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NFL Preview - Cleveland (1-4) at Pittsburgh (3-2)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - With trade and real estate rumors swirling in Cleveland, it's no wonder Browns first-year head coach Eric Mangini is having a rough experience at the helm.
With two worthy and capable starting quarterbacks in Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn, Mangini was reluctant to name a starter until a few days before the season-opening kickoff. Whether he was trying to throw off his opponent, Mangini's plan to make Quinn the No. 1 guy backfired in favor of Anderson, who will make his third consecutive start Sunday afternoon against the AFC North- rival Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.
Anderson hasn't done much to solidify his position as the starter, but he managed to get Mangini his first win as Browns head coach last week in a 6-3 triumph at Buffalo despite finishing 2-for-17 for 23 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. Quinn could have done the same thing and possibly made out with a win, but instead he reportedly put his Cleveland home up for sale. According to an article in The Cleveland News-Herald, Quinn's five-bedroom home in Avon Lake is on the market, although he has reportedly denied making a trade request and said he wants to move closer to the Browns' training facility in Berea.
Quinn, who opened the season as Cleveland's starter, lost his job when he was benched at halftime in a 34-3 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on October 4. Anderson took over that day and didn't fair any better, but has been under center ever since and gone 1-1 over that time.
The Browns, who ended a 10-game slide with the recent win, will be heavy underdogs in this matchup with the defending champion Steelers and are off to their worst start since opening the 2006 campaign with a 1-5 record en route to a lowly 4-12 finish.
Pittsburgh has to be feeling confident entering this matchup, having won 11 in a row against the Browns since a 33-13 loss at Heinz Field in 2003. After losing two in a row since a season-opening win versus Tennessee, the Steelers have recorded back-to-back victories, including last weekend's 28-20 road triumph over the lowly Detroit Lions. It was Pittsburgh's first road win.
The Steelers had a tough time containing Lions quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who passed for 282 yards with a touchdown and ran for 44 yards on three scrambles. That shouldn't make a difference this week versus the struggling Browns, since Pittsburgh still has one of the top-ranked run defenses in the league. It is second against the run, allowing 71.2 yards per game, and tied for fourth in total defense (290.8 ypg).
Head coach Mike Tomlin would like his defense to be more dominant, and who could blame him after the Steelers blew two fourth-quarter leads already this season.
Pittsburgh, which tied a 35-year-old NFL record by holding 14 consecutive opponents under 300 yards of total offense last season, surrendered 335 yards to the Lions at Ford Field. Maybe the aggression took a back seat when safety Troy Polamalu went down in Week 1 with a knee injury. He hasn't played since, but was back at practice this week and is expected to be back in action for Sunday's tilt.
Steelers running back Willie Parker has been sidelined the last two weeks with a toe problem, but second-year running back Rashard Mendenhall has filled in nicely. Mendenhall had 165 yards and two scores in a win over San Diego on October 4, then posted 77 yards and a touchdown last week.
While the Steelers' ground game hasn't missed a beat without Parker, who could be available versus Cleveland, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been able to air out the football. He has two 300-yard passing games so far and five touchdowns passes to only one interception over the past two weeks.
Tomlin's squad must not look past the Browns with a matchup against Minnesota looming before the team's bye. Pittsburgh is in the midst of playing three of four games in front of the home faithful, and it is unbeaten in its past six home tilts dating back to last season.
The Steelers lead the all-time regular season series with the Browns, which dates back to 1950, by a 57-55 count. Pittsburgh has won 16 of its last 17 regular-season games against Cleveland, including 11 straight since the Browns pulled off a 33-13 win at Heinz Field in 2003. The Steelers took their first lead in the history of the series with their 10-6 win at Cleveland Browns Stadium in Week 2 of last season, and also defeated their longtime rival by a 31-0 count in the regular season finale from Heinz Field. The Browns have lost five straight in Pittsburgh.
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.
