By BOB LABRIOLA
The following are some of the interesting matchups to watch when the Steelers host the Cleveland Browns in the regular season finale at 1 p.m. on Sunday at Heinz Field:
STEELERS ILB JAMES FARRIOR VS. BROWNS WR-KR JOSHUA CRIBBS: The Browns have not scored an offensive touchdown in five games, and there is the possibility they'll try to spice things up with their version of what really is a form of the single-wing offense – the "Flash" package. In it, Cribbs takes the snap from center and does his thing, with defenses having to remember he was a quarterback in college. "It's an empty formation, and you have a set of rules you play by when faced with empty formations," said Coach Mike Tomlin about the defensive principles NFL teams use. "Usually, those rules revolve around defending the pass, because most quarterbacks are non-runners. So that forces you to have two sets of rules with regards to defending empty sets. In one instance, you're looking at a thrower, but in that offense you're looking at a runner. It's one of the reasons we installed it for our football team in the spring, because we saw it coming. That's why we ran it and got it on tape in the preseason. We did it with Willie Parker and Mewelde Moore. It's just another element of football. You have to stay on the cutting edge. We did it to explore it offensively for our team, but more than anything, we did it for our defense." As captain of the defense, Farrior will be the guy communicating which set of "rules" the Steelers will use to counter Cribbs' Flash.
STEELERS SS TROY POLAMALU VS. BROWNS QB BRUCE GRADKOWSKI: The first time these teams met – during Week 2 of the 2008 season – the Browns were starting a quarterback they had re-signed in the offseason to a multimillion dollar contract, and his backup was a former No. 1 draft choice. For this game, they'll be starting a quarterback who was out of football a month ago, and his backup will be a guy signed off the practice squad from Tarleton State. Bruce Gradkowski is a familiar name to those who love scholastic football in Western Pennsylvania, but schoolboy heroics are a long way from carving up the NFL's No. 1 defense. On the season, Gradkowski is 2-for-5 for 8 yards with an interception, and whatever the Browns give him to do in the passing game figures to be pretty basic. Tony Romo was rattled by the Steelers defense in Heinz Field, and Romo has a lot more experience than Gradkowski.
STEELERS C JUSTIN HARTWIG VS. BROWNS NT SHAUN ROGERS: At the time it was considered to be a trade that was going to help the Browns immensely, but it also was the beginning of their problems in the secondary. As part of the package that went to Detroit for Rogers, the Browns sent cornerback Leigh Bodden to the Lions. As it stood then, that was fine, but when Daven Holly subsequently blew out a knee, Cleveland developed a weakness in the secondary. That weakness has turned into something of a strength during the course of this season, because the Browns enter the season's final week ranked No. 1 in interceptions per passing attempt. CBs Brandon McDonald and Eric Wright have combined for eight interceptions, and both have returned one for a touchdown. On the flip side, the Browns defense is 29th against the run, but that shouldn't be hung on Rogers. He leads all defensive linemen and is fourth on the team with 77 tackles, he leads in sacks with 4.5 and was voted to the Pro Bowl. And lining up so close to the quarterback on every play makes Shaun Rogers dangerous.
STEELERS RB WILLIE PARKER VS. BROWNS LB D'QWELL JACKSON: Shaun Rogers' talents aside, this would appear to be a good opportunity for the Steelers to get their running game going as the team heads into the playoffs. The Steelers enter the final week of the regular season ranked 24th in the NFL in rushing, and the only other time they ranked even as low as 18th since the 1970 league merger was in 2003 when that 6-10 team was 31st in rushing. As previously noted, the Browns are 29th in run defense, and in last week's 14-0 loss to Cincinnati that unit allowed Cedric Benson to go for 177 yards on 38 carries. The Bengals were in such control throughout that quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was asked to attempt only nine passes. It would be nice to get Parker – who had 29 yards on 18 carries vs. the Titans – on a bit of a roll heading into the playoffs.
By BOB LABRIOLA