several 10 and 11 win teams in danger of missing the post-season, I could see a ground-swelling of support for the idea. But this year? With three weeks left in the season, three of four divisions in the AFC have already been clinched.
The only team who hasn’t clinched? Why, the Baltimore Ravens of course! Despite leading our divison, the Ratbirds are so worried about their prospects for a successful post-season that this past week they took the highly unusual step of firing their offensive coordinator. As I’ve said a million times and will keep repeating, Baltimore has this almost pathological need to blame their mediocre offense on everything except the real reason why it’s mediocre: quarterback Joe Flacco.
The firing of ex-OC Cam Cameron evidently was owed to the fact the team’s best player, Ray Rice, had zero touches in the 4th quarter of the Charlie Batch Game. Well, it’s easy to scapegoat Cameron since he’s been a failure everywhere he’s been but in this case that’s hardly his fault. If you watched the game, it was clear that Dick LeBeau was keying on Rice. Sure, great players routinely beat schemes and Rice did break free for a 30 yard TD earlier in the game but no sane team puts all their chips on one player. LeBeau was scheming to stop Rice and control everything short while daring Flacco to beat him deep. Flacco can’t pilot an offense which requires him to routinely throw more than 10 yards down the field. End of story.
With the Ravens stumbling towards the finishing line, it makes the Steelers pathetic showings against the dregs of the NFL all the more painful. We lost to two teams that will be drafting in the top 10 next year (Titans, Raiders) and another just outside it (Chargers). Win one of those games and we’re in the hunt for the division. Win two and we’re probably leading and controlling our own destiny.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention one other Steelers loss, that being to the Cleveland Browns. Sit down, you may need steady yourself when you hear this. All season I’ve been beating the Brandon Weedon drum, saying how he’s been shockingly competent and would get more notice as a fine first round QB draft pick (despite everybody, myself included, mocking the Browns for taking him so high on draft day) if he played anywhere but Cleveland. Well, lo and behold, now the Browns, THE BROWNS, have crept into the playoff picture.
It goes like this. First, the Browns must win out. Then, if the Steelers lose two of their last three (unless you’re a hardcore yinzer, I don’t think any of us would be shocked if they went 0-3 or 3-0 down the stretch), the Bengals lose two of their last three and the Jets lose one more game, the Browns will be the second Wild Card. THE BROWNS!
I don’t think anybody is ready for a world were the Cleveland Browns leapfrog both the Steelers and Bengals to become a playoff team. Unless the Mayans were right…
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The Pittsburgh Steelers were defeated by the Cleveland Browns, 20-14. I can accept a loss. Every team suffers injuries and while it’s nice to say “the standard is the standard” and all that nonsense you can only lose so many key players before it eventually catches up to you. The fact is the Steelers went into the game starting their third string quarterback, without their top wide receiver (and missing two of their top four wide outs overall), starting a second string left guard (Willie Colon was scratched pre-game due to a swollen knee) and later pressed into playing their third string right tackle, not to mention fielding a defense missing two multiple time Pro Bowlers (Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley, who started but left after a handful of snaps).
When you’re missing that many guys, I can accept the fact anybody can beat them.
What I can’t accept is HOW the Steelers were beaten yesterday.
The Steelers put forth one of their most embarrassing performances in decades. They committed eight turnovers. EIGHT TURNOVERS. There is simply no excuse for that level of ineptitude.
People are going to point a finger at Charlie Batch. I’m not going to defend Chaz or claim he played well. At the same time, anybody who pins this loss entirely on him has absolutely no clue what they’re talking about. Yes, he missed a bunch of throws he should have made. Yes, he made some terrible decisions which led to two of his three interceptions. He could have and should have played better.
However, he is the Steelers third string QB. No team is going to have a starting caliber QB sitting on their bench as the third option. Batch’s performance was about what you could realistically expect from a back-up, to say nothing about what most teams have a third stringer.
What you don’t expect is for every one of your running backs to commit a turnover. To Mike Tomlin‘s credit, he immediately benched any back that fumbled. Unfortunately, he only had four backs on the roster so after turnover #4 he had to start the turnover-go-round all over again. And Rashard Mendenhall happily obliged.
