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NFL Preview - Cleveland (4-8) at Pittsburgh (9-3)



By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - Another week, another role for Joshua Cribbs.

Just days after he played the discontented superstar-in-anonymity prior to the Cleveland Browns' 24-10 home loss to Baltimore this past Sunday, the runner/receiver/returner has transformed into defensive enemy No. 1 as his team prepares for a Thursday night visit to Pittsburgh's Heinz Field to battle the AFC North co-leading Steelers.

Despite Cleveland's lowly 4-8 record compared to his team's 9-3 mark and front- runner status in the AFC Wild Card race, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is clearly not ignoring this contest because of a Thursday night meeting between the teams in 2009. The Browns, then 1-11 at the time, beat Pittsburgh by a 13-6 score to effectively end the Steelers' run at a repeat Super Bowl championship.

Instead, the Steelers dropped to 6-7 at the time and ultimately fell short of the playoffs after finishing with nine total wins.

In that game, which occurred two years ago this coming Saturday, the versatile Cribbs rushed for 87 yards out of Cleveland's version of the Wildcat offense and added 104 yards on kickoff/punt returns.

"We cannot let Josh Cribbs do what he's done to us time and time again in the past," Mike Tomlin said. "We've been dead Indians in his cowboy movie enough."

This year's Browns have struggled to find a recurring use for Cribbs, however. And the win two years ago remains the Browns' only one in their last 15 meetings with Pittsburgh, whom they'll play again at home on Jan. 1.

"If we would have played them 14 or 15 times this year, then yes [that history would matter]," Tomlin said. "But the team we are assembling and the team they are assembling are different than some of the teams that have taken part in that history."

Cleveland has lost double-digit games in all but one season since 2003, and including its 12 games in 2011, is 38-70 since Cribbs arrived from nearby Kent State University in 2005.

"I feel like I want to see a playoff, you know, as bad as our fans do," he said. "I feel like a fan sometimes when I speak because I hear them talk every day, I run into them on the street. It hurts me not to win for them. That's my ultimate motivation.

"You've got a lot of fans that their whole joy in life is watching the Browns play, hoping that they win, bringing their kids to the game. When we don't win, you know, the city feels down. So we need to win, plain and simple."

The Browns' last playoff game was in 2002, when Cribbs was a sophomore at Kent State. Their last postseason win was Jan. 1, 1994, when he was 10 years old.

"I am fed up. I want to win this year," Cribbs said. "Everybody says 'we're building, we look good.' I don't really care about the building process, because I want to win now. I'm not worried about next year, next year. I want to win now. So that's how I feel."

SERIES HISTORY

The Steelers lead the all-time regular season series with the Browns, which dates back to 1950, by a 60-56 count and as previously stated, have won 14 of the past 15 games played between the teams. Pittsburgh was an easy victor in both of its 2010 meetings with Cleveland, coming through with a 28-10 decision in Week 6 of last year as well as a 41-9 road rout in the regular-season finale. The Browns did record an above-mentioned 13-6 triumph over the Steelers in Cleveland on a Thursday night matchup in 2009, snapping a 12-game losing streak to Pittsburgh that had existed since a 33-13 win at Heinz Field in 2003. Pittsburgh has defeated Cleveland seven straight times in the Steel City.

The longtime rivals have also squared off twice in the postseason, with the Steelers taking both contests. Pittsburgh picked up a 29-9 win at home in a 1994 AFC Divisional Playoff and outlasted the Browns in a 36-33 thriller at Heinz Field in a 2002 AFC First-Round Playoff.

Tomlin is 7-1 against the Browns during his tenure as a head coach, while Cleveland's Pat Shurmur will be opposing both the Steelers and Tomlin for the first time in his present position.

WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL

The Browns don't exactly come in on a high after managing just 233 total yards and 13 first downs in last week�s loss to the Ravens. Running back Peyton Hillis gained 45 yards on 12 carries in his second game back after missing five with a balky hamstring, which was followed by him sustaining a dinged-up hip against Baltimore. He has just 321 rushing yards on the drastically-shortened season. Quarterback Colt McCoy was 17-for-35 for 192 yards and was sacked three times against the Ravens, but pronounced himself ready for Pittsburgh despite spraining a knee on Sunday. He's racked up 2,524 passing yards, 14 touchdown throws and 9 interceptions so far in his first full season as a starter. Rookie wide receiver Greg Little caught three balls last week to get to 50 on the season, a week after scoring his first NFL touchdown in a loss at Cincinnati. In all, seven Cleveland players caught at least one pass against Baltimore, but none registered as much yardage from multiple receptions as Hillis did on one 52-yard connection with McCoy.

