A lot is riding on the final six games of the Pittsburgh Steelers' season. With four of the six games against AFC North rivals, the door is still open for the Steelers to not only clinch a playoff berth but to also win the division.
This starts with Sunday's must-win contest against the Cleveland Browns. Both teams have 4-6 records, and both teams have something to prove—for the Steelers, that they haven't fallen as far as people think, and for the Browns, that they are on the rise and that a changing of the guard in the AFC North is coming.
If the Steelers are going to get the win on the road in the cold, they must do one thing—keep quarterback Ben Roethlisberger protected from the Browns' pass rush.
The Steelers did well keeping Roethlisberger upright against the Detroit Lions last week, giving up only one sack, no hits and nine hurries. However, Roethlisberger remains the second-most sacked quarterback in the league this year, having been taken down 36 times. And the Browns defense is quite capable of getting to quarterbacks, ranking ninth in the league with a combined 31 sacks.
The Browns run a defense similar to the Steelers', which makes sense considering their coordinator, Ray Horton, had a stint with the Steelers coaching their defensive backs. Like the Steelers, they attack by blitzing and disguise their intentions to confuse offenses. Roethlisberger and the offensive line tasked with protecting him at least have something familiar staring them down this Sunday, but that isn't necessarily an advantage.
The first priority for Roethlisberger is to not give the Browns many opportunities to get their hands on him. This can be accomplished simply by controlling the pace—running the no-huddle, as Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense did in last week's defeat of the Lions, and by getting the ball out quickly after the snap.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Roethlisberger is averaging 2.46 seconds to throw this year, which is certainly quick. However, of Roethlisberger's 422 dropbacks, 232 throws have come at 2.5 seconds or less (55 percent), while 190 have come at 2.6 seconds or more (45 percent).
Though his average time to throw is better than all but nine other quarterbacks this year, he's still holding onto the ball too long nearly half the time. With all but two of Roethlisberger's sacks coming at 2.6 seconds or later, it's clear how important the quick throw will be to him and the Steelers this Sunday.
At first glance, this seems like it would be simple: Throw screens to running back Le'Veon Bell and quick-pitch it to top receiver Antonio Brown, who can gain yards on his own thanks to his elusive speed, and Roethlisberger will be protected.
Football Outsiders has the Browns defense ranked first overall against No. 1 receivers, which means it could be a bad Sunday for Brown, as he'll be matched up with Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden, who has allowed only 52.4 percent of the passes thrown his way to be caught.
However, Bell, along with tight end Heath Miller and slot receiver Jerricho Cotchery, could be highly productive in the Steelers' quick-passing game on Sunday, despite the Browns leading the league in yards per play allowed at 4.4.
This is because, per Football Outsiders, the Browns rank 30th in passing yards to running backs and 32nd in passing yards to tight ends, at 54.3 and 40.7 respectively. Against slot receivers, they rank 13th at 53.1 yards, but Cotchery has been excellent at moving the chains for the Steelers this year, so the yards he provides them on Sunday could be game-changers.
The quick-passing approach is a must for the Steelers this week because the run game isn't likely to produce many yards. Typically, a team can plan against a strong pass rush by opting to run the ball more, thus keeping the ball—and the quarterback—under relatively less danger. But the Browns are very good at stopping the run, ranking eighth in rushing yards per game allowed at 99 and third in yards per rush at 3.5.
With the Steelers offense coming into Week 12 ranking 30th in rushing yards, at 76.5, it's not looking like the run game will be able to bail out Roethlisberger and deflect attention from Cleveland's would-be pass-rushers. Getting the ball out quickly—along with a good dose of protection from the offensive line—is the Steelers' best option to prevent sacks.
|Key Numbers for the Browns Defense, 2013|
|Yds/Drive||Rank||Sacks||Rank||Rush YPG||Rank||Pass YPG||Rank|
|(via TeamRankings.com and Football Outsiders)|
It also is a built-in defense against the dreaded coverage sack, which is the reason why so many of a quarterback's sacks come after he's held onto the ball for 2.6 seconds or longer. With the Browns fielding a very good secondary, Roethlisberger may not have much luck if he has to spend too much time going through his reads, finding no one open in time.
It's likely we'll see at least one or two of those miraculous trademark Roethlisberger plays in which he eludes a seemingly sure-thing sack only to connect with a receiver downfield, but this isn't something the Steelers can rely on or game-plan for. It would be best for the Steelers to reduce the number of times Roethlisberger has to attempt such a feat—either someone has to get open quickly or the line has to hold while Roethlisberger progresses through his reads.
The former option seems better than the latter. Though the line gave up only one sack last week, Roethlisberger was sacked four times in Week 10 and five times in each Weeks 8 and 9. Two of those games were against defenses ranked in the top 10 in sack totals—the Buffalo Bills, who lead the league with 37, and the New England Patriots, who are seventh with 32.
In contrast, the Lions rank 30th in sacks with 16. As such, it's not too shocking that Roethlisberger was taken down only once last week despite how many sacks the line has given up this year.
The Browns are particularly good at killing drives, and sacking the quarterback is a major reason why. They rank second in yards per drive, at 25.27, with the typical opposing drive lasting just two minutes, 29 seconds. The Steelers need to control the time of possession on Sunday, all while knowing that the run game isn't going to produce many positive results.
They must be prepared for pressure and be able to effectively counter it. Speeding up the passing game is the only way that Roethlisberger can prevent being sacked repeatedly, considering the limitations of his offensive line. Holding onto the football and waiting for someone to get open is not a formula for offensive success against the Browns.