Cleveland Browns vs. Pittsburgh Steelers: Browns' Keys to the Game
And they'll have to do it on a mere four days' rest.
Sad but true, in perhaps the meanest back-to-back matchups ever foisted on a team by the schedule-makers, the Browns were forced to square off against AFC North heavyweights the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, and then got stuck flying to Pittsburgh to face another daunting division foe in the Steelers the following Thursday.
If there were ever a recipe for disaster, this might be it.
So it is on that happy note then that the Browns—down, out and discouraged—have to scramble around on short rest this week to come up with a plan that will allow them to have a snowball's chance in Pittsburgh beating the hated Steelers.
Or at the very least, to play a solid, close game against them.
It will be one of the uglier challenges the Browns are presented with this season, possibly trumped only by the final two weeks of 2011, when the Browns get the Ravens and the Steelers back to back again to close out the year.
If we—the Cleveland faithful—didn't already know the football gods hated us, the schedule the Browns were given for the last six weeks of 2011 sure hammered the point home.
But enough whining: We've still got four weeks' of football left to play. It's tough to define keys to victory for the Browns this week, as the chances of a win are very, very slim.
Obviously upsets are always possible, but it's probably more realistic to look at this game in terms of what the Browns can do to keep the score close, win back some confidence from the fans and show the Steelers that the Browns are a team they're going to need to look out for in the very near future.
Following are five keys to the game for the Browns as they prepare to venture into the enemy territory of Steeler Nation this Thursday night.
No. 1: Close the Gap Between the Run Defense and the Pass Defense
It's official: the Browns have the most comically lopsided defense in the NFL.
Ranking first against the pass and second to last against the run, it seems impossible for these two disparate entities to be part of the same defense that is on the field at the same time.
Yes, the same players who have been beyond dominant against the pass have been beyond inept against the run.
Sure, it's not that unusual for a team to have a defense which is notably stronger in one area than they are in the other, but in the Browns' case, the disparity between the two is staggering.
The Browns need to start closing the gap between the two, and they need to start doing it now. And no, not by regressing in terms of their pass defense.
I'm joking. Kind of.
As Browns fans, we've learned over the years that it's best to be very, very explicit when making such requests.
The Steelers game, especially if you consider it unwinnable for the the Browns and thus best used as a training exercise, is as good a time as any to start closing the gap between the run defense and the pass defense.
Pittsburgh is solid in both its ground attack and its aerial attack, so the Browns will have to be able to manage both, and most importantly in light of where they've failed miserably of late, they'll have to be able to keep a top-tier RB in check while still controlling the passing game.
Rashard Mendenhall might not be Ray Rice, but he still ranks sixth in the league in touchdowns with eight, and is in the Top 25 for rushing yards despite seeing limited action in several contests due to injury.
He's not the toughest back to contain, but he's plenty dangerous enough to dominate their hapless run defense if they don't start finally showing some improvement.
No. 2: Don't Underestimate Big Ben and the Steelers' Passing Game
Historically the Steelers have mostly been known primarily for their defense and running game. Beautifully executed pass plays are never really supposed to be their thing.
And yet, QB Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers have put together the ninth-best passing game in the NFL this season, and it isn't the first time they've succeeded in the air as much as they have on the ground in the recent past.
The Steelers are smart not to try to dispel the notion that they're a gritty team that sticks to the trenches to score points. It's amazing how often opponents fall victim to that false notion and then never see the big pass play coming.
The Browns will need to watch out for that this Thursday.
True, Cleveland has the best pass defense in the league. But they've still been burned on big pass plays this season on multiple occasions, and that's exactly the way the Steelers will probably mix in the pass when facing them.
Past precedent this season has already indicated that the way to disrupt the Browns' top-notch pass defense is to surprise it, stick to the run, then throw up a big pass for a big gain when they aren't expecting it.
This worked for Cincinnati both times the Browns faced them and it worked for Baltimore last week. Don't be surprised if Pittsburgh tries the same ruse.
In order to make progress defensively, the Browns have to stop allowing themselves to be victimized by big plays, and that goes for passing plays as much as running plays.
Such plays have cost the Browns entire games, which were potential wins this season. And while no one would call Thursday's matchup against the Steelers much of a potential win, such a play could easily stop the Browns from achieving their objectives of keeping the score close and showing signs of improvement if they don't start to better anticipate and prevent the big play beginning this week and going forward.
No. 3: Peyton Hillis Could Make or Break the Game
The Steeler defense is frighteningly dominant no matter what your primary offensive approach is. Whether you're a team that prefers to throw the ball or run it, PIttsburgh's defense makes it tough to succeed much in doing either one.
