By BOB LABRIOLA
Steelers.com The following are some of the interesting matchups to watch when the Steelers travel to Cleveland for a Thursday night game against the Browns:
STEELERS SECONDARY VS. BROWNS QB BRADY QUINN: With the Browns headed for the kind of draft position next April that should allow them an opportunity to have their choice among the eligible quarterback prospects, the organization needed to get a better read on what it has in Quinn. After getting pulled at halftime of the season's third game and replaced by Derek Anderson, Quinn has started the previous four games heading into the Thursday night contest with the Steelers. The Browns are 0-4 in those games, and Quinn has completed 74 of 143 for 774 yards, with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. That works out to a passer rating of 78.25. The conventional wisdom would be that the Steelers defense would torture a quarterback with Quinn's inexperience, but after Bruce Gradkowski passed for over 300 yards at Heinz Field last Sunday, conventional wisdom would seem to be out the door. It's expected Coach Mike Tomlin will be making some changes in the Steelers' secondary, and so it wouldn't be surprising to see rookies Joe Burnett and Keenan Lewis get some playing time. But this isn't a preseason game, and the Steelers still remain mathematically involved in the playoff chase, so Tomlin doesn't figure to make wholesale changes just to "see what the young guys can do."
STEELERS KICKOFF COVERAGE VS. BROWNS KOR JOSHUA CRIBBS: On the eve of the first meeting – back in mid-October at Heinz Field – Cribbs was leading the AFC in punt returns with a 16.3 average, including a 67-yard touchdown, and he was fourth in the conference in kickoff returns with a 26.1-yard average. Since then, Cribbs' punt return average has dropped to 12.6 yards and his kickoff return average to 25.8, but he added a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Steelers, the first of four to be allowed by the team. The Steelers' coverage unit was better against the Raiders last Sunday, but it should be noted that Gary Russell was their deep man on kickoffs. After returning the first kickoff 34 yards, Russell managed only 9 and 6 yards on two returns in the fourth quarter, and a squib kickoff in the first half was returned only for 8. But going against Cribbs is a whole other degree of difficulty. Cribbs has returned eight kicks for touchdowns in his four-plus seasons – six kickoffs and two punts – and three of those kickoff returns for touchdowns have come against the Steelers.
STEELERS RB RASHARD MENDENHALL VS. BROWNS RUN DEFENSE: With all due respect, the Browns haven't been the kind of line-up-and-stuff-the-run-game kind of defense in a while, and once upon a time Jerome Bettis never failed to use a game in Cleveland as a chance to pump up his per-carry average a bit while helping the Steelers leave with a win. Cleveland's run defense comes into this game ranked 23rd in the NFL, and whatever portion of that could be traced to the play of NT Shaun Rogers and ILB D'Qwell Jackson has gone with them to the injured reserve list. In the first meeting, Mendenhall was still relatively new to the starting job, and he finished with 62 yards on 17 carries and scored a 2-yard touchdown that upped the Steelers lead at the time to 24-14. Mendenhall is a better player, and the Steelers should have more confidence in the running game after it posted 153 yards in Baltimore. Plus, weather could be a factor in both teams' passing attacks, with cold temperatures and gusty winds predicted for game time.
STEELERS WR LIMAS SWEED VS. HIMSELF: It's not supposed to be a serious hamstring injury, but it happened on the penultimate play last Sunday, and since the Steelers' schedule had them playing the next game four days later, on a Thursday, Hines Ward seemed unlikely to be able to play against the Browns. Ward didn't practice on Wednesday, but he did some running, and afterward he said, "I want to try to go out there and play, but I have to be smart at the same time. Usually it takes a week, and unfortunately it's a short week." It figures that rookie Mike Wallace will step in as a starter, and Coach Mike Tomlin addressed the issue at his news conference on Tuesday. "Mike is a reliable young guy. He doesn't blow a lot of assignments, he's proven repeatedly that the situation isn't too big for him, the opportunities to play and make plays. I'd imagine that will continue, and I'd imagine that if Hines doesn't play, (Wallace's) role will be expanded in some form or fashion. But I also acknowledge that we may use Limas Sweed in some of the big-body things that Hines Ward does. Because Hines Ward is a unique guy, in terms of what he does for our football team, in both the run and the passing game. That may require more than one person to fill that void." The Steelers still consider Sweed an immense talent, a player not to be cast aside at this stage of his development. But Sweed seems to fight himself when the ball arrives, and each of his dropped passes has been agonizing to watch. The NFL is not a bottomless pit of opportunities, and if Sweed wants to have a career as a receiver, he would be wise to take advantage of his next one.
By BOB LABRIOLA