By Tony Grossi
Browns vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Sunday 1 p.m. in Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA
Last game: Lost to Cincinnati Bengals, 13-10, Dec. 13, in Pittsburgh.
Coach: Mike Tomlin, 62-33, sixth year.
Series record: Steelers lead, 64-57, counting postseason.
Last meeting: Browns won, 20-14, Nov. 25, in Cleveland.
League rankings: Offense is 21st overall (26th rushing, 11th passing), defense is first (first rushing, second passing) and turnover differential is minus-14.
Offensive overview: You think they miss coordinator Bruce Arians, who was told to retire after last season? Every area has broken down – running game, passing game, receiving game, offensive line. Now its most consistent player all year, TE Heath Miller, is out with a knee injury. QB Ben Roethlisberger is 0-3 since returning from shoulder and rib injuries. He had three costly interceptions in playoff-ousting losses to the Cowboys and Bengals. The receiving trio of Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders has been underwhelming. The running backs, who fumbled five times in the first Browns meeting, have been problematic all year. Rashard Mendenhall is expected to be the feature back this week. A carousel at offensive line now features two rookies on the right side, David DeCastro at guard and Kelvin Beachum at tackle.
Defensive overview: It’s not nearly as good as its sterling ranking. The lifeblood of coordinator Dick LeBeau’s zone blitz system is the outside linebacker position. Both James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley have had sub-par seasons due to injuries. After holding seven opponents in a row to under 200 yards passing, it allowed 200 to Philip Rivers, 341 to Tony Romo and 278 to Andy Dalton in devastating losses that turned their season upside down. The underwhelming pass rush – notwithstanding six sacks of Dalton – and injuries in the secondary have exposed the strained nickel defense. Even the return of safety Troy Polamalu hasn’t helped. They are 1-3 since he returned to the lineup after missing the previous seven games with injuries.
Special teams overview: After being nearly perfect, PK Shaun Suisham missed field goals from 24 and 53 yards against the Bengals. He is 27 of 30 for the season with a long of 52 yards. He has 27 touchbacks on kickoffs. P Drew Butler is 26th in gross average (44.0 yards) and 27th in net (37.6). Neither of the longest returns – 68 yards with a punt by Emmanuel Sanders and 63 yards with a kickoff by Chris Rainey – resulted in points, and a few others have been nullified by penalties. The coverage teams are just OK and have yielded a 63-yard punt return for touchdown to Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones.
Players to watch:
1. QB Ben Roethlisberger: He didn’t play in the first meeting, so his record v. the Browns remains 14-1. What looked initially like possibly his best season has disintegrated because of rib and shoulder injuries and a recent spate of costly interceptions. Still, his 95.5 passer rating (23 touchdowns v. eight interceptions) is formidable.
2. LB James Harrison: Notorious Browns-killer and serial cheap-shot artist has struggled since OTAs with knee problems. His five sacks, 15 QB pressures and two forced fumbles are his worst postings in years. He is playing to his age (34).
3. WR Mike Wallace: The free agent-to-be could be playing his last game in a Steelers uniform. This offense under first-year coordinator Todd Haley reduced him from one of the AFC’s explosive receivers to a mundane possession guy because of shorter routes. He has 64 catches and eight TDs, but a very unscary 13.1 yards per catch average. He was non-existent in the first meeting.
Injury report: TE Heath Miller (knee) and CB Ike Taylor (ankle), OT Mike Adams (high ankle) are out. OT Marcus Gilbert (ankle) has missed the past two games. CB Keenan Lewis (knee) will be limited.
Small world: Linebackers coach Keith Butler was on the Browns staff 1999-2002 … Defensive line coach John Mitchell was on the Browns staff 1991-93 … Quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner was born in Cleveland … Linebacker James Harrison was born in Akron and attended Coventry High School and Kent State … Director of player development Ray Jackson played for the Browns in 1999-2001 and also worked as a scout … Offensive lineman Mike Adams was born in Dublin, OH and played at Ohio State … Defensive lineman Cameron Heyman played at Ohio State … Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is a native of London, OH and 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 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
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