NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (6-6) at Cleveland (1-11)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Streaks of a negative variety have been a regular feature of the series between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns, which will resume on the banks of Lake Erie to kick off the Week 14 schedule on Thursday night.
The difference this time around is that the Steelers are one of the teams in the throes of a dubious skid.
Pittsburgh will come into Cleveland having lost four straight games, the organization's longest losing streak since it lost five in a row in 2003. Last Sunday's stunning 27-24 defeat to the struggling Oakland Raiders knocked the Steelers down to 6-6, where they maintain a tie for second place in the AFC North behind the Cincinnati Bengals (9-3).
Pittsburgh is one game out of the final wild card spot as Week 14 commences, and is in danger of becoming the third straight Super Bowl-winning Steelers team to miss the playoffs the following season. In 2006, one year after beating the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL, Pittsburgh finished a disappointing 8-8 and outside the postseason money. The 1980 team finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs after beating the Rams in Super Bowl XIV.
Luckily for the Black and Gold, who have positively owned their longtime rival of late, the Browns would seem to be a prime candidate to help the Steelers end their streak, and in convincing fashion.
Cleveland dropped to 1-11 with last week's 30-23 home loss to the San Diego Chargers, have now lost 10 straight games at home, and are 0-5 at Cleveland Browns Stadium during the Eric Mangini era.
The Browns, whose last home win came over the New York Giants last Oct. 13th, have also lost seven straight overall since scoring their lone win of 2009 to date, at Buffalo on Oct. 11th. The seven-game skid is the franchise's longest since it dropped nine in a row in 2004, and the once-proud franchise is in danger of losing all of its home contests for just the second time in team history.
Cleveland must defeat the Steelers, Raiders (Dec. 27), or Jaguars (Jan. 3) in order to avoid its first winless home ledger since the 1999 Browns went 0-8 at home during their expansion season.
The facts of the recent Steelers/Browns series do not lean in the home team's favor.
Pittsburgh is 17-1 against Cleveland since 2000, including 12 straight victories, and the Steelers are 8-0 in C-Town since last losing there in 2000.
After defeating the Browns (27-14) at Heinz Field in Week 6, the Steelers will be gunning for their sixth consecutive home-and-home sweep of the Browns on Thursday.
The Steelers lead the all-time regular season series with the Browns, which dates back to 1950, by a 58-55 count. As mentioned, Pittsburgh has won 17 of its last 18 regular-season games against Cleveland, including 12 straight since the Browns pulled off a 33-13 win at Heinz Field in 2003. Pittsburgh was a 10-6 winner in Cleveland last year.
The clubs have also met twice in the postseason, with Pittsburgh winning both times. The Steelers picked up a 29-9 victory in a 1994 AFC Divisional Playoff and won a 36-33 thriller in a 2002 AFC First-Round Playoff.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is 5-0 against the Browns as a head man. Mangini is 1-1 against Tomlin and the Steelers, with the win coming while he was at the helm of the Jets in 2007.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Though the Steelers got quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (3145 passing yards, 19 TD, 11 INT) back after a one-game absence due to a concussion last week, the team is likely to be without another of its offensive stars when it takes the field on Thursday night. Wide receiver Hines Ward (72 receptions, 6 TD) injured a hamstring against the Raiders last week, and Tomlin cast doubt on his ability to recover from the injury to play on a short week. That means Roethlisberger will have to lean on hard on wideouts Santonio Holmes (64 receptions, 3 TD) and Mike Wallace (30 receptions, 3 TD), along with tight end Heath Miller (56 receptions, 5 TD), and second-year wideout Limas Sweed could play a greater role in the contest as well. Roethlisberger threw for 417 yards and two touchdowns on 23-of-35 passing in the last meeting with Cleveland, and Holmes caught five balls for 104 yards in that game. The Steelers would also like to establish running back Rashard Mendenhall (887 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 6 TD), whose 20-carry, 103-yard, one-touchdown effort against the Raiders gave him three 100-yard games on the year. Mendenhall needs 113 yards against the Browns to go over 1,000 for the first time in his career. The Steelers line has allowed 30 sacks on the year, but just one last week.