The Steelers continued their typical late-season defensive momentum last Sunday, holding Cincinnati to 232 total yards in a 35-7 home rout just a week after Kansas City managed a mere 252 yards -- including just 90 on the ground -- against the unit. The Bengals barely broke to triple digits in that category, gaining 104 on 22 attempts. Pittsburgh has held its opponents to under 100 net rushing yards in four of its last six games and has allowed 23 points or less in 11th straight outings. Cornerback Ike Taylor grabbed his second interception of the 2011 season and 13th of his career against Cincinnati, and he also shared the lead in tackles with linebacker Lawrence Timmons by posting seven apiece. Outside linebacker James Harrison had all three of the team's sacks against the Bengals for a combined loss of 24 yards.

Statistically speaking, Cleveland is 28th in the league in scoring (14.6 ppg), 30th in both total yards (290.7 ypg) and rushing yards (93.7 ypg) and 24th in passing (197.0 ypg). On defense, the Steelers are fourth in points allowed (16.2 ppg), first in total yards surrendered (273.8 ypg), second against the pass (176.8 ypg) and seventh against the run (96.9 ypg).

WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL

The Steelers took a scoreless game and broke it open in the second quarter against Cincinnati, scoring three times on offense that included touchdown runs of three and five yards by top back Rashard Mendenhall. The scores completed prolonged drives of 87 and 65 yards, while the third touchdown -- a pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to wideout Mike Wallace -- ended a three-play, 23-yard march following a fumbled Cincinnati kickoff. Pittsburgh's final points of the quarter came courtesy of a blocked punt and return. Overall, the Steelers' 295 total yards were more in keeping with the 290 they'd posted a week earlier against Kansas City, rather than the 374.5 they'd been averaging coming in to last week's game. Still, they're a team full of weapons, whether it's Mendenhall on the ground or the speedy Wallace outside of the suddenly numbers-heavy Roethlisberger, who made good on 15-of-23 passes against the Bengals to supplant Terry Bradshaw as the franchise's all-time leader in completions.

Elite statistical pass defense numbers notwithstanding, the Browns are licking their wounds coming off a 290-yard rushing output that the Ravens put on against, with Baltimore also scoring on runs of six and one yards out to complete drives of 61 and 73 yards, respectively. Cleveland will continue to go without veteran linebacker Scott Fujita, who went on injured reserve after breaking his hand a week earlier against Cincinnati. He had started 10 of Cleveland's first 11 games. Baltimore's Joe Flacco was limited to only 158 yards through the air by the Browns last week, but it's a statistical anomaly after the Ravens' previously mentioned run-game shredding. Flacco was sacked once and not intercepted. Middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson (112 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT) led the Browns with 12 tackles in last Sunday's loss and rookie lineman Jabaal Sheard (44 tackles, 5.5 sacks) added nine stops, including the team's lone sack.

By the numbers, the Steelers on offense are 18th in scoring (22.3 ppg), 11th in total yards allowed (367.9 ypg), ninth in passing (256.1 ypg) and 18th in rushing (111.8 ypg). On defense, Cleveland is eighth in points (20.0 ppg) and total yards allowed (324.6 ypg) and tops in the league against the pass (173.3 ypg), but second from last in run defense (151.2 ypg).

KEYS TO THE GAME The combination of an already suspect offense (Cleveland's) and an at least somewhat-gimpy quarterback (McCoy) and running back (Hillis) against a ravenous defense (Pittsburgh's) could spell bad things for the visiting team.

On paper, the Browns' defense looks stout. However, the No. 1 pass-stopping unit is flanked by a run-containing group that's second from last among the NFL's 32 teams. Based on that, expect Mr. Mendenhall to have a little something to say in the Steelers' offensive game plan.

They're four games under .500, traveling to hostile territory in a short week and housing a borderline star player who's becoming increasingly irked by the team's floundering and his lack of a prescribed role. Maybe it means another breakout night for Cribbs on national television. Considering how poor Cleveland's production has been on offense, it may need one as well.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Every week, there are a few games on the schedule that regardless of home fields and teams' placements in the standings placements, a legitimate case can be made for both sides. This, however, is not one of them. The Steelers are in a playoff fight, they're at home and they're playing a foe that struggles to stop teams doing what Pittsburgh does best. Oh, and the Browns have beaten Pittsburgh once in eight years. Do the math.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 27, Browns 12

12/06 16:02:55 ET