Pittsburgh Steelers (3-2) vs. Cleveland Browns (2-2)
Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014
1 p.m.; CBS
SERIES HISTORY: Steelers lead, 68-57 (2-0 postseason). Pittsburgh is 26-3 in the last 29 meetings and 27-5 since the Browns' franchise resurrection in 1999.
LAST MEETING**: Steelers 30, Browns 27, Sept. 7, 2014, Heinz Field: Shaun Suisham's last-play, 41-yard field goal finally settled a contest that had seen the Steelers take a 27-3 lead into the locker room at halftime prior to the Browns scoring 24 consecutive points in the third and fourth quarters. Cleveland rushed for 191 yards, including 100 on 16 carries by rookie RB Terrance West, and the Browns offense gained 389 total net yards. Pittsburgh finished with 490 total net yards, 365 of which came through the air.
LAST WEEK: The Steelers survived a scare and escaped Jacksonville with a 17-9 victory. The Browns pulled off the largest road comeback in NFL history when they rallied from 28-3 down and won, 29-28, at Tennessee.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL: They'll challenge the Steelers initially with the NFL's No. 4 rushing attack. RB Ben Tate rumbled for a career-high 123 yards at Tennessee, his first action since handling just six carries in the opener against the Steelers (knee). The Browns will pound away with Tate (220 pounds), West (225) and rookie RB Isaiah Crowell (225) running behind an offensive line that has been excelling collectively at executing the outside-zone blocking scheme (Tate is the cut-back threat in such situations).
If the Browns can get the run established, QB Brian Hoyer can then resort to the play-action/bootleg game. Hoyer can make all the throws, and he throws with timing and accuracy on most occasions. Against tight one-on-one coverage he seemingly perceives his receiver to be open and will let it go. He's been aggressive, but he's thrown just one interception. Hoyer isn't a threat to run, but he's mobile enough to extend plays and can throw accurately on the run. At 6-foot-2 his vision is challenged if he's kept in the pocket and pressure is generated up the middle.
Minus Josh Gordon (suspended) the Browns don't have a true No. 1 wide receiver. What they have instead are mostly interchangeable Smurfs in Andrew Hawkins (5-7), Travis Benjamin (5-10) and Taylor Gabriel (5-8). Benjamin and Gabriel are the down-the-field threats. Banged-up TE Jordan Cameron (ankle/shoulder) and "big" WR Miles Austin (6-2) are the possession guys.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL**: They're likely going to have to find a way to start turning their yards gained (No. 4, 404.0 per game) and average possession time (32:18) into more points per game (22.8). There's room for improvement in the red zone, where the Steelers have only scored touchdowns on 43.8 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line to rank No. 26. Denver currently leads the NFL at 76.9 percent.
In the initial meeting big plays propelled the Steelers to a sizable first-half lead, and the Browns have been susceptible to those all season. The Browns play with physicality and they play sideline-to-sideline on defense, but they've also been getting gashed with regularity. They're capable of generating pressure, especially from the outside (OLBs Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard in particular). The Steelers don't have to deal with DE Phil Taylor this time (knee), but DE Desmond Bryant is back in the lineup after missing the regular season opener.
The secondary has been susceptible all season. If the Steelers can run the ball and slow down the Browns aggressiveness up front a bit, opportunities to attack a collection of cornerbacks who have for the most part been ineffective, inconsistent, inexperienced or injured should arise. If that happens, the Steelers will need to keep the pedal down this time.
SPECIAL-TEAMS HEADLINERS: Browns LB Tank Carder blocked a punt for a safety at Tennessee. Benjamin has struggled this season on punt returns and was replaced by FS Jordan Poyer for all but one such opportunity at Tennessee (Benjamin muffed his only attempt but a penalty negated the turnover). The Steelers are averaging 16.8 yards on kickoff returns (RB Dri Archer is averaging 16.3) and committed four penalties in the kicking game at Jacksonville.
THE X-FACTOR: The Browns knocked Titans QB Jake Locker out of the game in the second quarter last Sunday, and the Titans weren't happy about it, with several scuffles ensuing throughout the remainder of the game. How combative will it get this time around between two longtime rivals engaged in a rematch after a down-to-the-wire initial meeting? And, if things escalate, which team will keep its collective head and which one will draw the unnecessary penalties?
THEY SAID IT: "Typically when we play the Steelers the second time around since I've been here we're already out of the playoffs and Pittsburgh is resting their players because they've got a first-round bye. I think this is a nice change of pace from those types of lopsided games that we've been involved in in the past. I know there's going to be a great atmosphere on Sunday because obviously it's a great rivalry that goes back tons and tons of years. And to have teams that are evenly matched, I think it's good for the rivalry." – Browns OT Joe Thomas.
"This is as big of a game, probably, in Cleveland in a while. Just because of their record, our record, us coming in there, AFC North (and) the rivalry that is there. I anticipate it being a hostile environment, maybe like nothing I've seen up there before." – Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger.