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In Cleveland, hope dies last

Browns vs. Steelers – What to watch for in Week 6

browns steelers previewThe Cleveland Browns return home today to face the Pittsburgh Steelers in what may me the most important game so far of the season.

After rallying last week against Tennessee to pull out the win, the Browns are looking to post consecutive victories for the first time in more than a year. Just as importantly, they are already 0-2 in the AFC North Division, so another divisional loss would make things exceedingly more difficult.

Today’s game also represents the second game in a five-game stretch where the Browns, while maybe not being favored, will at least be taking on a group of teams that are beatable.

“This is as big of a game in Cleveland in probably a while, just because of their record, our record, the rivalry that’s there,” Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said earlier this week. “I anticipate it being a hostile environment, maybe like nothing I’ve ever seen up there before.”

But before they can start thinking about Jacksonville, Oakland and Tampa Bay, the Browns need to get by the Steelers, which is never an easy task for this squad.

Here are a few things to keep an eye on today as the Browns look to improve to get on the right side of .500 for the first time this season.

Browns run defense vs. Le’Veon Bell

browns steelers bellThe Browns are currently struggling against the run (we’re trying to be polite, here) as they are giving up 5.1 yards per carry (ranking them at No. 30 in the NFL in that category) and 152.5 yards per game (which checks in at No. 29 on the charts).

Meanwhile, the Steelers come in the with eighth-best rushing attack at 137.2 yards per game, and with Bell at second in the league with 460 rushing yards and a 5.3 yards per carry average, good for eighth.

In the season opener, the Browns had no answers for Bell, as he rushed for 109 yards in addition to catching six passes for 88 yards.

“I think one of the things that really make him special is he’s a patient runner,” Browns defensive end Desmond Bryant said in published reports. “If you’re too quick to get out of your gap, he’s going to find that and be right where you’re supposed to be. He really hurts you with that. We obviously didn’t do such a good job with that the last time, so we have to go back and do a better job of containing him and doing our job — being in the gaps where we’re supposed to be.”

“Each week we continue to search for the answer (to the run defense) and it just becomes that much more important to us knowing we have the capability of doing it, but we haven’t done it yet. So we just have to find whatever it is, the X factor, to get it done.”

Of course, even if the Browns can keep the running game in check that just opens up another Pandora’s Box of issues.

Browns pass defense vs. Ben Roethlisberger

browns steelers roethlisbergerIt really doesn’t seem to matter what the Browns do, they just can’t seem to figure out way to stop Roethlisberger.

Since entering the league in 2004, Roethlisberger has posted an 18-1 record against the Browns, the best of any quarterback against one team since 1970. He has thrown for 4,367 yards, 28 touchdowns and posted a quarterback rating of 97.7.

It doesn’t matter if he is facing the defenses of Butch Davis, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur or Rob Chudzinski; or throwing to Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Mike Wallace or Antonio Brown; Roethlisberger has found a way to make life miserable for the Browns.

As bad as the rush defense has been, the pass defense has been right there with them. The Browns are giving up 269.2 yards per game (ranking them 27th in the NFL) and 8.1 yards per attempt (good for 30th).

Buster Skrine is still horrible when asked to cover wide receivers on the outside rather than the slot; Justin Gilbert has lost playing time to undrafted rookies as the continues to make the transition to the pro game; and even before he hurt his hip in the win against the Titans, something hasn’t been right about Joe Haden.

If there was ever a week where the Browns were finally going to get something going against Roethlisberger, today would be a good time to start.

We’re just not sure how they are going to accomplish that with the way things are currently going.

The Browns defense vs. themselves

In addition to Haden possibly being limited with his hip, the Browns may be without linebackers Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo, and defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin, who were all limited in practice this week for various reasons. Defensive linemen Phil Taylor and Billy Winn are definitely out.

We like that the Browns have more depth than they have had in a while, but this may be taking things a bit too far.

“We have to be ready to play,” head coach Mike Pettine said. “Hopefully we can get the guys that are listed out there. As big of a cliché as (next man up) is, it’s very true. I always talk to the coaches don’t be that coach whose starters are the only ones that are ready. To me, the true measure of a coach is how his backups play when they’re in there – and this week will be a good test of that.”

The thing is, while you would certainly like to see the starters out there (they are the starters for a reason, after all), with the way the team has been playing through the first quarter of the season, it’s hard to see how the defense could play any worse even with the backups in there.

The second time around

browns steelers offenseWhen the Browns and the Steelers met on opening day, quarterback Brian Hoyer put the offense into overdrive in the second half and hasn’t slowed down since.

The Browns are currently ninth in the league in total offense, 11th in scoring and fourth in rushing. Hoyer is completing 62 percent of his passes, has only thrown one interception, and is the ninth-best passer in the NFL if you go by passer rating.

“I think Brian’s gotten better each week,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said this week. “He did some good things in the Pittsburgh game, did some better things in New Orleans, had his best game at that time versus Baltimore. Then, I thought he played his best this week versus Tennessee. I think Brian’s gotten more comfortable in the offense each week, and I think he’s gotten more comfortable in himself.”

This is the first time this season, though, that the Browns will be facing an opponent for the second time. The Browns were able to rip the Steelers with a no-huddle offense as they rallied back from a 24-point deficit, but now that the Steelers know what to expect it will be interesting to see what adjustments Shanahan and Hoyer come up with for the rematch.

The Prediction

There is probably no reason to think the Browns can beat the Steelers today, especially when you take into consideration the issues we’ve covered so far.

But there was also no reason to think the Browns would come back from a 24-point deficit against the Steelers, beat the New Orleans Saints, come within a few plays of beating the Baltimore Ravens, and stage a historic comeback to beat Tennessee that landed the jerseys of Hoyer and Travis Benjamin in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

This has quickly turned into a season of the unexpected and the unexplainable for the Browns, so today seems as good a time as any to beat the Steelers and Roethlisberger for the first time in a game where Pittsburgh has something to play for.

The Browns have made progress this season toward becoming a legitimate NFL team.

Today’s the day that they take the next big step.

(Photos courtesy of clevelandbrowns.com and steelers.com)

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One thought on “Browns vs. Steelers – What to watch for in Week 6

  1. I don’t have anything to add but wanted to commend you on a very well written piece. In this new world order when poor, even egregious, writing has become both acceptable and oftentimes expected, excellent writing is not wasted or overlooked. Couple that with solid, balanced analysis as you’ve done here and there are those of us most thankful for your efforts.

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