By Tony Grossi
What: Browns (2-8) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4), 1 p.m., in Cleveland Browns Stadium.
TV: WOIO-TV 19 with Kevin Harlan and Solomon Wilcots.
The set-up: It’s been bad enough when the Steelers march into town with a playoff spot already locked up and proceed to demoralize the Browns. This time, the Steelers need this win badly. They’re hanging on to the sixth and final AFC playoff seed and still have games against division rivals Baltimore and Cincinnati. They’re desperate for a win and are missing several key players.
Series history: Steelers lead, 64-56 (counting postseason), and have won four in a row.
Historical footnote: The situation preceding the Steelers’ 2009 visit to Cleveland was similar to this year’s. The Steelers, defending champions that season, were hanging around the AFC playoff field with a 6-6 record. The Browns were 1-11, their season long flushed down the toilet. But on a bitterly cold Thursday night in December, the Browns sacked Ben Roethlisberger eight times and Josh Cribbs provided the energy on offense with a 55-yard punt return and 87 yards rushing out of the Wildcat formation. The 13-6 Browns win was one of Eric Mangini’s finest moments. It helped earn him a second year as Browns coach while new President Mike Holmgren wrestled with satisfying his urge to coach v. living the good life as de facto owner.
Steelers update: They arrive in a desperate situation. Team MVP Ben Roethlisberger is out. Backup QB Byron Leftwich is out. Charlie Batch, 37, is in at quarterback. Second WR Antonio Brown and fourth WR Jerricho Cotchery are out. Former Steeler Plaxico Burress, 35, and out of football all year, was rushed in as an emergency receiving target. Safety Troy Polamalu is out, and linebacker James Harrison, the notorious Browns-killer, hasn’t been the same ruthless head-hunter since having two knee procedures this year. But the Steelers do bring two healthy running backs in Rashard Mendenhall and Jonathan Dwyer, and the No. 1-ranked defense in the league – third against the run.
Browns update: The Browns lost leads of 15-14 and 13-0 in their last two defeats to Baltimore and Dallas. They are expected to get back CBs Joe Haden (oblique) and Buster Skrine (concussion) for this game. That can’t hurt them defending Batch. The second game back for defensive tackle tandem Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin shouldn’t hurt, either, though Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley figures to protect Batch with a short passing game loaded with three-step drops. The Browns’ problem stems on offense. This will be the first exposure of rookie starters Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson, Josh Gordon and Mitch Schwartz to the Steelers’ famed zone-blitz defensive scheme.
Injury report: Steelers – QB Ben Roethlisberger (ribs, shoulder), QB Byron Leftwich (ribs, shoulder), WR Jerricho Cotchery (ribs) and OT Marcus Gilbert (ankle) are out; S Troy Polamalu (calf) is doubtful; WR Antonio Brown (ankle) is questionable. Browns – CB Dimitri Patterson (ankle) and DB Ray Ventrone (calf) are out.
Our take: I’d like to see the Browns “sell out” to win. I mean, do everything in their power to surprise or out-scheme the Steelers. Something unexpected on offense and special teams. Gimmicks, throwbacks, whatever. This was what Eric Mangini and his staff did in the Browns’ last win against Pittsburgh in 2009. If they don’t, I can’t imagine a Browns’ offense stuffed with four rookies outfoxing or out-executing Dick LeBeau and his defense.
Prediction: Steelers, 16-13.
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