The Pittsburgh Steelers will take on the Cleveland Browns Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field and below are seven things to watch for in the game.
Trickeration - The Browns would love to be the team to put the Steelers out of their misery for good in the season finale and with nothing to play for, they will pull out all of the stops. As a result, the Steelers defense and special teams units must be wary of trick plays, punt fakes, onsides kicks and anything else that goes against the norm. Browns tight end/fullback MarQueis Gray is a former quarterback so I suspect he will be used a few times out of the Wildcat where he can run the read-option or pass. The Steelers defense has certainly had problems this year with stopping such plays and all it takes is one or two explosive plays to change the outcome of this game.
May The Schwartz Be With Him - In the last game between these two teams, Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds terrorized Browns quarterback Jason Campbell as he easily got the best of right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. While Worilds did not record a sack in the game, he did record seven quarterback hits and two hurries. Worilds enters this game with an abdominal injury, so we will know real quick if he is his usual self. If he is, it could be another long day for Campbell as the Steelers soon-to-be free agent linebacker attempts to put a final exclamation point on his solid season.
Find Third Down Ben - The Steelers are 4-of-20 on third downs in their last two games and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has not been his usual self this season on the money down. Roethlisberger is a mortal 82-of-140 (58.6%) on third down passing attempts this season with only 55 of his competitions resulting in either a first down or a touchdown. Regardless of what happens in the other early games, it would be nice to see Roethlisberger go out this season with a complete performance.
Ring The Kitchen Bell - The Browns have allowed an average gain of 5.83 yards on runs "up the middle" this season and they will be without nose tackle Phil Taylor on Sunday. As a result, Ishmaa'ily Kitchen should see playing time in the Browns base defense and the Steelers should attack him early and often by running rookie running back Le'Veon Bell straight ahead. The Steelers interior portion of their offensive line had a great game last Sunday against the Green Bay Packers and center Cody Wallace shouldn't have issues with Kitchen, who didn't play well in relief of Taylor last week against the New York Jets.
Giving Hip Pointers - Browns cornerback Joe Haden enters the game on Sunday as questionable because of a hip pointer. After Antonio Brown got the best of him back in Week 12, Haden hasn't been his usual self as he has given up 17 catches on 27 targets for 169 yards and three touchdowns in his last four games. The Steelers will want to get the ball to Brown early and often in this game in an attempt to test the health of Haden if he indeed plays.
Stop Flash Gordon - Browns second-year wide receiver Josh Gordon has really come into his own this season and he leads the league in receptions of 20 yards or more (28) and 40 yards or more (9). The last time these two teams met earlier in the season, Gordon caught 14 passes for 237 yards and a touchdown and that included four receptions of 20 yards or more. The Steelers aren't expected to shadow Gordon in this game, so both Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen should expect to each get turns at covering him. Neither are going to shut him down, but they can't allow him to flip the field via explosive plays.
Finish Healthy - Unless a small miracle takes place in the other three games, the Steelers will miss the playoffs for a second straight season. Assuming they beat the Browns, ending the season 6-2 in their final eight games will be a small victory and will serve as good momentum heading into the offseason. That good feeling, however, will be dampened if any of their players suffer a serious knee injury that might prevent them from being ready for the start of next season.