The Browns defense that Roethlisberger and company will be going up against has become further depleted since the teams last met, with former starters like nose tackle Shaun Rogers (ankle), linebackers Eric Barton (neck) and D'Qwell Jackson (shoulder), and safety Brodney Pool (concussion) all having been taken out of commission. None of those losses are welcome for a team that is last in the NFL in total defense (400.2 yards per game), turnover margin (-12), interceptions recorded (6), and takeaways (14) as Week 14 begins. That said, the Browns did a decent job in limiting the Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson to 64 yards on 20 carries last week, with end Robaire Smith (54 tackles, 1 sack) leading the charge with six tackles from the trenches, and outside linebackers Kamerion Wimbley (57 tackles, 6.5 sacks) and Matt Roth (12 tackles, 1.5 sacks) combining for 10 tackles and a sack of Philip Rivers. The Cleveland secondary was particularly punchless against the Chargers, however, surrendering nearly 400 aerial yards. Cornerbacks Hank Poteat (23 tackles) and Eric Wright (40 tackles, 2 INT) are among those looking for a bounce-back performance on Thursday night.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
The Browns enter Week 14 ranked last in NFL total offense (242.4 yards per game), and tied for last in the league in rushing touchdowns (3) and rushes of 20 yards or longer (3), figures that are unlikely to get much better against a solid Steelers defensive group. Quarterback Brady Quinn (1183 passing yards, 8 TD, 5 INT) is still seeking his first win in eight starts this season, though the former first-rounder has looked a bit more capable in recent weeks. Quinn has 671 passing yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions in his last three games combined. Tight end Evan Moore came out of nowhere with six catches for 80 yards last Sunday, just one week after being called up from the practice squad. Wideout Mohamed Massaquoi (28 receptions, 2 TD) scored his second touchdown in three weeks in the San Diego loss, and fellow WR Brian Robiskie (5 receptions) added value with four catches for 69 yards in his best game as a pro to date. But if the Browns are going to pull off the upset on Thursday, they will need continued solid play from starting running back Jerome Harrison (292 rushing yards, 28 receptions, 2 TD). Taking over full-time for the injured Jamal Lewis last week, Harrison caught seven passes for 62 yards and two touchdowns against the Chargers, also rushing 10 times for 35 yards in the defeat. Wildcat quarterback Joshua Cribbs (218 rushing yards, 18 receptions, 1 TD) rushed for a team-high 38 yards on four carries and also had a catch. A Browns o-line that has held up reasonably well this season surrendered just two sacks of Quinn.
One week after a brutal fourth-quarter display against Bruce Gradkowski and the Raiders offense, the Steelers secondary could have a markedly different look against the Browns. Though safety Troy Polamalu is unlikely to return from his knee injury on a short week, the struggles of cornerbacks Ike Taylor (53 tackles) and William Gay (who also suffered a concussion) last week could prompt Tomlin to open with rookies Joe Burnett (10 tackles) and Keenan Lewis at CB. Burnett, a fifth-round pick out of Central Florida, could get the nod despite dropping a potential game-sealing interception on the Raiders' final drive. Those players will have to be helped out by also-struggling safeties Tyrone Carter (40 tackles, 2 INT, 1 sack) and Ryan Clark (64 tackles, 2 INT), while LaMarr Woodley (39 tackles, 8 sacks), James Harrison (67 tackles, 10 sacks) and the pass rush seek to attack Quinn. Woodley had a pair of sacks against Gradkowski last week, but Harrison was shut out of that category for a second straight game. Pittsburgh's defensive problems have not extended to the run-stopping group, which is No. 1 in NFL rushing defense (77.8 yards per game) and held Oakland's three talented backs to a combined 89 yards on 25 carries last week. Inside linebackers James Farrior (80 tackles 3 sacks) and Lawrence Timmons (56 tackles, 6 sacks) had eight tackles each in the loss, as did end Brett Keisel (44 tackles, 3 sacks).
The Steelers have not been the most consistent team from a fantasy perspective this season, but in a favorable matchup against a depleted Cleveland club, you should feel confident rolling with Roethlisberger, Mendenhall, Holmes, and/or Miller. You'll have to monitor Ward's injury status, and if he can't go and you own Wallace, that should cinch your decision to put him in the lineup. Also, the Steelers defense is an excellent play against Quinn and company.
Trying to predict the few-and-far-between occasions when members of the Browns will score a decent fantasy total is an inexact science indeed, but chances are you won't end up kicking yourself for ignoring the Cleveland roster this week.
The Browns won't be confused with a good football team anytime soon, but there's no doubt that Cleveland has been competitive over the past four weeks, in which all of their losses have come by single digits. That trend is unlikely to continue on Thursday night. In addition to being head and shoulders above the Browns in the talent department, an angry group of Steelers will roll into Cleveland as a desperate team, one determined not to let the Browns hang around as they did the Raiders and Chiefs in recent weeks. The losing skid ends at four, and the result is never really in doubt.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 31, Browns 7
12/08 15:02:21 ET