Browns vs. Steelers: 10 Things for Steelers Fans to Watch for Thursday Night

Joshua HayesCorrespondent IIDecember 6, 2011

Browns vs. Steelers: 10 Things for Steelers Fans to Watch for Thursday Night

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    Unlike Ohio's other team, the Cleveland Browns come to Heinz Field playing a familiar losing role (4-8), but interfering with the Pittsburgh Steelers hopes for an AFC North Championship could be a small tonic in an ailing season.

    Steelers fans have labeled the classic Pittsburgh rival as the "frowny Brownies," mostly for their inability to beat the Black and Gold in recent seasons. Since their return to NFL action in 1999, Cleveland has beaten Pittsburgh a mere four times, only once in the Ben Roethlisberger era. In fact, Pittsburgh has won 20 of the last 22 games in the series.

    Nevertheless, a devastating loss along the shores of Lake Erie in 2009 essentially ended Pittsburgh's championship defense, giving the Steelers more than enough motivating historical evidence. Despite the one-sided history and favorable matchups, Cleveland cannot be taken likely.

    With the 'Burgh favored by nearly two touchdowns, the banged up Browns will give it the "old college try" in this NFL midweek special.

    Here are 10 things for Steelers fans to keep an eye for on Thursday night.

Sizing Up the No. 1 Ranked Browns Pass Defense

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    So, who is ranked tops in the NFL defensively against the pass?

    If you said Cleveland, you are correct!  Still, hold on a moment...

    There's another question to ask!

    How accurate is the ranking? Are total yards that great of an indicator? Are the Browns really the best pass defense in the game?

    In my estimation, that is hardly the case!

    For example, while the Browns give up little yardage through the air, opponents tend to go run heavy in their offensive strategy against the defense. Cleveland is allowing over 150 yards per game on the ground at a clip of 4.5 yards per attempt. Opposing offenses have passed 336 times against 409 rushes, a great disproportion in today's arena league.

    Likewise, Cleveland is allowing a fairly respectable 6.6 yards per pass. Still, if we're ranking teams on performance, opposed to misleading volume statistics, the Steelers are only allowing passers 5.8 yards per throw. In other words, for each pass attempted, quarterbacks have more success against the Browns than Steelers.

    Don't allow their top billing as a secondary fool you; those statistics are skewed by circumstance.

    Against the likes of Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace and company, the Browns secondary will hope to contain the Pittsburgh passing game. But, they're not going to stop it!

Mike Wallace vs. Joe Haden

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    “If you’re in man-to-man and you’re chasing him, it’s hard to catch up.You just know any down he can take it. This’ll be the first receiver I feel is faster than me. I have to stay on top and make him come back to the ball.”

             -Joe Haden, on Mike Wallace

    Joe Haden is a promising young corner and clearly the premiere talent in Cleveland's defensive backfield. In 2011, he has 17 pass defenses; his career passes defended is 35 along with six interceptions.

    It seems most likely that Haden will be assigned to Mike Wallace a great portion of the game, but he should see coverage on Antonio Brown as well. Both receivers are stepping up as premiere targets for Big Ben, and either is a deadly threat on any given play. 

    Haden showed against A.J. Green, during one of his weakest performances in the NFL, that he can be exploited by the right receiver on the correct day. Haden's footwork was very rigid, and the shifty Green made him pay with three catches for 110 yards, including a key fourth quarter reception. The Bengals beat the Browns in a 23-20 comeback.

    In Week 1, Haden had the better of this matchup, frustrating Green for most of an afternoon where he was held to one catch. (However, that did happen to be a touchdown!) 

    While shedding the young cornerback is tough, speed certainly kills, and both of these receivers have it in spades! Still, will Wallace display the crisp route running and shiftiness necessary to have a big game against one of the Browns' best players?

    Lately, Wallace has struggled to pick up catches and yardage, though he did score two crucial touchdowns to put away the Bengals in Sunday's 35-7 blowout win. If Mike decides to get back on track against Cleveland, he'll have to win this key matchup to do it.

Big Ben's Bravado vs. the Browns

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    Having lost only once in his career to Cleveland, Ben Roethlisberger sure likes to depress the communities surrounding Lake Erie in the northeastern quadrant of Ohio.