If you had to pick though, it's better to run the ball against the Steelers than to throw it. The Pittsburgh pass defense ranks right behind Cleveland's at second in the league, and their run defense comes in seventh overall.
Facing the seventh-best run defense in the league isn't exactly encouraging—especially when your best rusher has been out for a good chunk of the season with injuries—but taking a ground approach does sound infinitely more appealing than trying to launch a primarily aerial assault against the NFL's second-best pass defense.
For Cleveland, that means RB Peyton Hillis is likely the go-to guy this week. For the Browns, that's not a huge adjustment, as they have relied primarily on their running game this season and last, but it does carry some concerns since Hillis has missed significant time this season and hasn't been exceptionally productive since he returned to the starting lineup two weeks ago.
Furthering concerns, Hillis appears to have sustained a minor hip injury on Sunday. He's listed as day-to-day and questionable, though it's probably less bleak than that. I expect he'll play on Thursday, but the question is, will he be at or near 100 percent?
This, unfortunately, is where the short week issue really could crush the Browns. Their best offensive player would probably be 100 percent if he had until Sunday to rest his hip, but with a Thursday game this week, he's likely not had quite enough time to nurse himself back to health completely.
Because the Steelers are so tough against the pass, it is imperative that Hillis is ready to go Thursday if the Browns are going to have a chance to move the ball effectively and get enough points on the board to keep the score close.
If Hillis can't go or is even significantly limited, the Cleveland offense will be in dire straits.
No. 4: A Lesson in Zen for Colt McCoy
As much as I am still very much a believer in QB Colt McCoy, I'm also very cognizant of the fact that he has a lot of issues in his game that must be improved if he's truly going to be able to hack it as an NFL quarterback.
McCoy can't control problems that are the product of his poor offensive line or his inexperienced receivers, but he can and must take charge of making improvements on any shortcomings in his game that stem directly from his own play.
In recent weeks, McCoy's field vision has been called into question after he repeatedly threw to heavily covered receivers when there was someone wide open who went unnoticed. I'm not sure this is truly a lack of field vision, but I do think it's an indication of McCoy's tendency to panic and make rash decisions.
You can't lay all the blame for that on McCoy: If he didn't have such a terrible offensive line that forces him to constantly run for his life and allows him to get the daylight beat out of him on a weekly basis, he wouldn't have to make every split-second decision out of fear and panic.
However, as much as some of the poor decisions under duress can't be helped, there are also plenty of such situations in which McCoy should be able to maintain his composure, not panic and make an accurate throw to the best possible target.
Obviously his job is harder than that of a quarterback with a better line and more time to get set, find a target and throw. He gets some handicapping of his stats for that. Still, good quarterbacks just find ways to get it done no matter the circumstances.
I think McCoy has the potential to be such a quarterback, but he needs to start showing he's heading in that direction sooner rather than later. This week against a tough Pittsburgh pass rush would be an excellent time to start.
McCoy had a horrible game against the Steelers at the end of 2010, throwing multiple interceptions while desperately trying to make something happen in a panicked effort to put points on the board and avoid a blowout.
This week he has a shot at redemption, but he'll have to show he can keep his head and his accuracy with a stellar defense constantly blitzing him. He needs to show he's the guy who can lead the Browns to becoming a competitive entity in the tough AFC North in the near future.
No. 5: Browns Must Show Their Fans and Themselves That They Still Want This
It's been a rough season for the Browns. Really rough.
No one can blame the fans or the players for being disappointed and downtrodden. We all heard Josh Cribbs rant about the team's underachieving. It was tough to listen to, but it was also right on the mark.
As fans, even if you are part of the group that believes this team is getting better and it's just a matter of being patient, it's difficult to watch your team lose over and over with no major tangible signs of progress.
It's tough for the players, as well.
Cleveland's fans, players and coaching staff could all use a confidence boost right about now. Ideally, that comes from a massive and surprising upset of our hated rival the Steelers this Thursday. But in a more realistic sense, we could still have our spirits lifted significantly if the Browns can just hang in there and play the Steelers tough, keeping the score close and staying in the game.
Obviously an upset is goal No. 1, but the next best thing would be to at least come close enough to scare the heck out of a Steeler team desperately clinging to a tenuous tie with Baltimore for first place in the AFC North.
This week may not be ripe for a win for the Browns, but it is an excellent opportunity for the team. If they play their cards right, they could send a message to the rest of the AFC North that they are an opponent that must be taken seriously now, and who rival North teams should be afraid of in the not too distant future.