The Pittsburgh Steelers look to rebound from their loss last Sunday night to the Baltimore Ravens with a division win this Sunday against the 2-8 Cleveland Browns. The Steelers are down to their third string quarterback now and a loss in Cleveland will likely mean that the AFC North title will be out of reach this season. The Browns are a young team that is making progress and beating the Steelers would certainly breath life into the organization that they are moving in the right direction in the division. Below are 7 things to watch for specifically in this game along with my prediction at the end of it. In case you missed it, here is the Wednesday podcast preview of the game that features a great interview with Browns beat writer Nate Ulrich from the Akron Beacon Journal.
No Dead Indians – The Steelers special teams unit allowed Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones to effectively win the game last weekend with his 63 yard punt return for a touchdown. Points will once again be at a premium on Sunday against the Ravens and Joshua Cribbs has always been a thorn in the Steelers side in previous games. Look for cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke to dress in this game in hopes that he can use his speed and elusiveness to beat the double gunner vice. The Steelers simply can\’t let Cribbs single-handedly win this game.
Field Position Take Two – Last week in my seven keys post I specifically said that the Steelers had to work on short fields in order to give the Byron Leftwich led offense good opportunities to score. Asking Leftwich to drive a 70 or 80 yard fields all game was simply asking too much. They were able to get one 80 yard drive score on the opening drive thanks in part to the pass interference call and unthinkable touchdown run by Leftwich, but that was it. The best field position that the offense had all game was their own 31 yard-line following a missed field goal attempt and their average starting field position in the game was their own 19 yard-line. The same holds true this week with Charlie Batch now under center. If the offense is going to score touchdowns this week they must start a few drives around mid field or better. If we see a repeat of last week in regard to poor starting field position, all bets on the Steelers winning this game are off.
Run Or Lose – It really is that simple. Batch has started 7 games for the Steelers during his time in Pittsburgh and in his five wins the team didn\’t run for less than 146 yards in those 5 games. Batch is not a quarterback that can be expected to throw the ball 30 times and win, especially being as he will likely be without Antonio Brown in this game. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley must stay committed to the run at all cost and the Steelers offensive line and running backs must deliver to take the pressure off of their veteran quarterback and shorten the game.
Trent Can Dent – Rookie running back Trent Richardson is not only the Browns leading rusher, but also their leading pass catcher in addition. Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden has no problem just dumping the ball off to the Alabama product if his first look down the field is not there, so he has to be accounted for on each and every snap. Richardson is a younger version of Ray Rice and the Steelers defense better get used to defending against him for many years to come. Much like the Steelers need to run in order to win this game, the same holds true for the Browns. Stop the run and keep Weeden behind the chains and everything should be fine.
Plax Zone – If you are expecting the newly signed Plaxico Burress to have 7 catches for 100 yards in this game you will more than likely be disappointed. Burress certainly hasn\’t had enough time to fully absorb the playbook just yet and the Steelers don\’t want Batch throwing much anyways. Burress does figure to get snaps inside the red zone, assuming the Steelers offense can get there, and this is where the former first round draft pick of the black and gold can make his mark in this game. A perfect stat line for Burress in this game might very well end up being 2 catches for 12 yards and 1 touchdown. If anything, Burress gives the Browns defense a legitimate red zone weapon to defend against that could open things up a bit more for Heath Miller, Mike Wallace, and Emmanuel Sanders in the short area.
Protection In Batches – The Steelers offensive line did a poor job of protecting Leftwich last week and it ultimately resulted in him busting some ribs. Batch is nearly 38 years old now and even less mobile than Leftwich. He also will not be able to handle the kind of sacks or quarterback hits that Leftwich experienced last week. The protection must be max on deep drops or the Steelers will find themselves turning to the newly signed quarterback Brian Hoyer in this game. Trust me, you don\’t want to see that.
Seamless Rookie – Weeden has certainly had his struggles this season and that is to be expected for a rookie. The Browns signal caller has shown the ability, however, to throw down the middle of the field, so the Steelers defense must protect this area of the field the most. Weeden loves to hit his tight end Ben Watson down the seam and this is where Watson has recorded 18 of his 25 catches so far this season.
Prediction – I hope you enjoyed the type of game last week against the Ravens as there is a good chance that we could see something similar to that Sunday against the Browns. The team that runs the ball the best in this game and doesn\’t turn it over will most likely win. Any sack that the Steelers defense gets in this game will be golden as the Browns have only given up 16 of them on the season. Also, much like last week, this game very well might decided by the play of the special teams unit. This one figures to be ugly, but I think the Steelers can be the less ugly of the two teams.
Final Score – Steelers 16 Browns 13