Preview of Game #11 – Steelers @ Browns
The Browns must dust themselves off and get ready for another tough, divisional battle. They now face their enemies to the east; who have won four of their last six games and are coming off an impressive victory over the Lions. The Browns and Steelers split the season series last year – but prior to that, it has not gone the way many Browns fans wanted. The background of coach Chud is one thing that gives me faith. Raised as a Browns fan, he understands the rivalry and the importance of winning this matchup. The same could not have been said about his predecessors, who treated it as “just another game”. I anticipate the home squad’s coaching staff will pull out all the stops, hopefully they can make the right moves to score the win.
Offense: There’s no denying that Jason Campbell must play better in this contest than he did in Cincinnati. The signal caller threw three passes to the opposition; doing so against the Steelers is a recipe for disaster. Their defense has always been opportunistic and that was the case last week. They forced an interception and a pair of fumbles in the upset win at home against Detroit. There have been rumblings that Jason Campbell was told to “rein it in” and reduce his runs and deeper throws. The result was a dink and dunk offense that was largely ineffective; I hope Chud and Turner let the quarterback play without restrictions this week. With all that being said, I anticipate better execution Sunday – it won’t be perfect but solid enough. Campbell will hover around the 300-yard mark again with a couple of touchdowns and likely one interception.
Early in last week’s contest, the long gainer by Chris Ogbonnaya provided a sense of optimism around the Browns’ running game. However, it was rather limited otherwise – similarly to many contests this year. That will likely continue on Sunday but I would still like to see a couple of nice runs threaten the defense. The veteran’s (McGahee) carries have been reduced these past couple of weeks, so Ogbonnaya and Fozzy Whittaker have to pick up the slack. The Browns had a second-and-goal from the two last week and chose to throw the football twice – they clearly opt for the pass in the red zone. Regardless of the number of touches, turnovers cannot happen amongst this group. McGahee and Ogbonnaya have each put the ball on the ground during the past two games (and the team has suffered as a result). I still envision running backs garnering a few receptions but, in an effort to go more downfield, increased passing attempts to wide receivers and tight ends will also occur.
Calvin Johnson had a field day last week against the Steelers’ defense; he hauled in six passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns. Granted, he is the best wide out in the league, but I look for Josh Gordon to emulate this type of dominance on Sunday. He should be able to find the end zone once again this week, and I also hope others step up to complement the athlete. Greg Little and Davone Bess are huge question marks – it’s tough to predict whether this duo will be great or invisible against the Steelers. I’ll take the easy way out and assume both will play average, a la three or four receptions and around fifty yards. Jordan Cameron must come away with multiple big plays in this contest. The tight end has been limited the last couple of games and is due for another break out. At the very least, he should be in position for a touchdown grab (assuming the signal caller can find him).
Defenders were only able to take down Matt Stafford twice in Heinz Field; the threat of sacks (for the Browns) appears to be lessened from last week. The offensive line should not take their opponent lightly, however. But if they play up to their potential, Campbell should have little to worry about on drop backs. Cameron Heyward and Ziggy Hood have been terrors on the outside, so Joe Thomas and Alex Mack must improve upon winning at the point of attack. It’s no secret that Dick LeBeau sends multiple blitzes via his linebackers, and Jason Worilds and Lawrence Timmons are two guys who have excelled at getting pressure in 2013. I hope the interior of the Browns’ offensive line continues to play strong – all four sacks taken last week came from the outside. Alex Mack and the stable of guards will have a tough task, but I have faith they can get it done against an aging defense.
Defense: The guys upfront have a tough task with limiting rookie running back Le’Veon Bell. The dual-threat athlete has been improving significantly as of late, and the Browns should treat him like a Giovanni Bernard or Reggie Bush. This refers to keeping the former Michigan State star between the tackles and reducing opportunities for a long run. The three starters have been solid all year long, but the reserves are also warranting playing time. Thus, Billy Winn and John Hughes should be on the field a fair amount of the time – usually crashing towards the middle of the field. With the porous offensive line of the Steelers, I expect Phil Taylor or Desmond Bryant doing more than just moving the pile upfront. These guys should be able to fly by the opponent and take down the opposing signal caller. Doing this a few times would really throw a wrench into their offensive play calling; giving a huge advantage to the Browns.
The linebackers of the Browns are better than the Steelers’ previous opponent; this unit is a big reason why the visitors will not throw for four touchdowns and 367 at First Energy Stadium. DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch are dependable veterans, but I would rather have Barkevious Mingo, Jabaal Sheard, and D’Qwell Jackson. Having talented players means nothing if the guys don’t dominate, and Mingo and Paul Kruger have to improve on the outside. Kruger has been stout against the run, while Mingo has found the backfield a couple of times on passing plays. However, both have struggled in the opposing aspects – that has to change if this defense wants to be great. Jackson has been all-around dependable, but the injury to Craig Robertson leaves a question mark at the other inside linebacker spot. Tank Carder played admirably last week while filling in, but that may not be something the unit can routinely rely upon.
This week, Antonio Brown gets the misfortune of being blanketed by Joe Haden. He is coming off a performance that included 147 receiving yards, seven grabs, and a pair of touchdowns. Haden will have his hands full with the speedster, but there has been no reason to believe he cannot shut down the number one wide out. Buster Skrine has really stepped up as the number two cornerback; leaving the major weakness at nickel cornerback (a.k.a. Chris Owens). Will any of the trio of Jerricho Cotchery, Markus Wheaton, and Emmanuel Sanders make a huge play or two for the opposition? I sure hope not but only time will (obviously) tell. T.J. Ward and Tashaun Gipson will have to do a better job in coverage this week. They not only have to defend the quick Bell but also have to keep the reliable tight end, Heath Miller, in check. Simply deflecting passes would be an improvement in my book, as the duo has not been able to get their hands on the football as of late.
Special Teams: After playing so well all season long, the special teams were an embarrassment in Cincinnati. This group will definitely get back on track, and all aspects will be solid. However, I see this matchup being a push – Shaun Suisham and Mat McBriar have played at the same level as their kicker and punter counterparts, respectively. Once again, that leaves it up to the coverage units; the long return by Pac Man Jones was another blunder by the Browns against the Bengals. I know there has been turnover at spots on special teams; but with practice, the new members should be able to limit Antonio Brown.
Coaching: I know Chud really wants to win this game, but I fear his aggressiveness may get the better of him. A fourth down attempt may go wrong, or a pass could get intercepted on a “gamble” (i.e. a gadget play). However, this is a type of game where the Browns can overcome these – they have to play exceptionally though. Ray Horton will continually harass Ben Roethlisberger via the pass rush and blitzes. If other guys (not named Jabaal Sheard) can excel, then a victory is possible. This is cemented by the improved effort of the secondary.
Prediction (My Record: 6 -4): It will be a cold one, with a chance of snow, at First Energy Stadium this Sunday. The game will be heavily reliant upon the running game more than the typical NFL contest – my faith lies in the Browns’ attack. Also, the defense will make it miserable for Big Ben and the Steelers’ offense; the end result is a 20 – 17 victory for the Browns.