The first game was the season opener and if you can remember all the way back to a month ago, you’ll remember that was the first game where the Browns came back from a huge halftime deficit to tie it up, only to see the Steelers kick a field goal with time expiring to send the Browns to 0-1.
The first-half Browns couldn’t move the ball, the first-half Steelers couldn’t stop moving the ball. The Browns surrendered a ridiculous 278 yards passing and 27 points in that half. The Browns managed a field goal. The rout was on. Another beat-down for the Orange and Brown by the Black and Yellow. Except, we all know now that it wasn’t.
The Browns charged out at halftime and in a hurry-up offense, knotted the score at 27 before Pittsburgh kicked the game winner and the Browns were their customary 0-1 to start the season. The Browns had 191 yards rushing against the Steelers, and made that comeback without starters Ben Tate and Jordon Cameron, both who had been injured in the first half.
So that was Game 1. What about Game 5?
The Steelers are actually coming into this game an underdog, but it’s only by 1.5 points, which isn’t saying much for the home team. The over/under is 47, so they’re expecting some scoring, and for good reason: Neither of these defenses are stellar.
The Steelers have shown improvement on run defense the past three weeks, but some of that is due to playing three teams that can’t run the ball. The Panthers, Buccaneers and Jaguars rank 30th, 24th and 31st in that department.
The Browns have shown some consistency on defense. Unfortunately, it’s been consistently bad. The Browns rank 27th against the pass, 28th against the run. Ouch.
Oh, and did we mention that Joe Haden may not play? Some think it doesn’t matter because he’s having a terrible year. I think that’s an overreaction – Browns fans are good for that – but he has been burned a few times this season.
The Steelers have a running back that could be one of the best in the league in Le’Veon Bell, who is currently leading the AFC in rushing with 460 yards. Helping that is the Steelers offensive line, which isn’t very good at pass blocking, but does a wonderful job with run blocking. And we all know how bad the Browns defense is at stopping the run (28th, remember?) and making tackles.
The Steelers also have another huge advantage: Three big tight ends. Heath Miller is a shade of his younger self. He can still catch and indeed has 25 receptions so far, but his yards after the catch are less than five. (4.9) But the 6’5″ Miller is joined by fellow 6’5″-er Michael Palmer and 6’7″ Matt Spaeth. And, yes, the Browns have a real hard time covering….well, anyone, but especially tight ends.
Oh, and did I mention the Steelers have Antonio Brown? And we all know about future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger is taking a lot of hits because that line isn’t very good at pass blocking and Roethlisberger holds on to the ball too long, which he’s been criticized for his whole career. (In his defense, he also gets a lot of credit for breaking tackles and making plays with his arm. Sorry commentators, you can’t have it both ways.) The only difference is that Roethlisberger is now 32 years old.
The Browns do a good job of pressuring the passer. They got to Roethlisberger (writer’s note: I look forward to the day when the Steelers have a quarterback with less than 37 letters in his last name. Maybe I should just go with referring to him as “B.R.”) four times in Game 1, accounting for half of their sacks on the season.
The Browns also have a more dynamic offense. They are fourth in the NFL with Yards per Game (143.5) and Quarterback Brian Hoyer ranks seventh in the NFL with a QB rating of 103.8. Hoyer has only thrown one interception on the season – last week against the Titans – and that was sort of a blessing, as it served as a long punt which eventually set the Browns up for their game-winning touchdown. (Aided by Ken Whisenhunt’s decision to go for it on fourth and inches on his side of the field.)
The Steelers are awful in the Red Zone – 26th in the league – which is surprising because they have Bell, who is a top rusher, and those big tight ends I mentioned. What’s behind that is the Steelers playcalling inside the 20: They tend to pass a lot. I don’t know how long the Steelers intend to keep Todd Haley as their offensive coordinator, given the problems he seems to cause on the field and in the locker room. (He and B.R. publicly have had some issues.)
I don’t believe that we will see two lopsided halves as we did in Game 1. The Steelers have now seen the hurry-up offense and the Browns played a game last week, which for whatever reason is something in their favor this year. I am worried about the Browns defense. If that defense could be anything near what we were expecting it to be, I’d have a lot more faith in this team, for this game and for the season.
The Steelers are a half-game better at 3-2 vs. the Browns 2-2, but nobody outside of Merril Hoge thinks the Steelers are going in the same direction. Earlier in the week, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an article talking about the rivalry being renewed with this game. Why? These teams are closely matched. But it’s been the Steelers regressing as much as it’s been the Browns progressing.
The Steelers have the better defense, the Browns the better offense. So who wins this one?
I say the Browns, 27-24. The Steelers will put the ball on the ground and keep the passing short, with tosses to tight ends and with screens. I’d be shocked if we didn’t see them hand the ball off to Brown once in this game. The Steelers gouged the Browns in the open field, as has everyone. They’ll do their best to set themselves up that way again.
This is yet another must-win game for the Browns, and that’s in a league where almost every game is must-win. This is a must-win mostly because it is a divisional game. A loss puts them at 0-3 in the division, 0-2 against the Steelers, and 0-2 within the division at home. It would also send them to 2-3 overall, but that’s not back-breaking.
I can’t wait for this game. The Cleveland crowd should be in a frenzy and the game should be close. Real close. Let’s just hope this time we see the Browns on the winning side of the final score.