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Know Thy Enemy: Cleveland Browns


So, we meet again…

For the second and final time this season, the Pittsburgh Steelers will renew their rivalry with the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. We all remember the season opener at Heinz Field which was basically a tale of two halves. The Black and Gold played the first half like world beaters, looking like the kind of team that could be a legit Super Bowl contender when all the dust settles. Then the second half started and the Browns launched into a furious comeback before ultimately falling short thanks to a Stonecold Shaun Suisham field goal with time expiring. 

Comebacks seem to be the Browns thing this season. They got off to a good start against New Orleans before the Saints rallied to take a one point lead late in the fourth. The Browns got a walk-off field goal of their own to pull of the upset. They were on the losing end of another last second field goal a week later when Joe Flacco brought his Ravens back from a third quarter deficit to pull out a narrow victory. Then last week, the Browns were down by 25 points (!?!?!) to the Tennessee Titans then staged what is now the greatest road comeback in NFL history.

Take note, Antonio Brown. That is a legitimate record.

What’s surprising about Cleveland’s success isn’t that they’re playing tough – I think even the most jaded Steeler fan recognized the Browns were building a nice core of talented young players – it’s how they’re doing it. If you go back and read my Know Thy Enemy preview from week 1, I basically laid out the standard line on the Browns. People expected them to play a ton of low-scoring games thanks to a young, deep, talented defense while trying to get by with a middling offense missing its best playmaker, suspended WR Josh Gordon. Well, the opposite has happened as the Browns defense has struggled mightily, giving up a ton of points and it’s been the high-powered high-scoring offense that’s basically kept them afloat.

When the season started, the Johnny Manziel watch was on. I even tweeted during halftime of the opener that the Johnny Football Clock was nearly striking twelve. Brian Hoyer evidently had other plans. I’m not surprised Hoyer is playing well – he had the Browns playing like contenders last year before suffered a season ending injury – although I don’t think anybody outside Hoyer’s immediate family expected him to play as well as he has.

Hoyer’s currently sitting on an incredible line of 1,000 yards, 6 TDS and only 1 INT. That puts him on pace for a 4,000 yard season with almost 25 touchdown throws. Those are the kind of numbers Ben Roethlisberger had when Bruce Arians was here. Too bad Uncle Bruce had to up and retire. Anyway, whatever Faustian bargain Hoyer struck has apparently not run out yet because he continues to impress week in and week out. After playing back to back games against teams with terrible quarterbacks (Mike Glennon and Blake Bortles), the Steelers inept secondary will finally have a real challenge on its hands.

As will the rest of the defense. The much maligned run defense has held opposing backs under 65 yards for two consecutive games. I’m not sure that’s saying much considering the level of the opposition but facts are facts. And while Hoyer’s golden arm is a big part of Cleveland’s resurgence, he shouldn’t overshadow their excellent running attack. The Browns currently rank 4th in the NFL in rushing yards per game as the unholy two headed monster of Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell have combined for over 400 yards and five touchdowns through four games.

In many ways, this game is a battle of the irresistible force vs the immoveable object. Browns running attack vs our run defense. Hoyer vs our secondary. And Big Ben and our pitiful one touchdown vs the Jags scoring offense vs a Browns defense which is ranked at or near the bottom of the league in almost every category. Despite looking good on paper, Cleveland’s secondary is currently ranked 28th which is only slightly better than their 29th ranked run defense. They’re giving up a whopping 420 yards per game, one spot away from being dead last in football.

If Todd Haley‘s dizzying array of screens, draws, and dump-offs doesn’t produce against this defense, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate the coaching situation.

I really have no idea what to expect from this game. The Browns seemingly defy expectation while the Steelers are the most consistently inconsistent team in the league. I do know an effort like last week’s against Jacksonville will not cut it, not by a long shot. Oh and I also know no matter what, AB will finish the game with at least five catches. Because silly meaningless “streaks” are extremely important, you know. Let’s just hope some of those catches contribute to the Steelers’ winning effort.