Tomlin is 4-0 against the Browns as a head man. Mangini was 1-0 against both Tomlin and the Steelers while at the helm of the Jets (2006-08), with his Gang Green squad earning a 19-16 overtime win over Pittsburgh during the 2007 campaign.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
Anderson (384 yards, 1 TD, 5 INT) is coming off a dreadful but winning performance last week in which he threw for 23 yards on 2-of-17 passing with an interception. He hasn't done much to outshine Quinn and may never regain the magic of 2007, when he passed for 3,787 yards with 29 touchdowns and 19 picks. The Browns are 31st in passing with 142.2 yards per game through the air. Now that Braylon Edwards has been traded to the New York Jets, Mohammed Massaquoi (11 receptions) is the team's new leader with 195 receiving yards. Massaquoi averages 17.7 yards per catch and eight of his 11 catches this season have resulted in first downs. Mike Furrey leads Cleveland with 13 receptions, while return specialist Josh Cribbs (9 receptions) may see more of an extended role.
The big news out of Steelers practice was the return of Polamalu (6 tackles, 1 INT). The hard-hitting safety and run-stuffing specialist hasn't played since going down with a knee injury in Week 1 versus Tennessee. Pittsburgh struggled without their All-Pro in the defensive backfield and is only 14th against the pass this season, allowing 219.6 yards per game through the air. Tyrone Carter (11 tackles, 1 sack) played most of the time in Polamalu�s absence while receiving help from free safety Ryan Clark (30 tackles, 1 INT). Clark leads the defense in tackles and is tied with Polamalu for the team lead with one interception. Corners William Gay (27 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Ike Taylor (18 tackles) haven't played up to their abilities and have a perfect chance to redeem themselves this week against Cleveland.
The Browns have been using a tandem approach at running back with veteran Jamal Lewis (212 rushing yards) and Jerome Harrison (202 rushing yards). The two have Cleveland tied with San Francisco for 16th in the league with 106.2 rushing yards per game this season. Lewis had 117 yards on 31 carries in the slim victory over the Bills and went over the 100-yard rushing mark for the first time this season after missing two games with an injured hamstring. The longtime Raven has eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark 36 times in his career and needs 66 rushing yards for 1,000 against the Steelers. Harrison touched the ball eight times for 21 yards against Buffalo. Don't expect a big day from either running back against the Steelers at Heinz Field.
Pittsburgh stud defensive end Aaron Smith (9 tackles, 2 sacks) was placed on injured reserve this week with a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder, thus ending his season. The Steelers will miss their run-stopping end, but it also means that players such as Travis Kirschke, Nick Eason and Ziggy Hood will need to play bigger roles. Smith was a big part of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's 3-4 scheme, and his absence leaves a huge void to fill. Pittsburgh may take a look at free agent veteran end Orpheus Roye for added depth. One position the Steelers have a lot of depth at is linebacker. Led by AFC Defensive Player of the Week and outside linebacker James Harrison (29 tackles, 6 sacks), it's no wonder the Steelers are second in the NFL in run defense. Harrison, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, recorded three sacks against the Lions. Sunday�s game should be a field day for Harrison, inside linebackers James Farrior (28 tackles, 1 sack) and Lawrence Timmons (17 tackles, 1 sack) and OLB LaMarr Woodley (8 tackles, 1.5 sacks). Woodley and Harrison have combined for 7 1/2 sacks this season after breaking the team's sack mark for a duo with a combined 27 1/2 in 2008.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Roethlisberger (1,470 yards, 8 TD, 5 INT) is coming off back-to-back 100- plus rating performances and owns a 9-0 career record against the Browns. In the past two matchups in this series, Big Ben has thrown for 610 yards with five touchdown passes and one interception. The Steelers have played extremely well when their starting quarterback records a rating of 100 or more, going 31-2 including the playoffs in such games. Roethlisberger is averaging 294 passing yards per game, good enough for third in the NFL, and is first with a 73.8 completion percentage. He has been sacked quite a lot this season, having been victimized by defenders 13 times total and three times in each of the last two contests. He is 22-5 for his career against the AFC North. Tight end Heath Miller (29 receptions, 3 TD) is having a breakout season and leads the team in touchdown receptions with three. Miller is fifth in the AFC in catches and ranks second among all NFL tight ends in that category. Wideouts Santonio Holmes (23 receptions, 334 yards, 1 TD) and Hines Ward (33 receptions, 440 yards, 1 TD) give the Steelers a solid trio of receiving threats.
