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?
STEELERS DEFENSE vs BROWNS OFFENSE
The biggest difference between the two franchises is the Steelers have an elite player at the most important position on the field while the Browns do not. Cleveland’s 2012 draft where they moved up to take mega-bust RB Trent Rirchardson then wasted the first rounder they got from Atlanta on quarterback Brandon Weedon is poised to go down as one of the worst drafts in history. If not for those twin blunders, the Browns could very well be dominating the AFC North.
The Weedon selection has hurt them the most. To say he’s been a total failure is too kind. Cleveland actually has some fantastic young playmakers on offense – explosive wide receiver Josh Gordon and one of the best tight ends in football in Jordan Cameron – they just haven’t had anybody capable of getting them the ball. When Patriots castoff and former Steeler (for two weeks) Brian Hoyer was behind center, Cleveland looked like an up and comer. When he was lost for the season, the offense went right down the drain.
They’ve finally turned to former Raider and Redskin Jason Campbell. Campbell has had a spotty career. He showed flashes in Washington until Mike Shanahan gave up on him. He went to Oakland and actually got them off to their best start in a decade until an injury ended his season (and led to the desperate Raiders trading for Carson Palmer, which ultimately led to Campbell’s exit). When healthy, he’s shown the ability to be a competent signal caller, which is huge step up over what the Browns get with Weedon. He may not be the answer but he’s certainly good enough led them to a win over the Ravens and nearly upset the Chiefs at home.
The Steelers defense had something of a rebound game against Detroit. Yes, that 2nd quarter was unmitigated disaster but the other three featured some very solid defense. It appears the Steelers will be playing with the same personnel this week as LaMarr Woodley and Brett Keisel did not practice today which is normally a sign they’re out on Sunday. Jason Worilds played perhaps his best game as a pro and, as much as I love the Beard, there doesn’t appear to be a huge drop-off from him to Ziggy Hood. The Browns don’t run the ball very well (26th in the league, 80 yards/game) so it’ll mostly be up to Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen and William Gay to contain their big play passing threats.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs BROWNS DEFENSE
When I said the Browns are sneaky talented, this is the area I was thinking of. In a sudden reversal of fortune, it’s Cleveland who boasts a tough, rugged defense currently ranked 4th in all of football. Their secondary, led by Pro Bowler Joe Haden, is the 4th best unit allowing just a smidge over 200 yards per game. Their rush defense, ranked 8th, has been holding opponents to precisely 99 yards per game. As a team, they’ve combined for a whopping 31 sacks from a host of mostly no-name players such as LBs Craig Robertson (3), first rounder Barkevious Mingo (4), and Harvard grad DE Desmond Bryant (3.5).
The Steelers injury plagued offensive line will surely be tested in a way they weren’t against the Lions. Detroit, for all their first rounders on D, barely pressured Ben Roethlisberger at all. I don’t foresee that happening this weekend. There is some good news as G Ramon Foster has practiced and appears set to return. Guy Whimper has been easily the team’s weakest link in his absence. As I noted, the Browns aren’t particularly vulnerable against the run but with Foster back, perhaps they’ll be able to open some run lanes that have been completely non-existent the past couple weeks.
If the Steelers braintrust have any clue at all they’ll come out in the no-huddle again. This franchise has repeatedly shown themselves to be extremely stubborn in terms of repeating the same mistake over and over because they simply hate to admit they f’d up. I don’t care if Todd Haley doesn’t like it or Mike Tomlin thinks it’s a gimmick or Art Rooney II wants granddaddy’s football, the bottom line is the NO HUDDLE WORKS. It’d be arrogance or stupidity to turn your back on it now.
Antonio Brown has emerged as one of the league’s premiere wide receivers. Cleveland’s secondary is good enough that he’s not going to be able to romp free but if anybody makes a play, it’ll probably be him. It’d be nice if he could play a clean game where he doesn’t drop a sure TD like he’s done at least three times this season. Behind him, it appears Jerricho Cotchery has become the team’s de facto #2 with rookie Markus Wheaton getting more playing time as a #3. Manny Sanders, who was battling a foot ailment in recent weeks, is still the team’s second leading receiver but has seen his playing time cut back in recent weeks. Whether it’s due to his injury or simply falling out favor, somebody other than AB will be needed to step up if he’s covered by the excellent Haden all afternoon.
The Steelers and Browns have identical 4-6 records. Both teams are hoping against hope they can scratch and claw their way back into the AFC playoff race. With the season heading down the home stretch, each game has become crucial, especially when you factor in tie breakers and such. The Steelers don’t have to run the table but conference wins are like gold in this situation. So if they want to be a playoff team, this is as good an opportunity as any to show it.