This Sunday the Steelers welcome the 1-4 Cleveland Browns to Heinz Field for an AFC North Showdown. Since 2003, the Browns have managed to win a staggering one game in this “rivalry”, but that one game was a bitter pill for the Black and Gold to swallow. The Steelers looked like anything but a defending Super Bowl Champion when Cleveland beat them late last season, virtually ending any hope at a shot at the playoffs and a chance to defend their title. Cleveland won all aspects of that game, offense, defense, special teams, coaching, you name it. This year the Steelers are coming into the game at 3-1, but also still thinking about the way that they lost to this team last season. Their defense is not only playing at a historically great level, but will also be looking for payback after last season’s shortcomings. And that doesn’t bode well for the Browns. Here’s a quick look at what the Steelers are going up against on Sunday:
Quarterback – With Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace both hobbled with injuries, it is looking like rookie Colt McCoy will be making his first NFL start. Dick LeBeau and his “D” have to be loving this. I am sure LeBeau and his men will have so many different looks and schemes that McCoy won’t know who’s blitzing, who’s in coverage, or even what stadium he is in by the end of the game. Timmons should once again lead the team in tackles, but look for Woodley to be around McCoy all day long. Josh Cribbs should take 8-10 snaps in the Wildcat formation, with the Steelers putting probably all 11 guys up around the line to slow him down. Last season Cribbs rushed for close to 90 yards out of this formation against the Steelers on only 8 carries. He’s normally a Steeler-killer, but I think the LBs will be ready for him this time.
Running Back – With a rookie at QB, the Browns should try to pound Peyton Hillis as much as possible to try and shorten the game. Hillis is currently averaging 4.6 yards per carry, and recently ripped the Ravens for well over 100 yards. However, the Steelers have only given up 249 yards rushing for the entire season, that’s a paltry 62 yards per game. With injuries slowing down Jerome Harrison (only 2.9 yds per carry), the Steelers can expect a heavy dose of the bruising Hillis up the middle, with a scattering of Cribbs runs to the outside. Hillis should be shut down by the front seven, and as long as Cribbs is contained, the running game shouldn’t even close to the century mark.
Wide Receiver – When your leading receiver is Benjamin Watson with 23 catches, and #2 is your bruising running back with 20, the opposing secondary probably won’t lose much sleep the night before the game. Mohamed Massaquoi is a legitimate deep threat, but with Polomalu patrolling the defensive backfield, Massaquoi will find it difficult to break free. Even if he does, odds are McCoy won’t have enough time to throw deep. Short routes and dump offs will be the name of the game for the Browns passing offense, and that normally doesn’t work much against the Pittsburgh D.
When the Steelers have the ball their philosophy should be simple. Establish the running game with Mendenhall, but let Ben be Ben. Since this is his first game back, most are expecting a somewhat rusty Ben, who might need time to get going. I think he’ll be sharp from the first snap. While they will definitely look to pound the Browns with a strong running attack, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a play action deep bomb to Mike Wallace on their first offensive play of the game. Let Ben air it out to get the nerves out, and then get to work. To this point their passing game has been relatively non-existent, but with Ward, Wallace and Miller ready to break out, and Big Ben back in the saddle, I expect to see their numbers improve dramatically right away. Am I being too hopeful that Ben won’t be out of sync and is ready to step in and play? Maybe, but from what I’ve been hearing he’s been sharp and looking forward to getting back on the field with his teammates. He’s had two weeks to prepare for his first game back, and (oh yeah) they’re playing the Browns. He might not get 400 yards and 5 TDS this game, but look for a solid 200+ and a couple TD tosses. Mendenhall should get his 100 yards as well, and I think the Steelers roll in this one. It might not be a shutout, but I’d be shocked if the Browns managed more that a couple field goals.
PREDICTION: Steelers 27 – Browns 6.