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Pittsburgh-Cleveland: Hated Steelers 'Rivalry' in Week Six

Steve TaterCorrespondent IOctober 14, 2009

CLEVELAND,OH - NOVEMBER 14: James Harrison #92 of the Pittsburgh Steelers is congradulated by James Farrior #51 after a defensive stop during the game against the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium on November 14, 2004 in Cleveland, Ohio.    (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The Cleveland Browns face hated rival, and last season’s Super Bowl Champion, Pittsburgh Steelers this week at Pittsburgh.

The Steelers come into Week Six with back-to-back victories to sit at 3-2, but are still not playing championship-caliber football right now. Specifically, the Steelers are struggling to close out games and are suffering from a number of injuries to some key players.

Last week’s 28-21 victory over the Detroit Lions may have raised more questions than answers for the Steelers. Their defense allowed aging QB Daunte Culpepper, and the pedestrian Lions, to accumulate 335 yards and collect 11 fourth-quarter first downs.

Had the ferocious Steeler pass rush not sacked Culpepper seven times for 57 yards, there would have been a lot more focus placed on the poor play of their defensive backfield this week.

In a Week Four win, the Steelers allowed 21 fourth-quarter points to the San Diego Chargers. In a Week Three loss, they allowed the Bengals to score 14 fourth-quarter points. In a Week Two loss, they allowed the Bears to score 10 points in the last six minutes of the game.

Does anyone notice a pattern here?

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The Pittsburgh defense may get a shot in the arm if All Pro safety Troy Polamalu can return this week against the Browns. Polamalu, who is largely regarded as the heart of Steelers' defense, has missed four games due to a torn knee ligament. He has been limited in practice so far.

But just as Polamalu is returning to health, they may be losing the services of DE Aaron Smith for an extended period of time with a shoulder ailment. Teammates call Smith the most underrated player on the defense.

Backup defensive ends Travis Kirschke, Nick Eason, and rookie Ziggy Hood are less than comparable replacements for Smith.

Nose tackle Casey Hampton is one of the best at his position. He clogs the middle in the run game and can collapse the pocket in the pass game.

Brett Keisel and Eason rotate at the right end spot. Neither is a playmaker, but both do their jobs keeping opposing offensive linemen off their exceptionally active linebackers.

LaMarr Woodley and Kent State product James Harrison are the best bookend outside linebackers in the game. They combined for an amazing 27.5 sacks in 2008. Harrison already has six sacks and four forced fumbles this year.

James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons start in the middle of the 3-4 defense. Farrior, now in his thirteenth season, is getting long in the tooth, but did have 133 tackles in ’08. Timmons is primed to break out entering his third year in the league.

While the front seven is one of the best, if not the best in football, the defensive backfield is less than stellar. Not having Polamalu cannot be used an excuse, since the big-hitting safety is more of a factor in the run game and pass rush than in coverage anyway.

Ike Taylor is the leader of the cornerback unit, but is not by any stretch of the imagination a shutdown corner. William Gay starts at the opposite side and has shown he can hit, but the third-year player still struggles as a pass defender.

Free safety Ryan Clark’s low interception count is startling, considering the amount of havoc the front seven creates.

If the Browns are going to have any success at all on offense this week, they are going to have to throw the ball down the field. The Steelers will not allow the Browns to just pound the ball between the tackles; so if Cleveland enters this game with last week’s game plan, there are going to be a lot of three-and-out series.

The problem for the Browns is that their lack of playmakers at wide receiver make opening it up a risky proposition. Look for the Browns to get the running backs more involved in the passing game. This also might be a good time to get Josh Cribbs the ball on some misdirection plays to take advantage of the Steelers propensity to over-pursue.

The Steelers’ offense has been inconsistent as well, although QB Ben Roethlisberger is playing at a really high level right now. With almost 1,500 yards in five games, he is on pace to shatter his previous high yardage figure of 3,513.

Big Ben still is susceptible to holding on to the ball too long and taking the sack. He has taken six sacks in the past two games and 13 for the season; But his ability to keep the play alive by moving around in the pocket more than makes up for those issues.

Starting running back Willie Parker will most likely miss his third straight game with turf toe. Backup Rashard Mendenhall does not possess the same electrifying abilities, but did rip off 165 yards and two touchdowns against the Chargers two weeks ago.

Old vet Hines Ward is still plugging away in his 12th year. He only has one touchdown so far, but with 440 yards, he may very well set a career high in pass-receiving yards.

Many felt Santonio Holmes had become the Steelers primary receiving option, but he has been disappointing after starting the year with a nine-catch, 131-yard, one-touchdown game. He has not caught a touchdown pass since.

Wide receiver Limas Sweed was drafted last year to provide Roethlisberger with the “big” wideout he craved. When he has been healthy, he has been a major disappointment. He only has one catch in 2009 after grabbing only six in 2008.

Tight end Heath Miller is a huge weapon in the Steelers' passing game. He already has 29 catches and is a frequent target near the goal line.

Right or wrong, the Pittsburgh offensive line has been dubbed the weakness of the club. In fact, many so-called experts ranked this offensive line as the worst in football in 2008.

Roethlisberger has been on record as saying some of the lines issues should be placed on his shoulders. The team has improved its sack totals so far this season.

C Justin Hartwig, LG Chris Kemoeatu, RG Trai Essex, LT Max Starks, and RT Willie Colon are all big, run-blocking road-road graders. Colon in particular can be dominating. But this unit can be beaten by quick pass-rushers.

On paper, the Pittsburgh offense does not scare you. But they are a veteran group who always seem to do just enough to get the win.

Although the Steelers' MO over the years has been to be a grind-it-out style running team, this year’s squad seems to become more reliant on its quarterback to make plays. They are scrappy and tough, and even the receiving corps will knock your head off if you don’t keep it on a swivel.

The Browns must be disciplined and not overrun plays. If the Browns are to have any chance to win this game, they are going to have to keep Roethlisberger in the pocket. The Steelers are dangerous when Big Ben breaks containment and forces defensive backs to have to cover receivers all over the field.

Overall, the Steeler defense poses too many issues for this Browns offense (with or without Polamalu). Cleveland just does not have enough weapons on the outside to take advantage of a weak secondary.

Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is going to have to get really creative to solve the Steeler D, something he has not shown the propensity to do so far.

For a half, the Browns' defense can hold the Steelers from putting up too many points. But my fear is that they get worn down when the Browns best offensive play becomes “The Punt.”

Final Prediction: Pittsburgh Steelers 24 – Cleveland Browns 6

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