The Pittsburgh Steelers enter Week 17 of the NFL regular season with a singular goal: beat the Cleveland Browns. Back in Week 12, the Steelers handed the Browns a 27-11 loss even after allowing Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon to haul in 14 catches for 237 yards and a touchdown.
On paper, the Browns and Steelers don't appear so dissimilar. Take a look at this comparison between these two rivals:
|Yards per Game||342||340.5|
|Passing Yards per Game||255.1||256.3|
|Rushing Yards per Game||86.9||84.2|
|Points per Game||20.1||23.9|
|Yards per Game Allowed||335.1||340.1|
|Passing Yards Allowed||224.4||222.1|
|Rushing Yards Allowed||110.7||118|
|Points per Game Allowed||25.7||24.2|
Fortunately, teams don't play on paper. The Browns are 2-9 in their last 11 games, while the Steelers are 7-4. Let's break this game plan down.
When the Steelers are on offense
The offensive performance of the Steelers in the first meeting between these two teams was less than spectacular. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger only threw for 217 yards, and the rushing attack could only muster a net of 88 yards.
Even though the Steelers won handily back in November, it was really an interception returned for a touchdown that sealed the deal. On Sunday, it should never come down to a play like that. This offense can move the football and put up points in a hurry.
The Steelers produced an injury report on Wednesday, even though they did not practice. If this holds true and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders cannot play on Sunday, the game plan that has worked so well in recent weeks could need a makeover.
Ideally, wide receiver Markus Wheaton is healthy on Sunday and can fill that third wide receiver role, permitting the Steelers to continue to use more three-wide sets and spread out the Browns defense.
Worst case scenario, Wheaton is limited, and therefore wide receivers Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery are the only viable receivers on the roster. If this happens, the cogent decision would be to add tight end Matt Spaeth into the offense in a much more prominent role.
Fellow tight end Heath Miller can serve that role as the third wide receiver in those bunch sets, and Spaeth could line up as an in-line blocker and receiver in a more traditional tight end role.
The amount of freedom the Steelers have is due in no small part to the improved play of the offensive line. This group is still not a powerful group, but pass protection has improved and with the proper calls, the run game can be explosive.
All of this should culminate in one goal: to get the Steelers' two best offensive weapons, Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell, opportunities to make plays. For Brown that means getting him single coverage and allowing him to take short throws and turn them into long runs. It also means the Steelers will need to move Brown around in the formation and force the Browns to show their hands defensively.
The counter to this is Bell. It's become quite clear that Bell excels running out of a one-back set, giving him a clean look at his lanes. The bonus is Bell is now recognizing those inside running lanes that he was missing early in the season. Against the Browns, it should be a steady dose of Bell and Brown early, in an attempt to get ahead right out of the gate.
When the Steelers are on defense
During the Browns' six-game losing streak, there have been two constants. First is wide receiver Josh Gordon is going to get his stats (49 receptions, 938 yards, six touchdowns). The second is the rest of the offense is going to let him down.
Sunday, the Steelers will have to contend with quarterback Jason Campbell, who has struggled mightily in his past two games. Throwing for only one touchdown and four interceptions in the two-game stretch bodes well for how the Steelers will attack Campbell.
The Steelers defense could be fairly thin in terms of pass-rushing linebackers on Sunday. If that is the case, the best way to attack Campbell and the Browns offense is with the zone blitz. The Steelers should never let him know where the blitz is coming from and have rushers come from everywhere. This will cause Campbell to press and throw early, forcing incompletions and turnovers.
You might be asking yourself, "why no mention of the run game?" That's because at this point, the run game for the Browns is an afterthought. When your best player is a wide receiver, and you are 4-11, you are going to do everything you can to get him the football.
The Pittsburgh run defense has been put to the test in recent weeks. After facing running backs like Eddie Lacy and Giovani Bernard the past two weeks, running back Edwin Baker will be a nice reprieve. Sorry, the goal here needs to be to hit the quarterback early and often, and if Baker beats them, then they have earned it.
Predictions and implications
With this game having an early kickoff time, the opportunity will be there for the Steelers to do their part while two of the other three crucial matchups will be happening simultaneously. The key is for the Steelers to concentrate on what they can control, and that's beating the Browns.
That is precisely what they will do. The Browns' quarterback situation is tenuous at best. Other than Gordon, their skills players are depleted. And on defense, what has been heralded as an elite group has begun to show some bend. The Steelers should and will attack a defense that might already be thinking about how they want to spend their offseason.
If the Steelers are not going to make the playoffs, it will be because one of the other teams that needs to lose doesn't, not because they lose to an inferior football team. The playoffs might be a long shot, but regardless of the outcome, if this team can finish 8-8 after an 0-4 start, the players and staff should be commended for it.