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Know Thy Enemy: Cleveland Browns

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Ah, Cleveland. In a weird NFL season where there are a bunch of teams that are really good and a bunch that are really bad while everybody else is aggressively mediocre, it’s nice to have one constant. And that constant being that the Browns suck. As they move into year 16 of their perpetual rebuild, let’s take a look at what’s going on with the Factory of Sadness.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers take on the Cleveland Browns in the latest chapter of one of the NFL’s most storied rivalries, we still don’t know who’ll be under center. For either team actually. The Browns are choosing between journeyman Josh McCown and woman-beating drunkard Johnny Manziel. Meanwhile, it was assumed Landry Jones would be making his second career start for the Black and Gold but Mike Tomlin left “the door slightly ajar” for Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben practiced yesterday which means that door might still be open.

Reality is Jones is most likely going to start. The Steelers have a bye next weekend and with a tough slate of games coming up, it’d behoove them to have Big Ben as healthy as possible. Jones has certainly showed enough to give one confidence he can lead them over the Browns. The question is whether he has that confidence. In recent interviews, he said nerves got the best of him in his start at KC.

Which makes sense since his best performance was against San Diego when he was just thrown into the fire without a chance to think. What Landry showed against the Chargers – and last week in a brief appearance against the Raiders – was that when he plays loose, he can be quite effective. He’s got a good mastery of the offense to where the passing game doesn’t fall totally off the map like it did with the Ghost of Michael Vick. If he can just avoid the mistake (3 turnovers) he made against the Chiefs, the team should rally around him.

It helps that the Steelers have struck gold with back-up running back DeAngelo Williams. Losing a superstar like Le’Veon Bell would doom a lot of teams – look how KC fell apart after Jamaal Charles was lost – but the Steelers have an excellent contingency plan. Williams was the NFL’s leading rusher after playing the first two weeks in place of the suspended Bell and last week he stepped back in to rip off a league best 170 yards. Cleveland ranks dead last in rush defense surrendering nearly 150 yards per game so Williams couldn’t ask for a better match-up.

The Browns pass defense isn’t much better, currently standing at 22nd and giving up 250 yards on average. This is just a bad defense which gives up a ton of yards. Antonio Brown is also coming off a career game and should find plenty of opportunity to make plays. The offense won’t be as explosive if Ben doesn’t play but if Jones can’t put up points against this team, well, let’s just say this is his chance to prove himself.

Cleveland’s quarterback situation is a story itself. McCown has been steady if unspectacular as the nominal starter, throwing 11 TDs vs only 4 INTs. He has a couple nice weapons in speedster Travis Benjamin and emerging star TE Gary Barnridge. Those two account for the vast majority of Cleveland’s offense as the running game led by Isaiah Crowell has floundered. If Manziel starts, he brings a bit more of a running threat and while he shows flashes of more big play ability he’s also far less accurate.

The Steelers defense is coming off a weird game. They made plays and forced a bunch of turnovers but they also gave up 35 points and got torched for several big plays. The concerning thing is way back in week 1 guys were being left wide open on blown assignments and here we are in week 10 and it’s still happening. It’s one thing to get beat but leaving guys wide open has got to stop. When the Steelers avoid brainfarts, they’ve shown pretty good ability to pressure the quarterback into making mistakes.

This is a pivotal week for the Steelers. The Bill won last night to assert themselves in the AFC Wild Card race. Despite beating them last week, Oakland is not going away. And the Jets, despite issues, are going to be tough if only thanks to their defense. As I’ve been saying for weeks now, the Steelers really can’t afford any more conference losses or they run the risk of being odd man out in 3-way tiebreakers. A win this week against the Browns would actually be a lot more valuable than one two weeks hence against the Seahawks. Let’s hope whoever starts at quarterback is up to the task.