By Christopher DiMarino
The Pittsburgh Steelers did the most they could against the Baltimore Ravens. The defense had a great day and can only be credited with 6 points against. The running game didn’t excel but Jonathan Dwyer and Rashard Mendenhall were close to 100 yards combined. The receivers did a decent job and got some separation, but at the end of the day, the Steelers still lost to the Ravens. In my opinion, the let downs occurred on special teams and in the passing attack. Special teams let up a punt return touchdown and allowed Baltimore to average 25 yards per return in the game. The passing attack struggled all game as Byron Leftwich looked uncomfortable. His rust was palpable and he was bothered by a rib injury all game. The sub 50% completion percentage might be put on the shoulders of Leftwich and a few passes thrown into the dirt, but there were a few missed opportunities on the part of the receivers as well.
All together, a 3 point loss is the best Pittsburgh could have done without getting the win. They proved that a matchup in two weeks might yield a different result if they can improve in some areas. The big swing in the next Ravens game will be its location in Baltimore, but it will be likely that the Steelers will have a different quarterback. The defense achieved its biggest goal by stopping Ray Rice. A 2 yards per carry average for a back of his potential is incredible. Add in Joe Flacco’s paltry 5.1 average yardage per pass and you can understand how the Steelers are a top ranked defense against yards.
Now we move onto the matchup at hand. Who is Cleveland? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself lately. I had them pegged as the same old Browns until they lost to the Ravens Week 4 by only a touchdown. To that point they were 0-4 and were losing games by an average of under a touchdown. They went on to start very strong before losing to the New York Giants and have been competitive over the past 5 games including 2 wins against the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Diego Chargers. I’ve been impressed by the Browns in all phases.
The offense stood to gain this season by adding a top 10 pick in running back Trent Richardson. The Browns also added a quarterback in the first round when they grabbed Brandon Weeden. Finally, they resorted to the supplemental draft to grab receiver Josh Gordon with a 2nd round pick. These 3 players haven’t elevated the Browns to a scoring powerhouse, but they transformed a turnover prone low scoring offense into a time eating efficient unit. This offense might not score a lot more points than previous Browns offenses, but it can march the field and limits points from turnovers.
The Browns have always been a strong special teams unit and would only need a strong defense to be a threat to win almost any game. Their defense really didn’t change too much and most would have thought the injuries and bounty suspensions to the Browns linebackers would have sunk this defense. Instead, the Browns have flourished and they have played in several close games. As the new Browns age, they might begin developing close game skills and will finally be a threat not only to upset the Ravens and the Steelers, but might put together a wild card caliber season.
You can reference my competition analysis to learn a little more about the competition below:
Charlie Batch will head the Steelers offense this weekend. I don’t want to seem jaded but I was hoping he would be the first option instead of Leftwich to begin with. He has always played well when Roethlisberger has been down and still has all the tools to help the Steelers score an average and respectable amount of points. I can remember a preseason pass to Emmanuel Sanders against the Philadelphia Eagles that was a beautifully thrown ball and gave me a little confidence to have him as a backup. His weapons might be more of a concern because Antonio Brown is not looking ready to go yet and Mike Wallace looks disinterested.
I worry about the Steelers passing attack because Brown wasn’t just another piece of the puzzle, he was the X factor. Allowing Sanders to be the dedicated slot receiver created a lot of mismatches and Wallace would often feed off of Brown’s energy to stay catch for catch with him. Without Brown, Wallace looks like he is playing out his contract and defenses are clueing in too much on Sanders for him to be a huge factor. Jerricho Cotchery is a great 4th receiver but a below average 3rd.
Cleveland’s 22nd ranked pass defense has modest numbers. Their 17 touchdowns allowed and 10 interceptions are right around average. The Browns have 27 sacks which ranks 8th in the NFL. The sacks are spread out over 15 different players in addition. Frostee Rucker, who came over from Cincinnati, is tied for the team lead with 3 sacks. Interceptions are along the same line as the 10 interceptions are spread between 6 players with Joe Haden’s 2 being tied for a team high. The interesting stat is that Haden has only played in 5 games this season and he is probable for this weekend.
I think this will be an even matchup. Batch has shown great pocket presence and really pressure will be an important factor. This 22nd ranked Browns defense has been without key players for good stretches. The receivers should be able to get some separation and Heath Miller might be a key factor underneath. Veteran Sheldon Brown will have his hands full with Sanders, but should be able to bottle up a third receiver in 3 wide situations. I think 200 yards is a possible milestone for Batch in this one.
