Jan 3, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) makes a touchdown reception against the Cleveland Browns during the second quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports
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In the first installment of 2016’s edition of this classic rivalry, the Cleveland Browns are heavy underdogs. What must they focus on in order to shock the world?
Depending on one’s definition of the term “rivalry,” the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns could either have one of the strongest in the league, or none at all. On one hand, Cleveland fans have a great deal of spite for the Steelers. But on the other hand, the history between the two teams is so lopsided it’s hard to classify this as a rivalry.
The Browns are 4-28 in their last 32 matchups with Pittsburgh, and have been outscored 771-371 in all of these meetings combined. Yet somehow, fans get so excited for Cleveland vs. Pittsburgh matchups, as they are always meaningful for the Steelers down the stretch.
The situation the two teams enter this one in is not unfamiliar, but very different. Both teams are used to the circumstances they currently have. However, Cleveland does not often feel such pressure to get into the win column, as they are still winless. Pittsburgh isn’t usually trailing in the AFC North race and doesn’t normally have a losing record at this time of year.
Still, the game is already seemingly out of reach for the Browns before kickoff. Pittsburgh is favored according to Las Vegas by eight points, and coming off of their heartbreaking loss to the Dallas Cowboys, they are sure to be focused in this critical game.
Though virtually no one will give Cleveland a shot in this one, they still have to put together a gameplan, knowing that time is running out to come up with a win. The following are the keys to the game, detailing what the Browns need to do well in order to keep themselves in this game and have an opportunity to pull off a miraculous upset.
Nov 6, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Cody Kessler (6) runs the ball while looking for a receiver during the first quarter against the Dallas Cowboys at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports
As every game has been for Cleveland thus far, Sunday will present the Browns’ offensive line with a unique challenge. Pittsburgh possesses a stout front seven in their 3-4 scheme, led by defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.
Statistically though, the Steelers are not as elite defensively as they normally are. Ranking just 15th against the run and 28th against the pass, teams have successfully exploited the holes in their defense in past weeks.
There is potential for the Browns to do the same, but they must protect the quarterback. In order to give Cody Kessler an opportunity to continue his growth this Sunday, he has to have time. Also, against a vulnerable Pittsburgh secondary, pass protection is even more critical. The Browns would like to take a lot of deep shots, so having a pocket intact for an extra few seconds would allow Terrelle Pryor and Corey Coleman ample time to get downfield.
The good news is, the Steelers have the second-fewest sacks in the NFL this season. The bad news is, the Browns have allowed the second-most.
The edges of the offensive line will be critical in this game, as Pittsburgh’s four linebackers will use their speed to attack from the outside. This is why Joe Thomas and Austin Pasztor must have excellent games. If they do, and if the hits Pittsburgh gets on Kessler are limited, Cleveland will have the opportunities they want to do damage through the air.
Oct 30, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver Terrelle Pryor (11) runs the ball for a first down against New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis (24) during the second quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports
If the Browns can successfully protect Kessler by sustaining a pocket consistently, Cleveland can then begin going to work through the air. With two outside threats, it would seem natural for Cleveland to dial up a lot of deep passes on the edges. While this may be an effective play to run occassionally, head coach Hue Jackson should emphasize the middle of the field more.
This is due to both the personnel Pittsburgh presents, as well as their scheme. With a strong cornerback in William Gay on the left side, but an otherwise inexperienced unit, the Steelers use a lot of safety help. With Ross Cockrell starting on the other side, free safety Mike Mitchell spends a lot of time helping out on the right side.
The Browns’ initial instinct would be to go after Cockrell. While this may work early on, they must then adapt to a Pittsburgh defense which will help out on that side. Doing this comes in the form of working the middle of the field, an area where tight end Gary Barnidge always excels.
Pryor and Coleman also have the ability to make athletic plays in the open field, so finding them over the middle would be another effective way to jump start the offense. Then, when linebackers drop into coverage, the Browns can anticipate this and slip a screen pass to Isaiah Crowell or Duke Johnson. Most importantly, they must continue to work the middle of the field.