Mangini's pass defense is surprisingly tough and is 10th in the NFL in that category, allowing 209.8 yards per game. Even though the Bills had 143 yards passing last week, the Browns were able to keep them out of the end zone and recorded an interception of quarterback Trent Edwards. Starting cornerbacks Brandon McDonald (24 tackles) and Eric Wright (13 tackles, 1 INT) have their hands full with Super Bowl MVP receivers Holmes and Ward and the emerging Miller. Safeties Abram Elam (33 tackles, 1 sack) and Brodney Poll (22 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) combined for six stops in the win over the Bills. Any time a team is kept out of the end zone, which the Browns did successfully on Sunday, that's a true testament to the defense. The unit likely won't have the same results in the Steel City, however.
With Parker (159 rushing yards) out the past two weeks with a toe problem, the Steelers are just 21st in rushing, averaging 100.4 yards per game. Maybe that will improve now that he has returned to practice and seems poised to get back onto the playing field. Mendenhall (287 rushing yards, 3 TD) has been playing rather well in Parker's absence and leads the team in rushing yards and touchdowns. His 51 carries is one shy of Parker's team lead of 52. The bulky Mendenhall made the start two weeks ago versus San Diego and recorded 165 yards and two scores on 29 carries. He then had 77 yards and a touchdown on 15 touches in last week's victory over Detroit. Mendenhall will still most likely see the bulk of the load until Parker is at full strength, but the two will enjoy competing against Cleveland's 32nd-ranked run defense.
Cleveland allowed almost 300 yards of offense to the Bills, but managed to force three turnovers. Linebacker Eric Barton (37 tackles) recovered a fumble at the end of the game to preserve the victory. New Browns linebacker Jason Trusnik (3 tackles) had three stops in his debut since coming over in the Edwards trade with the Jets. Linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (32 tackles, 4 sacks) posted his fourth sack of the season last week and leads the team with four. D'Qwell Jackson (52 tackles) leads the Browns in tackles and recorded a game- high 13 last week. The defensive line is led by Shaun Rogers (19 tackles, 1 sack) and Robaire Smith (11 tackles), and the duo will need to fill the gaps against Parker and Mendenhall.
Pittsburgh has a myriad of fantasy options to go to in this matchup with Roethlisberger, Parker, Mendenhall, Miller, Holmes, Ward and the defense. Roethlisberger will most likely have the best day, since he's enjoyed so much success in the past against the rival Browns. Don't be afraid to give Parker a shot, even though Mendenhall will most likely take the bulk of the carries. Miller has emerged on the scene the past few weeks, while the Steelers' defense has a favorable matchup against Anderson and the lowly Cleveland offense. Lewis, Massaquoi and Cribbs are worthy of taking a chance on this week. It's hard to gauge who will break out for Mangini's group, since the pickings are pretty slim. Browns kicker Phil Dawson is expected to return after missing the last three games with a calf injury. Dawson said on the team's site this week that he is ready to go.
Roethlisberger is on pace to shatter a few personal records this season and will get a chance to pad his stats against the familiar Browns. The strong signal-caller has been doing much of the work with Parker out, but at least his main running back returned to practice this week with lofty expectations of playing on Sunday. Mendenhall gives Pittsburgh a change of pace with his thick body banging between the tackles, while Parker will test his healing toe around the edges. Cleveland simply has no chance of coming into Heinz Field and earning a victory against one of the top defenses of the decade, especially after the mediocre performance it put on against the just-as-lowly Bills. The frustrations will continue for the Browns and Mangini after they get waxed in chilly Western Pennsylvania.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 31, Browns 16
10/15 19:14:20 ET