    Against the Browns, Ben has always had a knack for bravado!

    Who can forget the "coming out party" game in 2004. The Browns got pressure on Big Ben, who scrambled to the right. As he approached the sideline, he had little time to release a pass. 

    On the run, he threw a bomb down the field to an open Plaxico Burress, an accurate pass despite his movement. Plax scored the touchdown, and the uniqueness of the great Benjamin was witnessed by all in attendance at Heinz Field that October day.

    Last season, he returned from a suspension and threw three touchdowns in his first game, which happened to be against the Browns.

    In 2009, he had a 417 yard passing day in a 27-14 win in the Steel City. And, who can forget his four-touchdown performance on opening day in 2007? It was Mike Tomlin's first game as coach.

    While Ben owns Ohio, he emphatically beats the Browns almost every time, either with a flair for the dramatic or a dominant effort. Even under the tutelage of Mr. Rob Ryan, the Browns secondary has mostly floundered in effort to beat Pittsburgh with Roethlisberger under center.

    With the AFC North race demanding wins and leaving no room for error, let's hope Big Ben plays like the Brown-beating Benjamin we've all come to love! After most Steelers games, Browns defenders have nightmares of No. 7 scoring sevens.

Don't Forget About 2009

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    When the Cowboys played the Bills in Super Bowl XXVII, they led at halftime by a huge margin. The Bills had faced a massive deficit earlier in the same playoffs, only to come back from a 35-3 gap and beat the Houston Oilers.

    On the team's "America's Game: The Super Bowl Champions" installment, Jimmy Johnson mentions not bringing the Bills ability to come back up to his team. Instead, he focused on positives, not wanting to plant any negative seeds.

    The 1992 Dallas Cowboys had a huge lead in the Super Bowl. The 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers haven't made the playoffs (yet) and likely need a perfect finish to win their division.

    So, this should be taken less as a seed of self-doubt and more as a necessary warning:

    Don't take the Browns lightly. Remember 2009? 

    The Steelers were about to end their four-game losing streak in Ohio, a place Ben Roethlisberger had been undefeated until earlier that year in Cincinnati. Pittsburgh had won 12 straight against the Browns.

    And, the Steelers were the heavy favorites. According to Mike Tomlin, they were going to "unleash Hell in December!"

    Instead, they found it.

    On Thursday Night Football (a common platform when the two squads to compete), the Browns and quarterback Brady Quinn beat the Steelers 13-6, sacking Ben Roethlisberger eight times and running roughshod over the proud Pittsburgh defense.

    In the midst of a losing skid, the defeat sent the Steelers to a 6-7 record, essentially knocking them from the AFC playoffs.

    In this case, the only loss may be the AFC North. "Only."

    Despite check marks in most boxes going down the comparison columns, the Steelers know better than to expect two straight division wins without a fight. 

    Sure, Colt McCoy is gimping around. Yes, the Browns likely won't find much running room against in this bout. And, frankly, the Cleveland defense is as leaky upfront as paper machete.

    That's all true, but this is the first of two Cleveland "Super Bowls" in the final month. And, those 10 days off before a trip to face the 10-2 San Francisco 49ers must seem divine for sore athletes.

    Plus, how many teams play a fantastic game, beat a key opponent and then fall flat the very next week? (Pssst... I'm looking at you, Baltimore!)

    Let's be honest. Against their last few inferior opponents (Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Kansas City), the Steelers appeared to be disengaged. They cannot overlook the Browns.

Will the Steelers Defensive Domination Continue?

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    Thursday's game against the Browns seems a perfect setup for the continuing success of the Pittsburgh defense.  Finally playing like Men of Steel, opponents have found the Black and Gold bullies to be a tough bunch to break down.

    For the second straight game, the Steelers held an opponent to single digit scoring. 

    The secondary has continued to play well, but recently added interceptions to the resume. 

    The defensive front is containing, if not altogether stuffing, the run. While most fans would prefer improvement in the pass rush, the defensive front is only starting to come back together in good health, and the quarterback pressures should increase.

    In two games against Cleveland last season, the Steelers allowed less than 10 points per game, registering 10 sacks and snagging five interceptions.

