Game #16 Preview – Browns at Steelers
Well the 2012 NFL regular season quickly came and went; it’s hard to believe the year is about to end. The Browns have not swept both games from their rivals since 1988 (they are beyond due to end this streak). Owner Jimmy Haslam continues to be determined to beat the franchise he was once a part of. Even though both teams have been eliminated from playoff contention, this battle will still be a very physical one. The opponent will have Ben Roethlisberger available this outing, a huge difference from the first matchup. I look forward to the visiting team coming out and finally dominating their rivals at their home field – whether that actually occurs remains to be seen, though.
Offense: Assuming he is healthy enough to play, quarterback Brandon Weeden will face one final test before his off-season evaluation. The rookie has not put together a great performance in some time – he passed for a huge total (364 yards) four weeks ago in Oakland but has been unimpressive otherwise. This will be another contest where the signal caller will, more than likely, struggle in terms of passing yardage. He did not turn the football over last week (which was a good improvement), but Weeden seems to be somewhat conservative when deciding where to toss his passes. I have been clamoring for him to throw down field more often and attempt longer gains, but it appears that he will “take what the defense gives him” and employs shorter routes. Having Troy Polamalu return from injury may only further reinforce this. If Weeden is unable to play, either Colt McCoy or Thaddeus Lewis will get the start instead. This will change the entire complexion of the game – the odds of the Browns winning will lessen without their starting quarterback. The offense will have to adjust to someone who has less arm strength but more mobility. Regardless of who is under center, I hope the quarterback can trust his targets and give them opportunities to shine. It will speak volumes if he can get late-round picks and undrafted athletes involved regularly against a tremendous defense.
Trent Richardson had an ankle issue last contest, and as a result did not practice this week. The rookie has suffered multiple injuries this season; I would not be shocked if the visiting team held the runner out of this game to prevent further injury. Even if this does not occur, the Browns ought to give Montario Hardesty (and even Chris Ogbonnaya) more opportunities to make plays. This should be a contest where the visitors utilize rushing the football primarily to set up advantageous situations. No one should expect to see a sixty-yard burst, but possibly a twenty-yard pickup here and there. The way Hardesty has been quick to find holes has been a positive – hopefully he will get a chance to prove he can knife his way into the Steelers’ defense. However, judging from their last outing, the home team will do a tremendous job in limiting rushing yardage. The Bengals only mustered fourteen total yards on the ground last week.
A.J. Green had a terrific game against the Steelers’ secondary last week – he caught ten passes for 116 yards. With Greg Little and Josh Gordon both possessing an ability to make huge plays, the passing game of the Browns can excel. Little was able to find the end zone last game; his progression continues during the 2012 season. I would like to see Gordon get behind the secondary and haul in a couple of huge gains (and maybe a touchdown) – Weeden and the rookie nearly connected for one of these in Denver. Looking at his past two weeks (of which were successful), I will keep an eye on rookie Travis Benjamin. If the athlete can keep putting up respectable numbers, and above all else, be a reliable option; there’s a fair chance he could head into the 2013 season as the third wide receiver. The tight end position has been inconsistent a majority of this season, but Ben Watson has been good in several games this year. I hope this occurs on Sunday – assuming Jordan Cameron returns from his concussion, perhaps he can put up solid stats as well.
The offensive line had a poor showing against the Broncos; they now face a team who sacked Andy Dalton six times just a week ago. Unlike their last opponent, the Browns will likely see most of their pressure come from the linebacker positions (instead of the defensive line). That’s not to discount Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, and Ziggy Hood; all three are solid against the pass and run alike. Should the offensive line render these three less-than-effective, which still leaves Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, and LaMaar Woodley to deal with. This trio is dominant in taking down opposing signal callers. Creating alleys for running backs to go through will also be difficult; a very fast defense like the Steelers puts pressure on offensive linemen being in the right place at the right time.
Defense: The defensive front for the visitors must improve upon their play from last week; the unit did a horrific job in attempting to sack Peyton Manning. Ben Roethlisberger is a taller, stronger athlete who is difficult to take down. The Browns will likely have to employ pressure from multiple players, as one guy might not complete the final task by himself. The Steelers’ quarterback was sacked four times last week – hopefully a repeat performance will occur on Sunday. After a few subpar starts, Jabaal Sheard must rebound; the second-year player will have a chip on his shoulder, as he will play in the same city as he did in college. I anticipate status quo in stopping the run – the Browns have only allowed one 100-yard rusher in their past ten games. Billy Winn, Phil Taylor, and Athyba Rubin will plug the necessary holes the opponent strives for. Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer, and Isaac Redman have not instilled fear in defenses; the Browns should be able to limit these three (and potentially Chris Rainey) on the ground.
Tight end Heath Miller is ruled out for this contest – the long-time veteran has historically played well in this rivalry. His replacement, David Paulson, has only garnered seven receptions this entire season. The visitors still must account for this player, but a majority of yardage and big plays will be generated from wide outs. In the running game, D’Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson must continue their solid play. The pair have been spectacular in finishing off plays and ending up in the right spots. I want to see whether they can put together a few, huge stops in crunch time (while potentially tipping the scales towards the away team). Kaluka Maiava will more than likely get additional playing time this game, as the defense will expect fewer passes than Peyton Manning tossed last week.
With T.J. Ward and Usama Young both being injured, Tashaun Gipson and Eric Hagg are the only two safeties on the active roster that have played the position this year. Should something occur negatively (i.e. injury or poor play), the team might have to move veteran Sheldon Brown from cornerback to fill the void (however, he is recovering from a head injury himself). Joe Haden was largely avoided last contest; his strong play will cause this trend to continue at Heinz Field. Therefore, Buster Skrine, Brown, and Trevin Wade must have the one of their best performances on Sunday. They will be facing Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders – whom all have had excellent outings in the past few weeks. The secondary will more than likely play conservatively; i.e. several yards off the line of scrimmage. The veteran quarterback of the Steelers will still find a way to hit a deeper route (or two), though.
Special Teams: If the Browns want to defeat their rivals on Sunday, the special teams must improve greatly from last week’s display. Turnovers cannot occur, unless they are surrendered from the opposition. Perhaps Josh Cribbs will be fired up from last weeks’ poor performance and return a kick or punt back a long way (he already has two career kick-return touchdowns in Heniz Field). Phil Dawson (the 2012 AFC Pro-Bowl kicker) has an edge in his department; I feel confident he can make a big kick while Shaun Suisham cannot. Punting could be important, should the contest be a low scoring affair – both Reggie Hodges and Drew Butler can have their days. Who makes a mistake could become a huge factor in the contest.
Coaching: Pat Shurmur will have a much more difficult time coaching this game than he did previously against the Steelers. On offense, Troy Polamalu is a game-changer and can make things extremely tough for the passing attack. He is another player to account for, and may limit some of the quarterback’s options. Defensively, they are no longer facing Charlie Batch. They must be aggressive against the home team’s quarterback; his ability to extend plays and complete deep passes is hard to defend. The Browns have allowed opposing signal callers to look excellent the past few weeks – that streak must end in the season finale.
Prediction (My Record: 10-5): I would love nothing more than to see the Browns be victorious once again over their rivals this season. They could have momentum heading into 2013 – regardless of the coach and general manager are. However, with the uncertainty at quarterback and history going against them (no wins at Heinz Field since 2003), the Browns lose 24 – 13 and finish the season at 5-11.