Game #11 Preview – Steelers at Browns
Another divisional game for the Browns and a chance to beat the franchise they have mightily struggled against since returning to the league in 1999. The team has played fairly well at home this year but have still been behind (more times than not) when the clock strikes zero; they must find a way to change this – Sunday could be a fine starting point. In his first press conference Browns’ as owner, Jimmy Haslam got in good graces of the fans by denouncing the previous team he owned a portion of (Steelers) and embraced his new organization. I expect to hear stories about the owner trying to fire up the locker room to score the huge upset. Regardless of records and which opposing quarterback starts, this will be another hard-fought contest.
Offense: A chance to put back-to-back solid performances will present itself for Brandon Weeden on Sunday. He needs to play well against a division rival who has historically had a dominant defense. Unlike the Ravens game a few weeks ago, I hope the rookie takes a few chances throwing deeper passes (especially if safety Troy Polamalu is inactive). Last week, Joe Flacco was only able to muster 164 passing yards – but he avoided the ever-dreaded interception. I expect Weeden to have a better performance than this on Sunday, but he’s got to find the end zone when the team is close to the goal line. The defense of the Steelers thrives on keeping games close by allowing only field goals and winning it with their efficient offense. If the Browns can get a reasonable lead, they should not have to worry about a big comeback like last week. Weeden and the offense must continue to fight the entire game, though.
These types of games are the reason why the Browns drafted Trent Richardson last April. The running game will be called upon to get the tough yards, and hopefully the rookie will make the defense pay. He has played well as of late but will face a stiff test on Sunday. The Steelers held Ray Rice to just forty yards on twenty carries; if the Browns have output like this, it could be a long game for them. I hope two things carry over from last week – the use of multiple players to run the football and including the running backs in the passing attack on a frequent basis. Montario Hardesty and Chris Ogbonnaya each toted the football last week – with the physical style of the defense, it may be a great idea to give Richardson a rest and not give him thirty carries (or so). Additionally, the running back made several nice receptions and picked up a few first downs last week. Anytime he can make life easier for Weeden and the offense, the team should find a way to utilize that option.
Anquan Boldin had a tremendous game for the Ravens last week (eight catches for seventy-nine yards) against the Browns’ upcoming opponent. Although the secondary of the opposition is stellar – Greg Little, Josh Gordon, and the receivers will have a good opportunity to compile solid statistics. The under/crossing routes (which have been dormant at times this year) appeared to have resurfaced for the passing offense. I hope to see the two main wide outs run these and get away from defenders for long gains. Travis Benjamin and Mohammed Massaquoi will likely be blanketed well, so a third option might have to come from somewhere else. Last week it was Ben Watson, will the veteran do it again? Or can Josh Cooper, Jordan Cameron, or someone else become Weeden’s next target for the offense?
Facing the likes of James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, and Brett Keisel, and the Browns offensive line will have their work cut out for them. However, if their play is similar to that of recent weeks, the offense should be able to move the football. It was refreshing to see Weeden stand in there against the Cowboys and have a few seconds to decide where to throw the football. Richardson was able to run more easily (than earlier in the season), as well. On Sunday, there will be several blitzes thrown at them and multiple defenders will likely employ the same gap. The offensive line must work cohesively and ensure each member effectively performs his assignments. Penalties and sacks are hard to overcome, and the Browns must do their best to avoid these – as they put the team in dire situations (where the opponent typically capitalizes).
Defense: Facing another porous offensive line, I look forward to the front four blowing by and harassing whoever is behind center for the Steelers. Phil Taylor and Athyba Rubin have another game under their belt and look to be disruptive in the middle. After getting a fair amount of playing time, the two rookie tackles played in limited time against the Cowboys. Obviously, their overall output was down but Hughes came away with a sack. I believe both can still be productive in their new roles. Outside pressure will be important as well – Jabaal Sheard, Frostee Rucker, and Juqua Parker must beat the offensive tackles on passing plays. Granted, the opponent may use help with their tight ends and running backs, but the Browns have shown an ability to get it done. The Steelers’ running attack has come from many multiple players; this is a different kind of game plan for the home team. They must prepare for the pair of backs, as both Jonathan Dwyer and Rashard Mendenhall each had over ten carries last week. With Roethlisberger not playing, the team will likely rely more on the run to move the football.
This week, there’s another dynamic tight end the Browns must focus on. Heath Miller historically does not get huge yardage totals, but the veteran always seems to come up with a big catch during a critical part of the game. Having a backup in there, there’s a good chance the signal caller will throw shorter passes – including tosses to his tight end. I would like to see Craig Robertson put together another good performance; the second-year veteran has played well at times this year but it seems like it’s not on a consistent basis. The linebackers should continue to be playing better with the improvement of the defensive line. I hope someone from this unit can come up with an interception or two this contest; that would be icing on the cake.
Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders are two speedy (and that’s putting it mildly) wide receivers for the Steelers. If Joe Haden returns from his oblique injury, I believe the Browns’ secondary should be able to limit these guys. On the other hand, if the veteran is held out again, I do not believe the secondary will have similar issues to those in Dallas. The opponent will not be throwing the football fifty times nor will they run the same routes (consistently) at the cornerbacks; Skrine, Wade, and Brown will have fewer opportunities to give up a long gain. I think the safeties can be effective in the passing game; Usama Young is coming off a reliable outing and seems to routinely be around the ball. I hope T.J. Ward continues to play hard and his personal foul last week does not cause him to play timidly against receivers.
Special Teams: The Ravens returned a punt for a touchdown last week against the Steelers, hopefully the Browns can also see some success in their return game on Sunday. The punting and kicking units are rather even for the two squads; so special teams (once again) may have little influence on the outcome of the contest. This could be negated with a turnover or a long return, however.
Coaching: Regardless if the team is ahead or behind, I hope the coaching staff continues to use a fair run-pass balance. Weeden has been improving, but their opponent is not one that the Browns will likely throw all over. Likewise, Richardson is a tremendous rusher, but the team should pound the football (fairly regularly) with at least another rusher to wear down the defense. Winning the time of possession battle should be a priority as well – keeping an older defense on the field (and therefore tiring them out) will help the Browns immensely.
Prediction (My Record 6-4): I think this could be the game where fans look back and see the beginning of the Browns being relevant in the division. Granted, the Steelers are without the best player, but I think it’s safe to say the Browns are due for a break. I believe the Browns defeat their rival at home 19 – 14.