    Did I mention the Browns have the NFL's 30th ranked offense? Unlike their top pass defense billing, this is not an aberration!

    The Steelers upper echelon defense against Cleveland's offense is an obvious mismatch, and it seems unlikely for the Browns to do much more than pace themselves in this contest.

    If the Steelers defense shows up to play, there is no reason that their dominating play of late should not continue. I feel strongly that it will be due to offensive turnovers or special teams miscues if the Browns are able to score more than 14 points.

Joshua Cribbs

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    I was adamantly opposed to the kickoff yard marker being moved forward. 

    When the Steelers play the Browns, the NFL can move the kicking tee to midfield. That's fine by me!

    Joshua Cribbs is a Steelers killer! If most of Suisham's kickoffs sail out of the end zone, I will still hold my breath for the effort that lands nine yards deep. 

    In her first live professional football game, my sister and I attended the 2007 contest at Heinz Field. What we witnessed was simply astonishing! 

    With his fantastic skills on special teams in mind, big plays from Josh Cribbs must be prevented by the Steelers. The Black and Gold have been nipped too many times in this regard. 

    Watch the video. Most Steelers fans will remember the return highlighted; for those few who listened on the radio, prepare to be impressed. The return shown nearly cost my sister to experience the thrill of victory at her first game.

    Beyond sheer history and preventing it from happening again (again... again...), those types of plays are the gateway to upsets, allowing struggling teams to pull a "David" over the favored NFL "Goliaths." Fortunately, Cribbs' impact hasn't cost the Steelers any victories. 

    Yet.

    Bad teams are looking for X-factor contributions, and make no mistake: If the ball finds Cribbs, he can find the end zone. 

Peyton Hillis, the Madden Curse, and the Injury Report

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    Hillis cannot say that I didn't warn him!

    If your name is Peyton, 2011 has been a rough season. In fact, it's more fair to just be blunt.

    For Manning and Hillis, this season has absolutely sucked.  That's a fair assessment, right?

    The acclaimed Colt is on the sidelines of an 0-12 team with a healing neck injury, assisting his hapless peers.  And, with Andrew Luck available in the draft, his future in blue is not entirely certain.

    As for Mr. Hillis, the Cleveland Browns running back who struck big stardom in the offseason, five games have been missed due to injury. 

    Hillis reminds of Mike Alstott, a.k.a. the A-train, plowing over defenders and using brute physicality to move the sticks.

    Who can't draw a comparison, especially when the runners lower their helmets, tuck the ball into their midsection, flex their arms, broaden their shoulders, and come head first into the line like a wrecking ball?

    So, will he play?  Reports seem to indicate that he will start for the Browns in Pittsburgh.

    While it will be a joy to see the Steelers defenders match against the power back, it's quite possibly even more fun to discuss the obvious origin of his earlier struggles.

    Here's a hint: "It's in the game!" 

Mendenhall and Redman vs. Porous Browns Run Defense

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    Against other porous run defenses, the Steelers haven't taken advantage. Hopefully, the Browns won't be added to the list of failed rushing opportunities.

    After all, a Steelers offense that can run the ball is balance, an unpredictable force, able to use the entire playbook as well as a devastating play action passing attack.

    Cleveland allows running backs 4.5 yards per carry and over 150 yards per game. Opponents are running far more often than passing (nearly a 4:3 ratio). Clearly, a weakness has been spotted, especially considering today's pass happy NFL Q.B. (quarterbacking bonanza).

    In recent weeks, the running game has improved. Against the Bengals, Mendenhall has scored four touchdowns this season, and Redman has been very effective. The rushing attack was a significant part of the Pittsburgh attack during a 35-7 victory, as it was during a 38-17 win over Tennessee. In that contest, the Steelers ran wild on the Titans, and Jonathan Dwyer had over 100 yards.

    Who really wants to contend against the FACT that the offense looked best against the Bengals and Titans, discluding the Patriots and their worthless pass defense from consideration?

    With an effective running game, the offense opened up and had their best efforts. In the mentioned games....

    ....Pittsburgh was able to score five passing touchdowns against Tennessee.

    ....Big Ben completed 15-of-23 passes and two touchdowns against Cincinnati.

