Browns @ Steelers – Preview of Game #16
For the second time in consecutive years, the Browns finish their regular season at Heinz Field. It has not gone right while playing the black and “gold” (even though we all know it’s yellow) and traveling east; the Browns have not won there since 2003. Both teams have little to play for, much like in the 2012 finale, but I would be surprised if either weren’t going all-out for the victory. Due to atrophy and injuries to starters over the course of the season, this contest will feature a fair number of reserves and players not on the roster to start the campaign (just say no to an eighteen-game season). Nonetheless, let’s take an in-depth look at the final contest for the Browns and the Steelers.
Offense: This could possibly be the last game that Jason Campbell plays with the Browns on Sunday – as another overhaul will likely occur in the offseason. For now, the veteran signal caller has had his moments but victories have not resulted (only one win as a starter). I would like to believe that the quarterback could fire it downfield and complete passes against Ike Taylor and William Gay. The last time these two teams met, Campbell suffered a concussion and had to leave the contest against the dirty Steelers. Will the former Auburn athlete take it upon himself to get his revenge on his team’s behalf? There’s no doubt he will try, but once again it will come down to execution and not allowing the defenders to get their hands on the football. Campbell will find some success – going for nearly 300 yards through the air, but he will also succumb to a big turnover.
The Browns should not expect to move the football on the ground on Sunday, for a myriad of reasons. The team has repeatedly strayed away from running plays (regardless of the situation) and the home team prides themselves on stopping backs. However, the Browns have to understand the circumstances of the contest and know when to employ Edwin Baker and Chris Ogbonnaya (and possibly Willis McGahee). This refers to using them to pick up key first downs and set up manageable third down situations for the offense. Together, the rushers are capable of cracking the 100-yard total when toting the ball but I would be surprised if that actually occurs. Baker will be the leading rusher and could secure a score. If the Bears’ game is any indication, the backs may get a fair amount of opportunities as receivers. Just one long catch-and-run and I would be satisfied with this facet of the offense.
In his spectacular sophomore season, Josh Gordon has outperformed what many have expected. The wide out has had several long touchdowns (including a ninety-five yarder) and ample receptions. I anticipate the receiver finding the end zone once again with six to eight grabs – which is par for the course. Greg Little will probably be targeted several times but I struggle to believe that he will make an impact on this contest. He does have a couple of long receptions this season, though, and could make a play or two (while flying under the radar). At the tight end position, Jordan Cameron and Gary Barnidge (and possibly MarQueis Gray) could see some quick throws in an attempt to beat the blitz. These guys have displayed a great ability to catch the ball when their number is called. If this offense wants to have success, Campbell must spread the football around to keep the defense guessing. Getting the tight ends involved early and often is a great way of accomplishing this.
I still have visions of Jason Worilds in the Browns’ backfield when the quarterback dropped back to pass at First Energy Stadium. Mitchell Schwartz had a difficult time trying to corral the linebacker and was largely ineffective. The coaching staff better make adjustments in both schemes and play calling to mask this weakness. Along those lines, the offensive line must still account for Lawrence Timmons, Ziggy Hood, Troy Polumalu, and Cameron Heyward – which is no tall order. These four athletes will be used in pass rushes and blitz packages to confuse and harass Jason Campbell all game long. The visiting team will improve upon protecting the edges (from the first contest), but I figure the home squad will permit Polumalu to hit on one of his patented A or B gap blitzes. Not fumbling the football here, while not a high bar, should be the bare minimum for the ball carrier.
Defense: I foresee the opposition trying to consistently get Le’Veon Bell involved in this contest. The runner has not had a spectacular rookie campaign (no contests with 100-yards or more rushing), but the home team will be looking for a way to control the clock and pick up first downs. That being said, the defensive line must employ a healthy rotation and stay fresh all game long. This could mean inserting smaller, quicker linemen – like John Hughes and Billy Winn – in likely passing situations where they can attempt to get to the quarterback. Meanwhile, Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin should start and possibly finish the contest (and applicable situations) in order to eat up space and make it difficult for any type of running game to get going. I see the Browns holding the home team to under 100 yards and zero touchdowns rushing.
That means the Steelers would have to employ the pass to get their yardage and points. I would be surprised if Paul Kruger or Barkevious Mingo even breathe on the signal caller when he drops back to toss the football. These two must do something in the offseason to get their minds right and figure out a way to either become effective or reestablish dominance in the NFL. Perhaps Jabaal Sheard can play the “hometown” card (a Pittsburgh Panther alum) and be inspired on Sunday. The shuffling of inside linebackers – mainly due to injury – has nearly eliminated any consistency alongside D’Qwell Jackson. There’s no doubt Craig Robertson will be called upon to cover veteran Heath Miller, who always seems to come up with an important grab following long periods of inactivity. Unfortunately, I can see either he or one of the backs finding the end zone on a short score.
Last time these two teams met, Antonio Brown scored on a long heave over Joe Haden. With the veteran cornerback hobbled, the passing game of the home time will see success. In addition to Brown, the corps of Emmanuel Sanders, Bell, and Jerricho Cotchery must be accounted for by the Browns. I am not confident that Buster Skrine, Leon McFadden, and Julian Posey will either be able to be in the proper position to restrict those athletes or make plays. The home team should exploit the poor tackling of Skrine and McFadden by employing quick strikes where only the wide out and defensive back are in space. The safeties are the wildcards (as with most contests); in addition to Haden, Tashaun Gipson has done extremely well at collecting interceptions. This must be on display if the Browns figure to win this matchup. As far as T.J. Ward goes, the former Oregon star should continue to play physical – in both run and pass defense. I’m hoping he can single-handedly cause Todd Haley to alter a few of his play calls throughout the game.
Special Teams: I worry about the speed that Felix Jones and Antonio Brown possess in the return game. This duo could be the difference in a tight game and Spencer Lanning and Billy Cundiff must make sure to place the football in spots where the opponent cannot find a seam and break loose. All other aspects in the special teams appear to be even between the two squads; one big play will likely tip the scales in this matchup. (I’m pulling for a long return from Jordan Poyer – similar to the one against Jacksonville).
Coaching: I would love to see the “risk taking” Chud on Sunday. This includes going for it on fourth down, a few unconventional play calls (assuming they are successful), and a trick play or two. It doesn’t matter if the Browns would be 15 – 0 or 0 – 15 entering this contest, coach Chud will always want to beat the team’s rival. Winning this contest hurts the team’s draft status and it won’t mean a whole lot in June or July, but I predict the coaching staff will get through to the personnel about turning the corner and winning games in difficult venues.
Prediction (My Record: 9 – 6): The Browns will come out in this game with a full head of steam, only to fall behind early. However, Campbell and the offense will collect a couple of scores in the middle of the contest – only to see their lead evaporate late once again. The Browns lose 26 – 17 and complete a dismal 4 – 12 season.