Mendy gifted the Browns with two fumbles yesterday. He continues to start despite contributing in no positive way whatsoever. Isaac Redman relieved Jonathan Dwyer just long enough to deliver an early Christmas present of his own. When it appeared Dwyer would be the lone reliable back, he let the ball get away. Chris Rainey, yes, Chris Rainey became the Last Back Standing and even made a nice goal line run for the team’s lone offensive TD. He did fumble a few carries in but it went out of bounds which only delayed the inevitable since he would eventually fumble on the Steelers final possession to seal the crushing defeat.
In between all the fumbles, we had Batch’s three picks. As I said, only two were bad throws as the third was a short slant pattern which Mike Wallace batted around until it fell into a Browns player’s waiting arms. When you’re playing with a short roster, it’s incumbent on your star players to step up but Wallace was MIA yesterday. He was targeted 7 times, only managing one catch for 9 yards. Several of the misfires were miscommunication with Batch while at other times he appeared to simply give up on the play.
Heath Miller and Manny Sanders performed admirably and even Plaxico Burress contributed by drawing a pass interference which set up Rainey’s 1 yard TD run. There is absolutely no excuse for Wallace’s disappearing act.
As if the turnovers weren’t enough of a handicap, we had penalties. Oh did we have penalties. There were 19 penalties called altogether with 9 going against the Steelers. No word on whether yesterday’s ref made an appointment with Dr. James Andrews to check his rotator cuff. Perhaps the most costly flag occurred early in the third quarter when the Steelers converted a big second and long to Heeeeeaatth only for it to be wiped out thanks to a holding call on rookie RT Kelvin Beachum, who was playing in place of injured Mike Adams.
So before we put all the blame on Charlie Batch, let’s remember we also had a posse of backs who couldn’t hold on to the ball, a “star” receiver who didn’t bother showing up, and a beat up offensive line which kept putting an already sputtering offense into third and long situations.
Truth be told, if not for another heroic effort from the Steelers defense, this would’ve been a one-sided ass-whupping. When an offense commits eight turnovers, many of which came deep in their own zone, I don’t know that you can do much better than hold the opposition to two TDs and two FGs. For the record, Cleveland’s first TD drive started at the Pittsburgh 10 and the other began on our 31. One of their two FG drives began on our 44. Not to mention 7 of our 14 points were scored on a pick six by Lawrence Timmons (with an assist from Bret Keisel). I’m not sure how much more they could have done faced with that 50 pound lead weight called an offense weighing them down at every turn.
The defense has nothing to be ashamed of. The offense? I know they’re missing key players but there is no excusing what we saw yesterday. That was the kind of effort that gets players cut and coaches fired. It was a total humiliation at the hands of a team that was 2-8 going into the weekend.
Where do we go from here? Unless Ben magically heals between now and Sunday, there is no way this team is beating the Ravens. A loss next week drops them to 6-6 which mathematically doesn’t eliminate them from playoff contention but certainly means the division is lost. It also means they’d probably need to run the table to finish 10-6 and be in the mix for a Wild Card at season’s end. At this point, though, I think we need to worry less about January and worry more about next week. Because the way this team is playing, I’m not sure they can beat ANYBODY right now.
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Don’t look past the Cleveland Browns. When you stop laughing, I’ll try to explain. Yes, the Browns are 2-8. Yes, the Browns are in the midst of yet another miserable season in a long run of them. Yes, the Browns have already given Mike Holmgren the axe with former Pittsburgh Steelers minority owner Jimmy Haslam likely to make more changes after the season. I know all this doesn’t sound like a team ready to give the Steelers a fight on Sunday but despite everything the Browns aren’t ready to wave the white flag.
