The Pittsburgh Steelers have won four of their last six games. The Cleveland Browns have lost four of their last five games. Those respective trends have not been uncommon in recent seasons for a rivalry silenced by lopsidedness. It is a series that hasn't once seen the Browns favored since 2003, a span of time that has been riddled with frustration for Cleveland.
In Week 11, Steelers fans witnessed an offense finding its mojo, while Browns fans endured an offense that made them say, "Oh no!"
Nobody disputes this Browns team has shown signs of improvement, while the Steelers have looked nothing short of a team in decline over the course of 2013. Yet, in recent weeks, the two franchises have seemed to be trending back to the norm.
So, naturally, the Cleveland Browns are favored heading into Sunday's pivotal AFC North match, a contest that has enormous implications in the chase for the conference's sixth and final playoff seed.
Should the Browns be favored? Opinions on that matter likely correlate to whichever side of the fence your loyalties lie.
Cleveland's brief resurgence, which has been on hiatus, occurred in the form of a three-game winning streak following the trade of running back Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts. Anybody who associates this success with that event is tying together two factors that don't correlate to one another. In fact, the Browns are one of the few teams in the NFL whose running attache is more abysmal than the Steelers' anemic ground game.
The Pittsburgh offense boasts a more formidable running game than the opposition. Browns backs have certainly been bust, while Le'Veon Bell has been a bright spot in the 'Burgh.
Still, this may not manifest itself as an advantage if the offensive line can't run block against the NFL's eighth-ranked run defense. In his recent breakdown of the game, Curt Popejoy compared each team's statistical rankings:
|Passing Yards Allowed||8th||4th|
|Rushing Yards Allowed||26th||8th|
Clearly, the numbers bare out (both in the ranking above as well as through other statistical totals) that whatever edge the Browns hold heading into Week 12 is present in their thoroughly impressive defensive play.
The good news is that in a battle of running games, Cleveland's leading rusher, Willis McGahee, has 100 fewer yards then Le'Veon Bell. In a worst-case scenario, anemic rushing attacks would likely result in a wash between the two foes.
Sure, the Browns defense has only surrendered 3.5 yards per rush, but their offense hasn't answered with a competent ground attack of their own. They've only mustered one touchdown.
This leaves both passing attacks, and though their recent statistical improvements bode well for a Steelers offense led by the contest's clear superior quarterback, the Browns defense could negate that edge. Sure, Pittsburgh boasts Ben Roethlisberger over Jason Campbell, but the Browns defense enters play with one of the great defenders in the game.
Joe Haden gives the Browns a clear edge in the secondary. Many debate whether Antonio Brown is indeed a quality top receiver or merely a superb second receiver playing top fiddle. Nobody disputes that Brown is a playmaker, but a team's best receiver has to find a way to make great, athletic catches against the game's best cover corners. Brown will have his hands full in a true measure of his mettle against the blanketing Haden.
Fortunately for Antonio, making the tough catch seemingly in defiance of odds and physics has become almost a weekly specialty.
Haden has three interceptions in the past two weeks in divisional games against the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals. Antonio Brown has 251 yards in Pittsburgh's last two games and three touchdowns in November, including two last week against Detroit. Whose hot hand will continue in Week 12? The answer to that question could easily be the key to victory for their respective team.
As seen in his recent statistics, Brown has had at least one 20-plus-yard reception in each of his last four games, clearly the best game-breaking option Roethlisberger has had at his disposal:
Better news for the Steelers is that Haden's coverage on Brown can be used to their advantage, manipulating the Browns defense into preferred looks and isolating key mismatches for Roethlisberger's other targets.
Heath Miller has always been Mr. Reliable, but recently, Jericho Cotchery has proven to be Big Ben's true emergency outlet. Cotchery has had a truly resurgent season, playing with a physicality, dependability and sure-handedness not seen since Hines Ward. His continued success is vital against the Browns' fourth-ranked pass defense. He has five touchdowns in the past three games, which includes a wasted three-score effort in New England.
Steelers receivers have to find a way to get open, finding the soft spot in the Browns' frequent man-zone coverage blends that pit Haden man-to-man and leave the other targets to attack the zone. This includes coming back to the football whenever Roethlisberger uses his athletic ability to evade the rush...
...and he'll have to. The Browns have 15 defensive players who have contributed to their impressive 31 sacks. This impressive list of super-sackers reads with a bit of envy for Steelers fans: D'Qwell Jackson (1.5), T.J. Ward (1.5), Craig Robertson (3), Buster Skrine (1), Chris Owens (2.5), Ahtyba Rubin (1), Barkevious Mingo (4), Paul Kruger (2.5), Desmond Bryant (3.5), John Hughes (1), Phillip Taylor (2), Jabaal Sheard (2.5), Billy Winn (1), Armonty Bryant (2), and Quentin Groves (2).
One who reviews this rundown of backfield banes will notice that many of these players are not household names or superstars, but mostly, they are hard workers executing their roles in an effective system for getting pressure.
In comparison to the Steelers' total of 18 sacks split among 18 players, it is obvious that the Browns feature the far superior pass rush. They find ways to get more players active and involved in the defensive scheme, harassing the quarterback with frequency. One cannot understate the magnitude of impact a discrepancy in pass rushing between two teams has on the outcome of games. The variety of benefits are either fully realized or not at all, including:
- Longer down and distances.
- Less manageable third downs.
- Forced alteration of the opposing quarterback's throwing mechanics.
- Disruption of timing.
- Altering and concentrating receivers' routes to no more than intermediate downfield distance due to less time for play development.
- Disabling the offense's ability to flank backs and tight ends due to the need for additional protection.
- Affecting the angle of a quarterback's throw due to the disappearance of otherwise available passing lanes.
- Minimizing the time the secondary spends in coverage.
- Causing the opposing passer to assume pressure that is not present, often called "hearing footsteps."
- Turnovers. The absence of forced turnovers correlating to the lack of pressure the Steelers have forced is not a coincidence.
With the Steelers offensive line having been such a work in progress (or a study in experimentation) throughout 2013, one has to believe that this unit presents the greatest liability for the Black and Gold headed into Cleveland.
The Steelers certainly have the superior quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, the better running back in Le'Veon Bell and enough playmakers at receiver to get the job done. However, the key will be the performance of the offensive line and the ability of the offense at large to play disciplined football. Pass protection will help the unit avoid mistakes, but patience will also help in this regard. The number of big plays available and the amount of time allotted to make them will likely be limited, so opportunities must be taken advantage of.
Pittsburgh can win a low-scoring, defensive affair if they can avoid key mistakes. Call it the moral of the season. But the team will have to abide by it in order to keep hopes alive for the playoffs.