Steelers-Browns Preview

Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers insisted they weren’t

panicking about their sinking playoff chances after a three-game

losing streak. A fourth straight loss, however, seems to have the

Super Bowl champions contemplating wholesale changes.

With their chances of defending that title fading with each

defeat, the Steelers hit the road Thursday night looking to halt

their midseason swoon with a 13th consecutive victory over the

feeble Cleveland Browns.

Pittsburgh (6-6) started the season 1-2, but then ran off five

consecutive wins to put itself in position to challenge emerging

Cincinnati in the AFC North.

An 18-12 Bengals victory at Heinz Field on Nov. 15, however,

gave Cincinnati a one-game lead and a season sweep of the Steelers.

Three subsequent losses by three points apiece have now left

Pittsburgh’s wild-card hopes in doubt.

The Steelers’ once-vaunted defense has blown fourth-quarter

leads in all three, with its worst collapse Sunday against Oakland.

Pittsburgh coughed up three separate leads in the final 8:21,

allowing the Raiders’ 31st-ranked offense to score 21 points and

leave Heinz Field with a 27-24 win.

“I can’t even describe how frustrating it is right now to be

6-6,” linebacker James Farrior said. “We thought we’d be doing a

lot better at this point. But we are what our record says we

are.”

That record currently has the Steelers on the outside of the

playoff picture looking in, but ground can certainly be made up in

the muddled AFC wild-card picture the final four weeks. Denver

(8-4) and Jacksonville (7-5) are the two current leaders, with

Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Miami and the New York Jets all 6-6.

The Steelers own a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Broncos and

face the Ravens and Dolphins to close the season.

Tomlin, however, is far more concerned with the franchise

avoiding its first five-game slide since Sept. 28-Nov. 2, 2003. A

week after saying his team “doesn’t blink in the face of adversity”

and would “unleash hell in December,” Tomlin admitted Monday that

personnel moves are on the way.

“We can’t stay status quo in terms of how we’re approaching this

and expect the pattern of behavior or outcome to change,” Tomlin

said. “That’s unrealistic. That’s hoping. This is not a hope

business.”

One of those likely moves certainly won’t be by choice. Receiver

Hines Ward, who has six touchdowns in his last eight games against

Cleveland, likely won’t play after suffering a hamstring injury

late in the loss to Oakland. Rookie Mike Wallace, who has five

catches during the losing streak after having 25 in his first seven

games, will get the start if Ward can’t go.

The other noticeable changes will come in the secondary. All-Pro

safety Troy Polamalu (knee) will likely miss his fourth straight

game – he left early in the November loss to Cincinnati – and

struggling cornerback William Gay might not play after suffering a

concussion against the Raiders.

Meanwhile, Tomlin suggested veteran corner Ike Taylor, who was

beaten for a 75-yard touchdown Sunday, could be benched, with

rookies Joe Burnett and Keenan Lewis seeing more playing time in

the secondary. Polamalu, who’s played in three full games, has

three interceptions, but no Pittsburgh cornerback has a pick.

“I’m not going to make excuses,” Tomlin said. “I think we’re

capable of playing winning football with or without Troy. Are we

different? Yes, because Troy’s a unique individual. Maybe the

ceiling is different but the floor, the level of expectation, is

the same.”

Ben Roethlisberger, who missed the team’s Nov. 29 loss at

Baltimore with a concussion, had a quarterback rating over 100.0

for his second straight game despite Sunday’s loss, and the Ohio

native was outstanding against the Browns (1-11) earlier this

season. Roethlisberger was 23 of 35 for 417 yards and two

touchdowns on Oct. 18 in Pittsburgh’s 27-14 win, its 12th straight

against Cleveland.

San Diego’s 13-game winning streak over Oakland is the active

record for most consecutive wins over one opponent.

Much has changed with the Browns since the teams’ first meeting,

most notably the benching of quarterback Derek Anderson. Brady

Quinn, who’s started Cleveland’s past four games, has never taken a

snap against the Steelers.

Quinn also started the Browns’ first three games, and had one

touchdown and five interceptions to his credit following an ugly

Monday night loss to Baltimore on Nov. 16.

Two of his past three starts have been solid statistically,

however. Quinn threw for 304 yards and four touchdowns in

Cleveland’s last-second 38-37 loss at Detroit on Nov. 22, then had

271 yards and 3 TDs Sunday in a 30-23 defeat to San Diego.

Quinn hasn’t thrown an interception in his past three games.

“I’ve been happy with his overall decision making,” coach Eric

Mangini said. “I think that, offensively, we’ve made improvements

collectively.”

Cleveland’s defense, however, still has much room for

improvement. The Browns rank last in total defense (400.3 yards per

game), and the 543 yards the Steelers gained in Week 6 were the

second-highest total by any team in 2009.

Cleveland’s Joshua Cribbs has returned three kickoffs for

touchdowns against the Steelers, including one this season.