The Pittsburgh Steelers look to take one step closer to earning a playoff spot Thursday night at Heinz Field against the Cleveland Browns. A win by the Steelers on the short week will have spirits high and they will have a mini bye week of sorts to get ready for their week 15 Monday night game on the road against the San Francisco 49ers. A slip up against the lowly Browns would almost certainly put an end of any hopes of winning the AFC North and a conference loss could come into play down the road should they drop another game or two in their final three. This is a game they should and better win. As I do every week, here are my 7 things to look for Thursday night as the Steelers look to move to 10-3 on the season. Make sure to also check out the latest episode of our podcast as we talk more about the upcoming game and chat with Browns beat writer Nate Ulrich.
Deebo Versus Big Joe – Browns left tackle Joe Thomas has only been charged with allowing 5 sacks thus far this season and just 2 have been charged against him in his first 6 games against the Steelers. Linebacker James Harrison recorded 3 sacks last week against the Cincinnati Bengals and has 6 since returning from his 4 game absence due to his fractured right orbital bone. This is setting up to be a great matchup and Thomas really has played Harrison one-on-one well in the 5 games they have faced each other. With fellow outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley expected to sit out again with his hamstring, Harrison will be counted on to provide the heavy pressure on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy.
Cowboys & Indians – Head coach Mike Tomlin said it best on Monday when talking about how dangerous Josh Cribbs of the Browns is when he said, “We cannot let Cribbs do what he\’s done to us time and time again in the past. We\’ve been dead Indians in his cowboy movie enough.” No better words have been spoken by Tomlin as Cribbs has three career kickoff returns for scores against the Steelers. The Steelers special teams unit has been great this year and they are coming off their best game of the season against the Bengals. Cribbs will be no picnic as far as the return game goes and he can single-handedly take over this game should the Browns also decide to use Cribbs some on offense, something they have not done much of under new head coach Pat Shurmur in his West Coast system. Let\’s hope it is another quiet day for Cribbs.
Passing On The Run – Logic would tell you that the Steelers should be able to run all over the Browns this week as many teams have done this season, especially after the 290 yards that the Baltimore Ravens rolled up on them last week. Shurmur has vowed to get that part of his defense right and I fully expect he will go all out this week to not let the Steelers run at will on them. The Steelers will try to run early much like they did last week against the Bengals in an attempt to get the Browns to over-commit to it. Once this happens I fully expect the offense will start trying to throw out of their run formations to take advantage of the middle of the field, which should open up. I will be surprised if Ben Roethlisberger has fewer than 25 passing attempts in this game as the Steelers success is predicated on the explosive play. Look for Heath Miller to be targeted much like he was in the game against the New England Patriots, especially early in the game. The Browns defensive passing stats are deceiving this year and I think that Roethlisberger could very well expose that in this game.
King Of The Hillis – Browns running back Peyton Hillis really has had a tough year due to injuries and once again he was banged up last week with a hip injury. Hillis was listed as questionable on the final injury report released on Wednesday, but most of the Browns media think he will play. Should he indeed get the start, the Steelers defense need to make him pay for every carry early on and stay sound in controlling the gaps with linebackers James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons. Hillis had a good start last week against the Ravens gaining 24 yards on his first 3 rushes, but his next 7 carries produced just 21 yards. He is a powerful inside runner and the Browns offense will try to lean on him early to take pressure off McCoy. Jumping out to big lead early will almost certainly take away Hillis as a threat. An 80 plus yard game by Hillis will likely mean this game is much closer than it should be.
Sheard Dominance – The Steelers know all about rookie defensive end Jabaal Sheard, as he played his college ball in the Pittsburgh. Sheard leads the Browns in sacks and also has caused five fumbles, one each in the last 3 games. He also leads the Browns in pressures with an unofficial number of 29 through 12 games. Rookie Marcus Gilbert, who is coming off a strong performance last week against the Bengals will be mostly in charge of holding down the fellow rookie in pass protection. Right guard Ramon Foster is dinged up after suffering a lower left ankle sprain last week and the Browns will likely try to stunt and twist Sheard around to the inside so he can work on Foster. The two will not shut out Sheard, but they need to avoid letting him make big splash plays consistently as he has the great ability of causing fumbles when he gets to the quarterback. Sheard is also the Browns best defensive lineman against the run, so look for Gilbert to get some help at the point of attack from either Foster or Miller.
For Ward March – Nobody wants to come right out and say that getting Hines Ward 10 more catches is a must thing, but deep down you know it is. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was the closest to come out and say it this week without actually saying it. Ward is still a very capable contributor, but the countdown to 1,000 receptions should come naturally early on, as every pass thrown his way will be highly scrutinized. That said, I fully expect two to three scripted plays early on to go his way. The Steelers will be without Emmanuel Sanders in this game, so I expect Ward will have at least 2 key third down catches in this game. I predict 6 receptions for 45 yards for Ward in this game, even if a few have to get forced late in what hopefully will be a big win.
Can Curtis Get A Bone? – While not a key to the game, this last one could certainly be a result of having a good game. Rookie Curtis Brown has yet to see the field on defense and it would be nice to see the Steelers get up big and get Brown a few snaps in the secondary to reward him for his solid effort thus far this season on special teams. Tomlin made sure to praise the play of Brown on Monday as he described him as a kid that his playing like his hair is on fire. If the game is close you can bet he will not see the field, but pay close attention in the 4th quarter if this one is put to bed by then.
Steelers Browns Prediction – We learned a few weeks ago against the Kansas City Chiefs that just because you should easily beat a team, doesn\’t mean you always will, especially in the case of the 2011 Steelers. The short week could play a role in this game, but this team certainly learned a lesson that no team in the NFL can be taken lightly, and you can never look ahead. I think Tomlin will have them prepared for this game. All of that being said, I firmly believe the Steelers will win this game, but can see them not covering due to a late garbage touchdown. It will be just close enough on the scoreboard to send half of Steeler Nation into a small panic leading up to the 49ers game.
Final Score: Steelers 24 Browns 13