The Cleveland Browns are going to learn a lot about themselves and their roster on Sunday when they try to bounce back from a devastating loss. While the game plan for the Pittsburgh Steelers is complicated, the main idea should be simple; right the ship.
The Browns won three games in 12 days, spanning from late September to early October. They have won just one game in the 48 days since that time. They are 1-4 during that period.
There are plenty of things the Browns need to improve upon from last week’s performance if they are going to knock off their hated rivals from Pittsburgh.
They will need their starting quarterback Jason Campbell to play with more confidence and challenge the Steelers secondary. They will also need to establish some kind of running game outside a handful of productive plays in the first quarter.
On special teams they must play better assignment football and not let small mistakes snowball into huge problems.
Overall, however, they just need to find a way to get that mojo back. They need to find a way to get back to the point where they felt as though they mattered in the division and wins were just another step toward the playoffs.
Because if the Browns lose to the Steelers Sunday, it’s back to the bottom of the division they go. The talk will then shift from playoffs to draft positioning, and they will find themselves back where they have been far too often since 1999.
The Competitive Edge
The Steelers have a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback on their roster while the Browns have a guy who has spent his entire career falling just short of expectations.
Talk of Roethlisberger’s demise was vastly premature as he sits sixth in the NFL in passing yards and 10th in quarterback rating.
What’s really sad is that the Steelers have a running back who ranks 35th in the NFL in rushing yards and he is still better than anything the Browns have on their roster.
Le’Veon Bell has just 375 total rushing yards and four touchdowns. The Browns best runner, Willis McGahee, has just 275 yards and one touchdown.
This is an interesting category because I think the Browns receiving corps is far more talented, but I also have no idea if they will be utilized on Sunday.
Campbell has been far too inconstant in his career to be able to make a proper projection at how he will play. If he plays well, the Browns receivers will look much better. If he doesn’t, then the Steelers will dominate this category.
Tight end Jordan Cameron really needs to break out of his slump. The past six games have not been kind to the emerging star. At some point he needs to start dominating games no matter how other teams are defending him.
The Browns offensive line had played so well the month leading up to the Bengals game. Then they took a giant step backward, allowing Campbell to be under pressure all game long and hit nine times.
Even with some rough patches this season, the Browns offensive line has still allowed three less sacks than Pittsburgh and has allowed their team to rush for 71 more yards on the season.
The Steelers are not the defense they used to be. They have just 18 sacks on the season and six interceptions.
The Browns are 10th in the NFL in sacks with 31 and allow the least amount of yards per passing attempt. They also allow the third-fewest yards per attempt on the ground. All that dominance starts with the defensive line.
The Steelers still have some a talent with Lawrence Timmons among the league leaders in tackles and Lamar Woodley having five sacks on the year. They just do not have the overall depth that the Browns do.
On the other hand, the Browns linebackers have been in somewhat of a slump, and inside linebacker Craig Robertson suffered a knee injury Sunday against the Bengals. His status is still up in the air.
He did not practice Wednesday, according to Nate Ulrich of The Akron-Beacon Journal:
Browns cornerback Joe Haden is coming off of the game of his life against the Bengals last week. He had two interceptions, one of them returned for a touchdown. He also held A.J. Green, the No. 1 receiver in the NFL, to just two receptions for seven yards.
Buster Skrine is playing as well as any second cornerback in the league, and safety T.J. Ward has an outside shot at a trip to Hawaii this season too. The Browns secondary is dominant right now.
The Steelers return combo of Felix Jones and Antonio Brown has been very good this season. Their kicker Shaun Suisham is also 10th in the NFL in field-goal percentage and has hit all six of his attempts between 40 and 49 yards.
Browns Offense vs. Steelers Defense
The Steelers are very prone to giving up yards this season. The difference between winning and losing for them is keeping teams out of the end zone. In their loses, they are allowing 31 points per game and 341 yards of total offense.
When the defense is opportunistic, however, it is a very different story. In the Steelers victories this season they are allowing just 15 points per game but are still allowing 308 yards of offense.
They have nine sacks, six turnovers and 25 passes defended in just four games that were victories. In their six losses, they have nine sacks, four turnovers and 18 passes defended. That is a huge difference.
The Browns need to avoid sacks and turnovers Sunday because the Steelers feast on drive-ending mistakes and game changing plays. Make them earn their stops and they rarely do.
