Countdown to The Draft
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By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
Sunday, 1 p.m., in Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA
Last game: Beat Packers, 38-31, Dec. 21, in Green Bay, WI.
Coach: Mike Tomlin, 75-44, seventh year.
Series record: Steelers lead, 66-57 (counting postseason).
Last meeting: Steelers won, 27-11, Nov. 24, in Cleveland.
League rankings: Offense is 16th overall (29th rushing, 11th passing), defense is 14th (22nd rushing, eighth passing) and turnover differential is minus-4.
Offensive overview: Coordinator Todd Haley’s determination to run the ball is finally paying dividends. The offense remains in the hands of QB Ben Roethlisberger, but now it undeniably goes through RB Leveon Bell. For the season, the rookie is averaging 22 touches (carries and catches), but that figure has gone up to 28 the past two big wins over Cincinnati and Green Bay. Exploiting Bell in the run and pass game has eased the burden on the eternally-injured offensive line. Even with a third starting center, Cody Wallace, Roethlisberger has been sacked only five times the last five games after being on a pace for 60. Given a running game and the freedom to wing it sporadically in his favored no-huddle attack, Roethlisberger has put together one of his best seasons statistically. The beneficiary has been Antonio Brown, whose 101 receptions for 1,412 yards rank him third in both categories.
Defensive overview: This hasn’t been one of coordinator Dick LeBeau’s vintage years, to be sure. The Packers gashed them for 152 yards on the ground. The pass rush is tame. The secondary is slow and vulnerable to big plays; they’ve given up a league-high 11 plays of 50 yards or more. But they still have playmakers at every unit – Cameron Heyward on the D-line, Jason Worlids at linebacker and Troy Polamalu at in-the-box safety. One of the concessions LeBeau has made this season is to phase out of his traditional 3-4 alignment and use a dime defense almost as much as his base. This alignment employs Polamalu as linebacker and brings on Will Allen at safety. One lineup change since the first meeting in Cleveland has Cortez Allen back as a starting cornerback and William Gay, who had a monster game vs. the Browns, being used as a nickel back.
Special teams overview: Kicker Shaun Suisham is 28 of 30 on field goals with a long of 48 yards. He is 29th with 20 touchbacks on kickoffs. Punter Mat McBriar is 31st in gross average (41.3 yards) and 31st in net (35.4). He has suffered one block and has thrown a pass for 30 yards on a fake. Antonio Brown is third in punt returns (13.4 average) and has a 67-yard TD. Felix Jones is 20th in kickoff returns (22.2).
Players to watch:
1. QB Ben Roethlisberger: Finishing off one of his best seasons statistically, he should eclipse the franchise record for passing yards and will play in 16 games for only the second time in his career. He is 16-1 vs. the Browns with a 100.0 passer rating.
2. WR Antonio Brown: Third in the league in receptions (101) and yards (1,412), he is only player in five years to have at least five receptions for 50 yards in every game. He also has returned a punt for a touchdown.
3. RB Le’veon Bell: Developing as a workhorse back, the rookie from Michigan State may have a puny rushing average of 3.4, but his receiving ability (44 catches) enables the offense to keep the pass pressure off Roethlisberger.
Injury report: LB LaMarr Woodley (calves) is out. DE Brett Keisel (plantar fasciitis) LB Jason Worlids (abdominal), WR Emmanuel Sanders (knee) and WR Markus Wheaton (broken finger) will be limited.
Small world: Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was born in London, OH, played at Ohio State and was a fifth-round draft pick of the Browns in 1959 … Assistant head coach/defensive line John Mitchell was a coach with the Browns 1991-93 … linebackers coach Keith Butler was with the Browns 1999-02 … quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner was born in Cleveland … wide receivers coach Richard Mann was with the Browns 1985-93 … defensive assistant Jerry Olsavsky is a native of Youngstown and coached at Youngstown State … quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is from Findlay, OH, and played at Miami (Ohio) … quarterback Bruce Gradkowski played at Toledo and for the Browns in 2008 … defensive end Cameron Heyward and offensive lineman Mike Adams played at Ohio State.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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