Saturday, December 28, 2013

Steelers Face Browns In Season-Ending Game - Will Lightning Strike Twice?

The Pittsburgh Steelers will be going into the final weekend of the 2013 NFL regular season with one goal: beat the Cleveland Browns.

Not only because they are the Steelers' longtime rivals and they always want to beat them, but it's also imperative because it is the only part of the Steelers' immediate future that they themselves can actually control. With them needing three teams - the Ravens, Dolphins and Chargers - to lose, the thing that the Steelers must do first is take care of home.

Though they did just that back in Week 12, in a 27-11 win in Cleveland, it wasn't the most impressive of showings. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for only 217 yards, they only ran for a total of 88 yards as a team and Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon torched them for 237 yards and a touchdown.

The maturation of the Steelers' offense, though, has seen scoring come more easily lately. This could bode well for the Steelers as the Browns have given up an average of 29.6 points per game over the last three weeks, with them being 0-3 in that span.

During that same period, the Browns have given up an average of 5.23 yards per rush per team. Which is something that should put a smile on the face of Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell and of those on the Steelers offensive line.

As for the defense as a whole, though, the Browns are still formidable. They rank 10th in total defense in yards against, ninth in pass defense and have collected 39 sacks. The Steelers will need all hands on deck in pass blocking and the passing game.

That means that if Steelers' WR Emmanuel Sanders, who is listed as "Questionable" for Sunday's game, isn't able to go, or if rookie WR Markus Wheaton is still limited, as he was in practice, by his fractured finger, we may see Derek Moye take the field.

It could also mean more from tight ends Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, utilizing Miller in bunch-receiver formations and Spaeth in more of a traditional blocker-receiver tight end role, along with WR Jericho Cotchery and especially team MVP and Pro Bowler Antonio Brown.

"He's exceeded expectations," Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said of Brown. "{And} he's represented himself well as a No. 1 in this league." Haley also spoke on the situation with Manny and his "questionable" knee. - http://tinyurl.com/l28bvrg

Expect the Steelers to move Brown around in different formations to force the Browns to show their hands, allowing Big Ben to audible or check out of a pass into a run when applicable. Bell, who is recognizing his running lanes better now, runs very well out of a one-back set as it gives him a clean look at those lanes.

So, expect a lot of the Killa B's - Big Ben, Brown and Bell - early on to establish the offense, push them back on their heels and get on top allowing the defense to pin their ears back when they're on the field.

Speaking of the defense, Steelers DC Dick LeBeau says he 'expects to see Jason Campbell' at quarterback and that the Browns will likely use wildcat formations. - http://tinyurl.com/nxmct2s

Throwing for only one touchdown and four interceptions in the last two games he has played in means the Steelers will attack Campbell. The Steelers should attack with the zone blitz, confusing and hitting him causing him to press and throw when and where he doesn't want to, forcing the incompletions and turnovers of which Campbell is very capable.

One way to do this is to line up 2014 Pro Bowler Troy Polamalu in his pseudo-linebacker role to help Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones. They are essential in making Campbell as uncomfortable as possible because the Browns' running game has been suspect and they rely heavily on one person.

As stated earlier, Josh Gordon torched the Steelers for 237 receiving yards in their November meeting. Knowing his abilities, they don't want lightning to strike twice - "We need to stop him from catching it." - though, they may not have much say in the matter. - http://tinyurl.com/m2puepu

Gordon has been virtually scary in the last five weeks. Including the Steelers game, he has had 40 receptions for 813 yards, a 20.6 yard-per-catch clip. He is used in wildcat and/or stretch formations running the ball as the Browns are doing whatever they can to get him the ball.

Per Pro Football Focus, he is also third in the NFL in yards after the catch (YAC) with 629. To call him a formidable receiver is a gross understatement.

The key? "We need to stop him from catching it." Also, "the other team's quarterback must go down and he must go down hard." Plain and simple, hit Campbell early and often, force mistakes. 

As brought out earlier in the article, the Steelers had five sacks and a interception returned for a touchdown in the first meeting, and here, not with Gordon, is where they need lightning to strike twice.

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TIDBITS: Status report for Steelers vs Browns: LB Garvin is out; WR Sanders, OLB Worilds questionable. David DeCastro and everyone else is probable.

Worilds leads the Steelers in sacks (eight). Sanders is second on the team in targets (106), catches (65) and receiving yards (714). DDC, meanwhile, has started all but one game this season.

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Antonio Brown makes the Pro Bowl as both receiver and punt returner. Troy Polamalu makes it at strong safety.