Using the middle of the field is most beneficial because it throws Pittsburgh’s defense off-balance. For an offense which will likely abandon the run game early on once again, they must at least do what they can within their passing attack to make the offense less predictable. Moving the ball around to different receivers and running unique routes is one way to do this.
Aug 18, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns defensive end Carl Nassib (94), defensive linemen Danny Shelton (55) and Nick Hayden (71) during the first quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports
While the numbers for Pittsburgh’s defense gives Cleveland fans hope coming into Week 11, the Steelers’ offense does just the opposite. The combination of Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown is a lethal one, leading Pittsburgh’s passing attack to a top-five mark in the NFL. While the rushing attack of the Steelers is ranked just 25th, this is deceiving, as Le’Veon Bell was suspended early in the season, and does a lot of his damage through the air anyways.
There is no doubt Pittsburgh is going to put up some points on Sunday, but the Browns can slow them down if they rattle Roethlisberger. Sending exotic blitzes would be a start, which would be most effective in third-and-long situations.
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton has a tendency to back off in the most important situations, likely in fear of losing containment. But this week, he will just have to let it all loose. Linebackers Christian Kirksey and Jamie Collins may be cut out more for pass coverage, but it doesn’t matter. This week they will be thrust into an aggressive role, including a heavy dose of pass rush.
Relentlessly going after the quarterback may backfire at times. But if the Browns decide to play it safe and focus on covering receivers, Roethlisberger will have far too much time. Even in their best intentions, the Browns will be shred once again through the air. The only way to reverse a troubling trend is to send more rushers than Pittsburgh’s offensive line can handle.
Oct 2, 2016; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins running back Matt Jones (31) carries the ball as Cleveland Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey (58) and Browns defensive back Joe Haden (23) make the tackle in the first quarter at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
One major way attacking the quarterback could backfire is through short screen passes. Coupled with the fact that Cleveland hasn’t successfully defended a screen all year, Pittsburgh’s tendency to dial up several screens every game presents a danger. With a talented back in Bell, the Steelers are perfectly set up to be one of the better screen pass offenses in the game.
This doesn’t mean that the Browns should back off of their relentless pressure on Roethlisberger, but it is a play they should be extra careful of.
On second down, Pittsburgh’s favorite down to throw a screen pass, the Browns should dedicate a linebacker to the running back coming out of the backfield. They shouldn’t worry so much about how many yards are gained on the play, but it should be their goal to stop the recipient of the pass before he reaches the secondary every time. If this happens, Pittsburgh will be less likely to throw them later in the game.
Of course, another solution to the threat of the screen pass is to throw Pittsburgh off-balance. These plays are clearly within the Steelers’ comfort zone, so having a lead in the game will reduce them. Also, if the Browns can prevent the Steelers from staying ahead of the sticks, they are much less likely to be dealt a strong dose of screen passes.
Throwing Pittsburgh off-schedule is one way of throwing them off-balance. This must be achieved in order for the Browns to defend the screen pass, which is necessary for a competitive contest.
Nov 10, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce (78) blocks Cleveland Browns quarterback Josh McCown (13) pass in the end zone during the fourth quarter at M&T Bank Stadium. Baltimore Ravens defeated Cleveland Browns 28-7. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
As has been the case in the past several seasons, careless play has plagued the Browns in 2016. Cleveland is 26th in the league in turnover margin, and has given the ball away under some of the most crucial circumstances. Examples include two fumbles against Washington which cost the team the game, as well as a costly interception at the end of the first Baltimore game.
Poor special teams play can also be tabbed as carelessness at times. The Browns have committed penalties on special teams in every game of the year, a troubling trend.
At 0-10, it may be difficult to concentrate. With a bye week in two weeks, this sentiment could be magnified.
The Browns have to realize how much their one opportunity to host Pittsburgh means to the fans. They also ought to be reminded that a winless season is acceptable under no circumstances, and that they have few opportunities to notch the elusive victory fans are so desperately craving.