The Cleveland Browns' final home game of the 2013 season is against a familiar foe with a very familiar setting. The Browns will travel to Pittsburgh to try to win a game that has no bearing on their own team. The game plan for Sunday is to play spoiler.
Head coach Rob Chudzinski has to find a way to challenge his team’s pride and invoke some emotion in Week 17. While Browns fans feel the heat of this “rivalry” game, the players have cooled off quite a bit from their first meeting.
Before their first matchup this season in Week 12, each team had quite a few words about the other. Unfortunately, it was Pittsburgh who did the talking on the field. It defeated the Browns 27-11, and Cleveland has never recovered.
Now the Browns can knock the Steelers out of playoff contention with an upset victory Sunday. If Chudzinski is going to pull this off, however, he is going to need to rally a bunch of backups and rookies.
The Browns injury report Wednesday included five starters who were not expected to practice and three more who were expected to be limited. Chudzinski needs to prove to his players that losing will not be tolerated and whoever hits the field is expected to win, even if it is a long shot.
The Competitive Edge
Usually this would be where we break down each position and decide which team has the advantage. Instead of deciding meaningless battles on paper, from here until the end of the season, we will examine Browns players and evaluate them for one reason or another.
Player by player, we will explain why they are under heavier evaluation and update their status week by week.
Quarterbacks: Jason Campbell
It was yet another poor performance by Jason Campbell against the New York Jets on Sunday. He was 18-for-40 for 178 yards and two interceptions.
Campbell’s accuracy was erratic at best, and he is not helping his cause for next season. He is now completing just 56.9 percent of his passes this year, his lowest mark since his rookie season. He has 10 touchdowns to seven interceptions and a 77.8 quarterback rating.
There is almost no way the Browns can consider him an option to start as their quarterback next season at this point.
Running Back: Edwin Baker
Against the third-best running defense in the NFL, running back Edwin Baker proved he belongs in the league. He carried the ball 17 times for 64 yards and a touchdown.
Baker has proved he is worth a long look this offseason. His burst and speed to the edge have given the Browns their first legitimate threat on the ground this entire season.
After guys like Trent Richardson and Willis McGahee failed to create anything on the ground, Baker has been an instant spark.
Wide Receivers: Greg Little
It’s tough to make a case for yourself in Cleveland when you drop an easy touchdown pass in the end zone early in a football game. It’s even tougher to make that case once a receiver with no career catches replaces you.
That is exactly what happened to Greg Little on Sunday. The coaching staff finally had enough of his drops and lack of production and replaced him with Brian Tyms.
Never heard of him? Don’t worry, no one had. He finished with two catches for 12 yards. Little had one catch for four yards.
Offensive Linemen: Alex Smith and Garrett Gilkey
Last Sunday marked the first time rookie guard Garrett Gilkey saw significant playing time in the NFL. The coaching staff obviously wanted to evaluate what Gilkey could do in an actual game situation.
Gilkey held his own, and it seems like the Browns feel he can fight for a starting guard spot next season. He will likely be one of many candidates who will vie for both spots, which should be up for grabs.
Former Pro Bowl center and impending free agent Alex Mack told Mary Kay Cabot of The Cleveland Plain Dealer on Thursday that he would “absolutely” let the Browns match or exceed any offer he received from another team.
Mack has had another solid season and will be the best center in the free-agent market.
Defensive Backs: Joe Haden and T.J. Ward
Despite having a hip pointer injury, cornerback Joe Haden played and played fairly well. While he allowed one touchdown, he also defended two passes and made a spectacular defensive play on a pass at the goal line over the middle.
T.J. Ward had a solid performance, but it certainly was not at the level he had been playing the few weeks leading up to the Jets game. While fan voting for the Pro Bowl ends Thursday evening, he will still have time to impress coaches around the league this Sunday.
Browns Offense vs. Steelers Defense
The Steelers' biggest strength is unfortunately the only area where the Browns have been effective offensively this season. The Steelers are eighth in the NFL in pass defense, allowing just 222 yards per game.
The Browns have the 12th-best passing offense in the NFL at 255 yards per game. That doesn’t tell the whole tale, however.
Quarterback Jason Campbell has not been very effective on the road this season. In his five road games this season, he is 0-5 and completing just 54 percent of his passes. At home, he is completing 63 percent.
On the road, he also has six touchdowns and five interceptions. What is even more alarming about these numbers is that in New England he completed 66 percent of his passes and had three touchdowns and no interceptions.
That means in his other four road games he has completed just 45 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and five interceptions.
The Browns will need to establish Edwin Baker early and stick with the run to keep the ball out of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s hands.
Baker has been effective the last two weeks and the Steelers allow 118 yards per game on the ground, which is 22nd in the league. Also, defensive end Brett Keisel was listed on the injury report as expected to miss practice Wednesday.
Browns Defense vs. Steelers Offense
This is where things could get very dangerous for the Browns. The Steelers have the 11th-best passing offense and are averaging 29 points per game over their last eight games.
Roethlisberger is once again a top-10 passer in the NFL. He is currently ranked seventh in the league with 4,082 yards on the year.
For the Browns, they have five defensive starters listed on the Wednesday injury report. That is not a good sign that you will stop one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the NFL over the past decade.
On the ground, the Steelers have not had much success overall this season. Running back Le’Veon Bell is coming off his best game of the season, however. He rushed for 124 yards and a touchdown.
The Steelers have a very dangerous pair of returners in Felix Jones and Antonio Bryant. Bryant is one of the best in the league at returning punts and is always a threat to take one to the house.
Their kicker Shaun Suisham has been among the best in the league this season, hitting 93 percent of his 30 field-goal attempts. He has hit all eight of his attempts between 40 and 49 yards.
What They’re Saying
“There’s always something to play for anytime you step on the field. Our guys are competitive guys. This is our last game, and we want to finish this thing strong. Every week is a challenge, and that’s the way we play.”
—Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski on what his team is playing for this week.
“We’re just trying to win football games really right now. We’re not trying to paint with a broad brush in that regard…our goal is obviously for it to continue.”
—Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin on whether the return of a running game makes the Steelers what they once were.
Browns’ Wednesday Injury Report
As a head coach, you never want to see 16 names on the injury report. The one thing to keep in mind is the note at the bottom that states the Browns did not practice Wednesday and this was an estimation of the injury report.
If Chudzinksi can get a portion of these players back for Sunday, it will helps tremendously.
Cornerback Joe Haden played last week despite being on the injury report all week. He may still have a chance, but the concussions for tight end Jordan Cameron, defensive lineman Phil Taylor and offensive lineman Jason Pinkston will probably keep all of them out.
This Week’s Game Stats and Facts
Josh Gordon leads the NFL with 1,564 receiving yards, in just 13 games. No Browns player has led the NFL in receiving yards for a season.
Josh Gordon’s 1,564 receiving yards are a franchise record. His seven 100-yard games are a also club record and are tied for the most in the NFL this season.
Despite having two quarterbacks start over the past six games, Cleveland has thrown for 1,793 yards, the third-highest total in the NFL during that span.
According to Stats LLC, DB Joe Haden (20) is tied for third in the NFL in passes defensed, while DB Buster Skrine (18) is tied for sixth.
All quotes and observations obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Game stats and facts are courtesy of the Browns’ and Bengals’ communications departments.