Browns Defense vs. Pittsburgh Offense
The Steelers rely very heavily on their passing attack as they have the past few seasons. This year, they have run the ball just 227 times as opposed to 384 passing attempts.
Roethlisberger has found a nice rhythm the past month and has risen up the passing charts like a hit song on the radio.
Wide receivers Antonio Brown and Jericho Cotchery are both big-play threats averaging 12.9 and 14.8 yards per attempt, respectively. They have combined for 1,455 receiving yards this season.
The game plan against Big Ben is the same as it always is; tackle him when you have the chance. He is most effective when he extends plays and can improvise. If you fail to tackle him when you have an attempt, he will always make you pay.
The difference with Roethlisberger now, however, is the fact that his age shows quickly. If you can put a few good hits on him early in a game he seems to go down easier the rest of the way.
The weather forecast in Cleveland this Sunday is a high of 26 degrees and show showers, according to Weather.com.
The difference in this game could very well end up a big return or fumble on special teams. The Browns played their worst special teams game of the season last week and cannot afford a repeat performance.
If the special teams for the Browns can be solid, then the rest of the team should compete with the Steelers just fine. They just cannot have the special teams handing points to the opponent when they struggle to score on offense most of the time.
What They’re Saying
“There was a number of games I remember, I think it was in ’80 when (Brian) Sipe brought the team back, was down and Ozzie Newsome caught a pass there with a few minutes left in the game. But it’s an important week. There’s always a little bit extra for the Steelers and Browns games and everybody’s excited about them in the community and the division rival and so close together, the cities, and the history that is all there. It makes for a particularly fun week.”
—Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski on his memories of Browns vs. Steelers week as a child.
“I love being in Pittsburgh, I am extremely happy,” Roethlisberger said. “[Jerricho Cotchery] asked me today what the new rumor was this week. We’re always excited to see what [the NFL Network] is going to make up this week.”
Browns’ Wednesday Injury Report
Did Not Participate: Tight end MarQueis Gray (Hamstring), inside linebacker Craig Robertson (Knee) and defensive lineman Armonty Bryant (Back)
The biggest blow to the Browns from this group would obviously be losing their starting inside linebacker Craig Robertson. If he were not able to play Sunday, it would force special teams player Tank Carder into full-time action.
Carder played well last Sunday in place of Robertson, but there is a big difference between a spot start and when an opponent has time to game-plan for your weaknesses.
Defensive lineman Armonty Bryant would be a blow to Browns depth on the line. The rookie has two sacks this season and has seen his playing time increase just about every week.
Limited: Offensive lineman Mitchell Schwartz (Toe)
Schwartz returning to practice is huge for the Browns because in his absence they would see the return of Oniel Cousins. That would be a nightmare scenario after the line had been playing well for the better part of the past 45 days.
Full Participation: Outside linebacker Paul Kruger (Finger), running back Willis McGahee (Knee), punter Spencer Lanning (Knee), running back Fozzy Whittaker (Ankle) and offensive lineman Jason Pinkston (Ankle)
All of these players should be fine for Sunday. The Browns are as bruised up right now as they have been all season long.
They also had to promote wide receiver Josh Cooper to the active roster after placing Armanti Edwards on season ending injured reserve, according to Nate Ulrich of The Akron-Beacon Journal:
#Browns promoted WR Josh Cooper to active roster from practice squad & placed WR Armanti Edwards (ankle) IR.— Nate Ulrich (@NateUlrichABJ) November 20, 2013
This Week’s Game Stats and Facts
Beginning the game, the Browns will honor the late Mike McCormack, who passed away Friday morning at the age of 83, by wearing a helmet decal with his initials for the remainder of the season. McCormack played offensive tackle for the Browns from 1954-62 and was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1984.
Last week, defensive back Joe Haden recorded his first career multiple-interception game (2), including one he returned 29 yards for his first career touchdown. He has three interceptions over the past 55 passes thrown against the Browns.
Josh Gordon has registered a team-high 751 receiving yards, while playing in eight games. His average of 93.9 yards per game is fourth in the NFL.
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton was the Steelers’ assistant defensive backs coach from 2004-06 and later served as the defensive backs coach from 2007-10.
All quotes and observations obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Game stats and facts are courtesy of the Browns’ and Bengals’ communications departments.