It’s a holiday tradition that haunts Cleveland Browns fans every year. Sometime around Christmas the Browns always face the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game that usually means a lot to the Steelers and never means anything for the Browns.
This will be the fourth consecutive year the Browns will close out their regular-season schedule against their hated “rivals.” It’s tough to continue calling this game a rivalry when it's so grotesquely one-sided.
The Browns have knocked off the Steelers just five times in 30 chances since returning to the NFL in 1999.
The Steelers still have an outside shot at the playoffs, but they will need a victory and whole lot of help. The Browns have an opportunity to play spoilers.
The Browns will be evaluating players for multiple reasons. The first reason is because they are not really playing for anything else, but the second reason is because it seems like the entire team is injured right now.
Nothing says “Happy Holidays” quite like a 4-11 football team running out a bunch of practice-squad players to face one of the hotter teams in the NFL. Pittsburgh has won five of its last seven games.
AFC North Standings
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The Cincinnati Bengals are the only team that can rest easy knowing their playoff ticket is punched. They can, however, make the jump up to the second seed in the AFC and earn a bye if New England loses and they defeat the Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens are one of four teams fighting for the final AFC Wild Card spot. They have a plethora of different scenarios in which they would make the postseason, including one where they lose.
Just to be sure they need to win on Sunday and then say a few Hail Marys.
DL Phil Taylor (Concussion) Did not practice Tuesday
G Jason Pinkston (Concussion) Did not practice Tuesday
TE Jordan Cameron (Concussion) Did not practice Tuesday
DL John Hughes (Knee) Did not practice Tuesday
CB Joe Haden (Hip) Did not practice Tuesday
LB Paul Kruger (Illness) Did not practice Tuesday
The Browns are like a walking triage at this point. They will need young and inexperienced players to step up if they want to be the spoiler on Sunday.
I always find it funny how quickly that injury report grows as soon as the season gets out of hand. Just three weeks ago, this team was pretty darn healthy. Now a quarter of the starters are out.
I wouldn’t expect too many of these guys to make miracle recoveries either. It’s much easier to ride out Week 17 than it is to rush back and feel the punishment from a physical Steelers team in freezing temperatures.
The Browns will probably need to add a player on the defensive line just so they have enough depth to make it through the game. They still have an open roster spot from placing wide receiver Davone Bess on the reserve/non-football illness list.
What Must Improve
Where Is the Pressure?
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton was supposed to be the orchestrator of an attacking defense that created pressure and sacks from every angle imaginable. That has suddenly disappeared.
Last Sunday, against one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, the Browns not only failed to sack Jets quarterback Geno Smith, they failed to hit him. That is inexcusable against a team that had allowed 47 sacks entering the game. That is second-worst in the NFL.
The defensive line, which was playing as well as or better than anyone in the league at one point, has faded quickly. It creates almost no pressure and was getting dominated at the point of attack. It’s tough to imagine the line improving this week with so many injuries.
The outside linebackers have been terrible too. Paul Kruger has been a ghost for the past month, and Barkevious Mingo had two good series early against the Jets and then disappeared himself.
Create Some Turnovers
The Browns had been creating plenty of turnovers, and then it all stopped on Sunday. Against a quarterback who had thrown 21 interceptions and lost seven fumbles, they failed to get a single turnover.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger thrives on extending plays and improvising. If the Browns can get quick pressure on him, he is prone to throwing interceptions.
He has 12 interceptions on the year but just two in his last five games.
That is their best shot at forcing a turnover, because running back Le'Veon Bell has lost just one fumble all year. He is also coming off his best game of the year in Green Bay where he rushed for 124 yards and a touchdown.
Create Some Kind of Passing Offense
If you take away his 81-yard garbage-time touchdown drive late against the Chicago Bears, then quarterback Jason Campbell has thrown for just 370 total yards, one touchdown and four interceptions in the past two games.
Which AFC North team will make the playoffs?
The craziest part is that those were immediately following possibly his best performance of his career in New England when he threw for 391 yards, three touchdowns, and no turnovers.
Oh Campbell, you’re so fickle.
He has not gotten much help from his best target, wide receiver Josh Gordon, either. Gordon dropped multiple passes against the Jets, including one potential touchdown.
He has been hesitant to catch passes over the middle and seems frustrated with himself quite often on the field.
Campbell's other receiver, Greg Little, also dropped a touchdown pass and then was benched for Brian Tyms, who had never caught a ball in the NFL. I’m sure that Campbell and Tyms had not had much work together in practice.
At least he has gotten some help from the running game since the team signed running back Edwin Baker. Baker rushed 17 times for 64 yards and a touchdown last Sunday. It was the first time Campbell had a legitimate rushing attack this season.
All quotes and observations were gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted.