This Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers are going to play their most important game of the season as they travel to take on the Cleveland Browns. Both teams are tied for second in the AFC North at 4-6, and both teams are only a single game out of the wild card.
These two teams may share a record, but are at very different points in their respective seasons. The Steelers are playing very good football right now, winning four of their last six, while the Browns have lost four of their last five.
Both teams boast an aggressive and physical defense. The key difference being the Steelers offense is really starting to click, while the Browns offense is sputtering.
|Passing Yards Allowed||8th||4th|
|Rushing Yards Allowed||26th||8th|
What Twitter Tells Us
Browns beat writer for the The Plain Dealer Mary Kay Cabot:
Browns analyst for ESPNCleveland.com Tony Grossi:
Director at Pro Football Focus Fantasy Mike Clay:
College football writer Phil Steele:
The Cleveland Browns have not been favored to beat the Steelers since 2003, 10 years and 17 games since last favored.—Phil Steele (@philsteele042) November 19, 2013
When the Steelers Are on Offense
I think everyone has come to understand that if this offense is going to be successful, it will be by tailoring the game plan to maximize the skills of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The veteran quarterback is on pace to throw for 4,256 yards this season, which would top his career best. Big Ben's ability to extend plays with his feet, while always looking to make throws downfield is what makes him so special.
The Browns are going to do pretty much what every team has tried to do this year against the Steelers. They are going to try to overpower and confuse a substandard Pittsburgh offensive line and, by doing so, disrupt the anemic run game and get as many pressures and hits on Roethlisberger as possible.
To counter that, the Steelers must do what they did last week against the Lions. Spread the field with all those weapons and force the Browns to send a minimal number of rushers. After reviewing several Browns games this week, I concluded that, while the Cleveland offense is still lagging, the defense has turned the corner.
Here are two perfect examples from last Sunday's game where the Steelers came out and used five in the pattern to throw off not only the Lions secondary, but limited how they could utilize pressures as well. I've highlighted wide receiver Antonio Brown, because he is the trigger for the offense. Roethlisberger looks for him often, and he comes through in the clutch.
Both of these plays resulted in long touchdowns off of short throws. Brown is given space in the open field due to the glut of receivers in the pattern.
The Browns best defensive back is cornerback Joe Haden. The Steelers will move Brown around the formation, and Haden will likely follow. However, when you have targets like wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery and tight end Heath Miller, someone is going to have a mismatch.
That's not even accounting for running back Le'Veon Bell, who is an excellent receiver out of the backfield and can line up in the slot as well.
The formula hasn't changed. Flood an area and bring Brown in behind it where he can make a play. Set up the deep throws with the screen game, and allow Roethlisberger to manipulate the Browns safeties to get favorable matchups.
The pic below illustrates a defensive formation the Browns used multiple times against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 11, and one of the times that they were able to exploit the press-man coverage and single safety.
If the Browns try this against the Steelers, they are going to have to hope they hit Roethlisberger, because if they don't, he will take advantage of all that speed on offense and pick his spots for big chunks of yards.
I didn't intentionally ignore any discussion about the running game. However, given the current state of Pittsburgh's offensive line, I don't expect a whole lot of impact from it, short of a big run or two from Bell. He is usually good for breaking a couple of nice gains and converting a tough third down or two, but I have no more misconceptions that this team is going to suddenly become an efficient and balanced offense.
And especially not against a stout Browns defense.
When the Steelers are on Defense
There is nothing fancy about what the Steelers did on defense in the second half of last Sunday's win. After hemorrhaging yards in the first half, the Steelers simply reacted to what the Lions were trying to do rather than trying to anticipate it.
The Browns are struggling to move the football on offense, in particular running the ball. The Steelers defensive line has done a nice job this season clogging things up and forcing opposing backs to the edges where the outside linebackers and defensive backs clean up the mess. This should continue against Cleveland.
If things on offense go according to plan, the Steelers should be able to force the Browns to become one dimensional and put the game in the hands of quarterback Jason Campbell. Looking back on the season, the Steelers have had excellent luck against quarterbacks like the New York Jets Geno Smith and Detroit's Matthew Stafford when they are able to dictate the play call.
The key is patience. The Browns have a nice target in the passing game with wide receiver Josh Gordon, but let's not kid ourselves. This Pittsburgh team has faced a murderer's row of receivers and Gordon isn't on that list. Still, it will take a combination of cornerback Ike Taylor and deep safety help to keep Gordon in check.
Sound-assignment football is vital. This Steelers secondary has been far too susceptible to play-action and fakes this season. In Week 12, like every Sunday, Pittsburgh's defense needs to be more disciplined and its players more trusting in the scheme and defensive game plan. This will minimize the mistakes that come from freelancing after the snap.
Predictions and Implications
I have no doubt that both of these teams understand how much is at stake in this game. A win inches one of the teams one step closer to an elusive playoff spot. A loss and the gap will widen significantly.
Much respect to the Browns and their emerging defense, but this is a quarterback-driven league, and the Steelers have the better quarterback of the two teams by a significant margin.
The Steelers are going to roll into Cleveland and find a way to pull off the win. The quick-hitting passing offense will keep the Browns defense on its heels, and Pittsburgh's defense will do its part to harass Campbell and stuff the run.
The team that wins the turnover battle should win this game, and lately the Steelers seem to be turning the corner in that facet of the game. Pittsburgh understands what this win means, so there can be no letdown.
The Steelers win big and will take control of their own destiny.
All stats provided by ESPN.com.