The Steelers finally look like they are getting back on track in the running game. How it has played out has been both surprising and disappointing. Most would have thought that Isaac Redman would slowly have taken the reigns of this running game and Mendenhall would have worked his way back from injury into a complimentary role. Instead, Redman has been the odd man out and Mendenhall has been the saving grace of this running game. Dwyer has been a surprise and has run with power. He and Mendenhall will likely finish out the rest of the season splitting carries while Redman might slowly work himself back in.
With Mendenhall’s contract on its way to being finished, I expect the Steelers will make it Dwyer’s job to lose. They want someone to take over. They understand that a 3rd down type of back will be necessary and the draft or free agency or Baron Batch could be that answer. Putting it together means that I don’t expect there to be a decent fantasy option out of the Steelers backfield for the rest of the season as the different backs are in a power struggle.
The Steelers have worked their way up to a middle of the league ranking of 17th and the 24th ranked Browns running defense will be a good matchup. Per usual with the Browns, there are a lot of attempts against the Browns which inflates the weakness of this unit. The 4.2 yards per carry allowed by the Browns defense is right around average. To compare, the Steelers are ranked 17th, but their yards per carry is only a 3.9. The Steelers will be at a disadvantage again because an injured quarterback will land the defenses focus on the running game.
The Steelers passing defense is second to none, and is extending its lead. The Steelers are averaging 12 passing yards against less than the 2nd place 49ers and at just under 170 yards allowed per game, only 2 others are under 200. The Browns are ranked 19th and are averaging almost 220 yards per game. The 16 sacks allowed are a key to the success of the Browns passing attack as the least sacked team in the league has only allowed 3 less sacks. On the other side, there aren’t many teams with less points per game as the Browns are currently averaging just under 19. Also, consider that though Weeden has thrown 12 picks this year, he has only thrown 2 in the last 4 games.
The biggest issue with the passing offense of the Browns has been the play of their quarterback, but I think their talent level at receiver is more pressing. Weeden is a capable NFL quarterback at best, but with a group of playmaking receivers, he could still put up big numbers. The opposite is true and rookie Josh Gordon leads the team in almost every category. Outside of Greg Little, the other receivers are unknown and combine for under 300 yards and a touchdown. At tight end, Benjamin Watson is having another strong season with just over 225 yards and 3 touchdowns. He is only 31, but looks aged out there and Jordan Cameron, age 24, is still waiting in the wings.
The key to the Steelers pass defense all year has been tight coverage. Keenan Lewis had a rough start last week in coverage on Anquan Boldin but showed great tackling on a couple screen plays. Limiting the running back in the passing game like the Steelers did last week against Rice will be important again as Richardson leads the team in receptions and has the 3rd most yards. I think the Steelers will be able to shut down the Browns because for the first time in several weeks, the Steelers don’t have a star receiver (or two) to target. This game is important though, because Ike Taylor will get a chance to get familiar with the rookie Gordon, who likes to stretch opposing defenses.
The Steelers defense finally cracked the top 5 with its just under 90 yards a game average which ranks 4th. Cleveland is ranked 27th running the ball despite the fact that they have one of the best young runners in the NFL. Richardson has weathered a few injuries early in the season but his 3.7 yards per carry is below what he should be gaining. The strong offensive line of the Browns is better suited for pass protection and Richardson’s measly 2 runs of 20+ yards explains his low average. Opponents are putting their focus on Richardson and it’s not a stretch to assume the Steelers will follow suit.
It is always exciting to see how your team measures up against the new commodities in the league. Defeating Robert Griffin III a couple of weeks ago was great to watch as a fan and Dick LeBeau is still impressive against rookie quarterbacks. While the idea that Weeden and Richardson might put together something that could surprise the Steelers exists, I am confident in this defense. I don’t think there will be a lot of points scored in this game and it should play out similar to last week. In fact, I think both teams will employ the same type of offense. The difference is the Steelers defense. They could steal the wind from the sails of this young offense and force them to punt a lot. Turnovers aren’t out of the question, but the Browns haven’t been giving them away and the Steelers aren’t elite at taking them.
The Browns have terrible rankings but I think this matchup will be close. The struggling running game and injury to Brown might slow this offense with the obvious omission of Roethlisberger\’s injury, but I think there are still enough weapons to put up 15-20 points on the Browns. On the other side of the ball, I think the Steelers defense will limit the Browns to a few field goals. The keys for this game will be turnovers and special teams. If the Steelers can generate some takeaways, this game will be over early. If Batch throws a few interceptions or the Steelers fumble, then this game can turn against them. Special teams have been the thorn in the side of the Steelers for years against the Browns and especially this season. The Steelers need to manage this game and execute in all phases. If they do, then I don’t think this game will be close for too long.