The Browns and Steelers are meeting to finish the regular season for the eighth time in the last 10 years, and as usual the Browns are looking up at their rivals from the basement to the penthouse of the AFC North.
There will be some drama to the game in Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. The Browns, 0-15, are trying to avoid being only the second team in NFL history (the 2008 Detroit Lions were the first) to finish 0-16.
The Steelers, 12-3, have already clinched a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. They have an outside chance of securing home-field advantage, but for that to happen they would have to beat the Browns and the Jets would have to upset the New England Patriots in Foxboro. Both games kick off at 1 p.m. Eastern.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is weighing the pros and cons of resting key starters for at least part of the game against the Browns. He definitely will not have All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown, who is nursing a calf injury, but he could give quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Le’Veon Bell the day off or play them the first half and then let the backups take over.
“That’s really undecided and unimportant at the beginning of the week for us,” Tomlin said on Wednesday. “More important than anything is we lay a foundation of our plan and get going in terms of things we need to do to play well. That’s always been our mentality. Those are things (who might be rested) we’ll decide later in the week.”
Browns head coach Hue Jackson doesn’t have such luxurious decisions to make. He is trying to avoid the embarrassment of coaching a winless team and trying to save his job.
The Browns were hit by injuries to key players early in the season, particularly to left tackle Joe Thomas (triceps), linebacker Jamie Collins (knee) and defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah (foot).
Kick returner Matthew Dayes (knee), fullback Dan Vitale (knee) and cornerback Jamar Taylor (foot) did not practice with the Browns on Wednesday.
Most of all, the Browns have spent all season overcoming mistakes typical of the youngest team in the league.
The Browns are dead last in the NFL — by a wide margin — in takeaway-giveaway. Their 39 giveaways (27 interceptions and 12 lost fumbles) are the most in the league. Their 11 takeaways are the fewest.
Any chance the Browns have of upsetting the Steelers starts with the defense intercepting the ball or pouncing on a fumble. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is counting on his unit to tilt the field in favor of the Browns offense by taking the ball away.
“We’ve had some opportunities, and that’s probably been one of the most frustrating things for us this year,” Williams said. “I don’t say that for me, but for them, too. From hand skills to obviously just timing, we have to do a better job timing-wise.
“It’s find ball, see ball, get ball. We have all of those types of things where we have periods (in practice) dedicated to just stripping the football and the skillset that goes with that. I talk all of the time about these big, strong men. Are you telling me that the running back can hold onto the ball if you forcibly snap the ball from them? What’s the deal? Sometimes it’s the focus deal. They have had some things that have gone very well. We have to do better at that.”
The Browns won’t have to worry about Brown, who has always been a nemesis for them, but they will have to deal with Steelers rookie wide receiver Ju Ju Smith-Schuster. Smith-Schuster played but did not catch a pass in the season opener when the Steelers beat the Browns 21-18 in Cleveland. He has 49 receptions for 774 yards since then — a team best 15.8 yards per catch average — and six touchdown catches. Only Brown with nine has more.
The Browns can’t feel too comfortable if Roethlisberger doesn’t play. Tomlin chose to rest Big Ben for the entire game in the 2016 finale against the Browns. Landry Jones started and completed 24 of 37 passes for 277 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. He threw the winning touchdown pass of 26 yards to Cobi Hamilton in overtime. Bell and Brown were also rested the entire game.
Roethlisberger (not injury related), wide receiver Brown (calf) and center Maurkice Pouncey (hip) did not practice with the Steelers on Wednesday.