Oh, wait… Maybe they are…
One thing the Browns are successful at is getting psyched for the Steelers. I’ll spare you the painful trip down memory lane, suffice to say, when the two teams meet you can almost throw out the records. Cleveland has treated their annual meetings with us like their own little Super Bowl and it’s almost like a rivalry game in college where it doesn’t matter how bad your team is on paper, the two teams always find a way to make things interesting. Throw in the fact Cleveland has been sneaky bad (as in, they lose but put forth highly competitive efforts) and the Steelers are injury ravaged and you have a recipe for anything to happen.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs BROWNS OFFENSE
On draft day, I sorta laughed at the selection of quarterback Brandon Weedon. In reality, Weedon has looked like a pretty solid signal caller despite being a rookie on a team with very few offensive weapons. I still think it was a silly pick because if you look across the NFL, a whole bunch of rookie QBs have done well this season, from Andrew Luck and RGIII to lesser publicized names like Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson and they’re all 5-6 years younger than Weedon so they’ll have more time to grow. Right now, however, I think given the chance to re-draft teams like the Eagles or Cardinals would take Weedon over the QBs they chose because he’s shown the kind of poise that suggests he could step right in and do a capable job of running an established offense.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t have an established offense in Cleveland. In fact, he doesn’t have much to work with at all. When a RB leads your team in receiving, that’s not good. Their nominal #1 WR is Greg Little but he drops as many passes as he catches. The rest of the receiving corps is a collection of has beens and never weres. Weedon’s numbers don’t look particularly impressive (11 TDs 12 INT 2,300 yds) until you factor in the collection of riff raff he has to catch his passes.
The lone bright shining light in this oasis of suck is fellow rookie RB Trent Richardson. Browns legend Jim Brown dissed Richardson prior to the draft which must’ve lit a fire under him as he’s accounted for 670 yards on the ground and another 280 through the air. Richardson has fast become a weapon in the Ray Rice mold. He’s easily Cleveland’s most dangerous offensive player and must be contained if the Steelers hope to dash any thoughts of an upset.
Dick LeBeau‘s crew is coming off unarguably their finest effort of the season. I feel Joe Flacco and company are grossly overrated but to hold any team without an offensive touchdown, let alone a team one year removed from the AFC Championship game while your own offense is actively sabotaging your efforts, is a damn impressive feat. Ziggy Hood rebounded from the KC debacle and the D-line were the quiet heroes in stifling Ray Rice. Ike Taylor has shook off the early season funk and teamed with Keenan Lewis, who improves by the week, form a very fine secondary. While LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison haven’t played up to previous levels, the inside tandem of Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons have picked up a lot of slack. Although Cleveland doesn’t have the talent Baltimore has, the team will need nearly the same effort because I don’t foresee our offense scoring a ton of points.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs BROWNS DEFENSE
Charlie Batch makes his first start of the season after Byron Leftwich flushed a very winnable game down the crapper last Sunday. I have faith in Chaz. Every time Steeler Nation counts him out, he comes off the bench to prove the haters wrong. Given Todd Haley’s short quick West Coast style offense, I think Batch is an even better fit than Lefty and as long as his guys get open, he’ll get them the ball.
Of course, it’d be nice if the Steelers can continue their strong running attack. Mike Tomlin hasn’t committed to a starter but I think at this point you have to go with Jonathan Dwyer. Rashard Mendenhall may have the breakaway speed but he was back to his tap-dancing tricks against Baltimore. Dwyer has been by far the team’s most consistent back and I think he’s earned the chance to be the featured starter (when healthy) for the rest of the year. The Browns rank near the bottom of the league in run D so whoever starts should produce.
The receivers also need to start producing. I know the catch in the corner of the end zone against the Ravens was a tough play but Mike Wallace needs to make it. I caught a little of the Tampa game on Red Zone last Sunday and was struck by how much of a difference Vincent Jackson makes to the Bucs offense. That’s what $10+ million a year receivers do. They make the catches nobody else can make and they make them with frequency. Wallace had a brilliant catch against KC but those sort of big plays have been far too few for a guy who thinks he’s the best WR in football.
Antonio Brown is back practicing so I expect he’ll be a game time decision. Jerricho Cotchery is definitely out so we’ll probably see the return of Plaxico Burress in the Black and Gold. He likely won’t play much, probably just in the red zone (assuming we ever get there), but he should be plenty motivated after signing a 1 year deal when nobody else wanted him. Plax doesn’t have the skills he once had but this team needs all the red zone threats they can get so if he’s even a fraction of his old self he can’t do anything but help.
The Steelers are in a very precarious position. I’ve said all along that the losses to Tennessee and Oakland may come back to haunt them and unfortunately that is proving true. The Steelers can’t really afford to fall much farther back to the pack, especially with only a few very winnable games remaining on their schedule. Had they won the games they should of won earlier this year, we could afford a mid-season nose dive until Ben heals up. At this point, though, they really can’t.