Browns vs Steelers: 4 Players in the Spotlight on Thursday Night Football
Although it's been mostly a lopsided rivalry since the turn of the century, the Browns-Steelers game has playoff-level importance.
Obviously that's just for Pittsburgh. Sitting at 9-3 along with Baltimore, the Steelers can still win the AFC North with a better record. Cleveland is playing the spoiler role much like they did in 2009 (which is when the Browns recorded their last win over the Steelers).
To that end, with LaMarr Woodley (pictured) doing a flying sidekick like Liu Kang in Mortal Kombat, here are four players to watch for on Thursday night (two from each).
Jabaal Sheard: DE, Browns
As bad as the Browns offense has played all season, the defense has been respectable. That being said, one player of note is rookie DE Jabaal Sheard from Pitt University.
On the year Sheard has recorded 5.5 sacks, deflected two passes and has forced five fumbles. That's pretty impressive considering he's only a rookie and also because most offenses should be trying to isolate him from making plays.
Sheard's ability to get QB pressure will be of immense importance this week as Ben Roethlisberger's elusiveness has killed defenses numerous times in the past. The last time Cleveland beat Pittsburgh (late in 2009), the Browns sacked Big Ben eight times.
As many defenses have proven before, getting constant pressure of Roethlisberger gives you the best odds at beating Pittsburgh.
As Cleveland's best pass-rusher, Sheard must beat most one-on-one blocks. With the Steelers being a better passing team and because of Big Ben's mobility, chances are they won't leave a RB in to help with the pass protection.
D'Qwell Jackson: LB, Browns
Let's stay on defense in Cleveland because, after all, their defense gives them the best chance of winning this game.
LB D'Qwell Jackson is tied for second in the NFL with 112 tackles and is the main man in the Browns' front seven.
Only once this season has Jackson recorded less than eight tackles in a game and for his career, D'Qwell has made over 100 tackles two other times (154 being his career high).
In the trenches, Jackson will have to be the guy who slips off blocks and makes the tackles on Steelers RBs (Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore). His ability as a sure tackler is needed to slow the Pittsburgh ground game, regardless of how much interest the Steelers have in establishing a rushing attack.
As for pass defense, he'll need to spy Big Ben to prevent the scramble and key any of the RBs leaking out of the backfield on a delay. That's a lot to be responsible for, but if Cleveland wants any shot at winning, Jackson not allowing any production in the middle of the field is crucial.
Don't be surprised if he gets sent on a few inside blitzes to disrupt the Pittsburgh passing attack.
Mike Wallace: WR, Steelers
The lone offensive player to make the list, Steelers WR Mike Wallace would be the NFL's best choice for a player who could race Usain Bolt (but he'd still get burned).
Wallace is a speedy WR who averages almost 17 yards per reception. Cleveland DB Joe Haden will have his hands full unless the Browns decide to double-cover Wallace (which should be the gameplan).
This is the deal-breaker for either team in the game. As long as the Browns offense doesn't turn the ball over and Mike Wallace is completely isolated by double coverage, then it's gonna be a nail-biter.
In terms of the double coverage on Wallace, the Browns must jam him at the line of scrimmage and keep a safety over the top. The longer it takes Wallace to get down field (even if it's an additional second), the better odds of Cleveland getting a sack or forcing a turnover.
However, with other solid receiving targets in Hines Ward, Antonio Brown, and TE Heath Miller, Cleveland must have a perfect gameplan. Both Ward and Miller are capable of beating single coverage, so the Browns must choose when they double Wallace wisely, otherwise it's touchdown-city.
That being said, watch to see how much attention (or lack thereof) Cleveland gives to Wallace, as well as whether they decide to let Joe Haden cover him mono-e-mono. Either way, Wallace's production is a focal point in this game.
LaMarr Woodley: LB, Steelers
Mostly because of players like James Harrison and Troy Polomalu, Steelers LB LaMarr Woodley goes somewhat unnoticed outside of Pittsburgh.
Woodley is arguably better than Harrison and is on pace to have break his career best in sacks for a season. All season long Cleveland QB Colt McCoy has been running for his life, so don't expect anything different Thursday night whenever he drops back.
Perhaps Cleveland's best chance is to call sprint plays toward Woodley so he's double-teamed, therefore forcing Harrison to come from the backside while McCoy rolls out.
That said, you can't expect Woodley to not get pressure because he's simply too good. With nine sacks on the year (team leader) and just 37 tackles, it's clear he has one responsibility, rush the QB.
Unless Cleveland has a RB helping block or a TE getting a quick jam on the line of scrimmage, Woodley will cause havoc all night. Wherever he lines up to pressure McCoy, look for the Browns to adjust the blocking scheme.
Because if they don't, Woodley will dominate.