    How can anyone deny the huge impact of a balanced offense?

    When Rashard and Isaac make noise, everything else is simply made easier. With a favorable matchup, the two backs must take advantage.

Colt McCoy

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    The Browns took a chance on the Texas Longhorns superstar, and the jury may no longer be out on his long-term potential. In fact, the conclusion by most fans of Colt McCoy as a mediocre (at best) NFL talent may not be completely fair.

    Throwing to receivers such as Muhamed Massaquoi isn't the same spoils as targeting Hines Ward and Jericho Cotchery as third or fourth options!

    Nevertheless, the young quarterback has yet to impress in a year slated for progress in Cleveland by most fans and analysts. In the unforgiving NFL ("Not For Long"), fairness isn't given that much consideration.

    Get it done. Or get out. That could just as well be the NFL slogan.

    Last year, he showed promise in his debut against Pittsburgh, completing 23-of-33 passes with a touchdown and two interceptions. His home performance didn't stack up, as he hit on 20-of-41 attempts, threw a garbage score, and had three picks.

    Many fans may have seen the NFL Films highlights of the contest. Harrison plants McCoy into the cold, hard field of Cleveland Browns Stadium. Colt gets up wincing, and his reaction and overall projection reeked of a defeated man. Cleveland lost the finale game, 41-9.

    While McCoy has done a fine job avoiding turnovers, his anemic 5.9 yards per attempt is a huge falloff from his 7.1 average in his rookie 2010 campaign.

    Adding onto the pile of problems that includes his opponent as well as his seeming regression, the quarterback hurt his knee against the Ravens. An knee sprain occurred in a collision with defensive end Arthur Rhodes.

    With his mobility possibly lacking, McCoy hopes that his offensive line (which has surrendered 23 sacks of McCoy) doesn't turn him into an immobile target.

    While Big Ben dominates the series, McCoy is not fully baptized.  If he doesn't show huge leaps soon, he may never get the experience of winning against Pittsburgh. 

"A Nailbiter and a Blowout"

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    Isn't it odd how each season typically sees both a blowout and a nail-biter contest between these rivals? 

    In 1999, the Steelers christened new Cleveland Browns Stadium with a commanding 43-0 victory. Later that season, Cleveland stunned Pittsburgh with a 16-15 win at Three Rivers Stadium (see video).

    In 2000, Pittsburgh blew a shot at a late tying field goal, and time ran out during a 23-30 loss in Ohio.  The rematch saw the Men of Steel win 22-0. 

    2001 saw an overtime contest and a 28-7 whooping.

    After an exception in 2002 (the Steelers won all three games by three points, including a wild playoff affair), the Browns smacked Pittsburgh around on Sunday Night Football in 2003, 33-13. Later in the year, Pittsburgh avenged the loss in Cleveland, winning by a touchdown.

    2005 saw a 34-21 finish (admittedly not as close as the indicated score) and a 41-0 Christmas Eve win for the 'Burgh in Browns Town.

    2006? A Steelers comeback in Cleveland (24-20) preceded the Steel City rematch (27-7).

    The Browns were competitive in 2007. It didn't show on opening day, when they lost on opening weekend at home by 27 points. In Pittsburgh, Joshua Cribbs worked special teams magic, and the Browns lost a tight contest after a tying field goal attempt came up just short.

    The Steelers won 10-6 and 31-0 in their championship campaign of 2008.

    In 2009, Big Ben threw for 400 yards during a win, then looked dreadful (mostly as he lied on the field) in a 13-6 loss.

    Even last season, the streak continued. A 28-10 win in Ben's return game was a close contest late into the second half, but the rematch in Ohio saw a 'Burgh beatdown of the Browns, 41-9.

    It's an amazing coincidence and a fun pattern to recognize.

    If the script dictates that we must again have both a lopsided and tight score in the series this season, would it be better to get the close game out of the way at home, amidst supportive fans?  Or, would it be best to put Cleveland away at Heinz, leaving the stress for a colder day in Week 17?

    I propose to break the pattern! The Steelers need to settle in early, keep their foot on the gas and blow them out twice, starting on Thursday Night Football.

    Who knows? Maybe the 2011 Steelers will finally show a prime time audience their actual potential.