Pittsburgh Steelers: Keys to Week 12 Victory over Cleveland Browns
But the Steelers’ 13-10 loss not only offered the Ravens the inside track in the AFC North Divisional race, it also essentially put the six-time Super Bowl champions in a must-win dilemma against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
Hypothetically speaking, if the Steelers fall to the Browns and the Ravens defeat the Chargers this week, the Ravens will carry a three-game lead into their second meeting with the Steelers on Dec. 2 in Baltimore.
A loss this week also leaves the Steelers at risk to lose their status as the AFC’s top wild card team. The Indianapolis Colts and the Steelers enter Week 12 tied atop the AFC Wild Card standings with 6-4 records.
So it’s safe to assume that if the Steelers intend to preserve their hopes of earning their fifth playoff berth in the last six years, they’ll need to play with more urgency and more precision against the Browns this week.
Here’s a look at five keys to victory for the Steelers against the Browns.
Tailor the Offensive Game Plan to Fit Charlie Batch's Strengths
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Although fragile, once the 37-year-old Batch shakes off the rust he could prove a viable option in Todd Haley’s offensive attack — that’s only of course if Haley can play to the 15-year veteran’s strengths.
Since the Steelers drafted Big Ben in 2004, Batch has made seven starts in his place, racking up a 5-2 record in that span and most recently steering the Steelers to a 27-0 win over the St. Louis Rams in Week 16 of last year.
Haley certainly faces a stiff challenge in integrating Batch into the Steelers’ game plan, but the first-year coordinator shouldn’t have much trouble modifying some of the team’s current packages to better fit Batch’s needs.
Haley has accentuated high-percentage passes and a quick release so much that Roethlisberger has even gone to the extreme of calling Haley’s offense the “dink and dunk,” a conservative brand of offense that might just fit Batch perfectly.
Batch needs to stay off his back and take advantage of any mismatches created by sure-handed tight end Heath Miller. Short, accurate throws backed by a solid running attack should give Batch an opportunity to win his sixth game as a starter for the Steelers.
Establish the Run Early
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With running backs Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Chris Rainey all at his disposal, Haley needs to try and set the tone early with the run against the Browns and their 24th-ranked rush defense, which allows 125.3 rushing yards per game.
While Redman, who scampered for 92 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries in his last game against the Browns in Week 17 of last year, is still on the mend from a recent concussion, Mendenhall is starving for his first 100-yard rushing performance of the season. Dwyer is also searching for his third of the year and his first since Week 8.
Mendenhall has put together a few respectable games in his career against the Browns, but Dwyer appears to be in line for more carries after looking like the team’s most complete back in last Sunday’s loss to the Ravens.
With 349 yards and four touchdowns under his belt against the Browns, Mendenhall needs to make his presence felt early if he wants to steal some touches from the more in demand Dwyer.
But in order to simplify Batch’s role and keep the Browns guessing, the Steelers must get the one-two punch of Dwyer and Mendenhall in sync with their offensive line.
One thing the Steelers can’t afford to do with Batch is become one-dimensional.
Contain Trent Richardson
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One of the Browns’ few promising skill players, Richardson has assembled a fine rookie campaign in running for 670 yards and five touchdowns and catching 37 passes for another score in his first 10 games.
In his last three outings, Richardson has dashed for a combined 322 yards on 77 carries, including a gutsy 122-yard showing in a Week 8 win over San Diego.
Richardson, however, shouldn’t expect to chalk up the same healthy numbers against Dick LeBeau’s sturdy Steelers’ run defense.
Granted, the Chiefs’ Jamaal Charles racked up 100 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers, but aside from that, Oakland Raiders’ star Darren McFadden was the only other running back to break the 100-yard barrier against the Steelers this year. In Week 3, McFadden rushed for 113 yards against the Steelers, 64 of which came on one carry.
Forced to improvise without star strong safety Troy Polamalu since Week 5, the Steelers' defense has played extraordinarily gritty in its last five games. In that stretch, the Steelers held each of their five opponents to fewer than 20 points while limiting those same foes to less than 300 total yards.
If free safety Ryan Clark and linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote can continue to lend a hand to the Steelers’ defensive front, Richardson and the Browns could have a trying day in store.
Control Lanes on All Returns
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If the members of the Steelers’ punt team could have controlled their lanes in last week’s game against the Ravens, perhaps Jacoby Jones wouldn’t have raced 63 yards for a backbreaking touchdown in the first quarter.
Return specialist Josh Cribbs has yet to reach the end zone this year on a punt or kick return for the Browns, although he holds long returns of 60 yards on a punt and 74 yards on a kickoff. Cribbs has eight career kickoff returns for touchdowns and three punt returns for touchdowns.
The Steelers have had their share of return debacles against Cribbs, as was evident in head coach Mike Tomlin’s colorful remarks about the return ace in a press conference before Week 14’s game against the Browns last year. Tomlin said: “We cannot let Josh 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.”
Cribbs has returned three kickoffs for touchdowns against the Steelers since 2006. In one game in 2007 against the Steelers, Cribbs had a 90-yard kickoff return and a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
With Cribbs in check, the Steelers will up their chances considerably of improving Tomlin’s career record against the Browns to 10-1 on Sunday.
Optimize the Talents of the Newly Formed Receiving Corps
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Because of injuries to Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery, the Steelers will now rely more heavily on Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and freshly signed free agent Plaxico Burress to shoulder the load in the passing game.
Wallace will act as the team’s top receiving threat on both rudimentary and deep routes. Batch could either hook up with Wallace on a screen, a short slant, a fade or a deep post for the speedster to run under.
Sanders must assume Wallace’s former role as the team’s No. 2 target while Burress will move into the No. 3 slot where Sanders has flourished for the bulk of the year.
Burress hasn’t strapped on pads in nearly a year but the 6'5'' veteran still possesses the rare ability to dominate a game in the red-zone. Burress also knows how to use his large frame to haul in jump balls. Last year with the New York Jets, Burress caught 45 passes for 612 yards and eight touchdowns.
Reliable targets like Wallace, Sanders and Burress, along with tight end Miller, should make Batch’s first start in nearly a year a relatively smooth one.