The Pittsburgh Steelers make the short trip across the Pennsylvania border for their first 2012 meeting against historic rival Cleveland. The Steelers have dominated this rivalry since the reincarnation of the Browns franchise in 1999, but this is a Pittsburgh team that will be starting third-string quarterback Charlie Batch. Injuries to Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich in consecutive weeks have dramatically affected the momentum the Steelers were gaining at the midpoint of the season. Now they'll turn to the erstwhile Batch, with recent signee and Cleveland native Brian Hoyer likely backing him up.
The Browns are once again at the bottom of the AFC North standings, but Pat Shurmur's club has been competitive on a weekly basis. Cleveland squandered a 13-point lead last week in Dallas, and failed to capitalize on several chances to put away the Cowboys before falling in overtime. Pittsburgh has won 16 of the past 17 meetings with the Browns, but the Steelers injuries provide an excellent opportunity for the Browns to pick up a rare division win over their rival.
Meet the Browns
The Browns are 2-8 this season, with both victories coming on the southern shore of Lake Erie. Their play has certainly been improved, but the results are still lacking under Shurmur. Cleveland has lost 22 of the past 24 games against a Steelers team that was once a bitter rival. The hatred is still there on the Cleveland end, but the lack of competitiveness has certainly taken some of the intensity out of this rivalry.
The Browns are extremely young, with rookies starting at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver. Brandon Weeden was steadier against Dallas, recovering after one of his worst games of the season against the Ravens. The 29-year-old rookie has limited the turnover problems that plagued him at the beginning of the season, but he's still been shaky at the end of games when the Browns need to come up with fourth quarter points. Weeden has established solid rapport with young wideouts Josh Gordon and Greg Little, but they'll be facing the No. 1 pass defense in the league. There may be injuries on the offensive side, but Dick LeBeau's defense continues to hum along and shut down opponents.
Trent Richardson is the featured back on the ground, and while he occasionally found running room against the Cowboys, the rookie running back failed to punch it in on a short yardage situation down by the goal line late in the game. Richardson and his coaches have lamented that failure all week, but again he'll be facing, year-in and year-out, one of the best run defenses in the league. Shurmur has been criticized for going away from the run at times this season, but with potentially nasty weather conditions on the Lake, expect Richardson to come close to the season-high 28 carries he got last week.
But facing this defense, the Browns will have to hope for some Batch turnovers and a couple quick strike big plays in order to get points.
Meet the Steelers
Mike Tomlin's club appeared well on their way to challenging for the AFC North crown, but the injury to Roethlisberger has put the Ravens right back in the driver's seat. Their four-game win streak was snapped last week against Baltimore, and they also lost back-up quarterback Byron Leftwich in that battle.
Now, they turn to the Pittsburgh native and veteran Batch, who's played sparingly in seven seasons with the Steelers. Batch has not thrown a pass this season and was just 15 of 24 with an interception in four games last year. The Steelers have the 13th-ranked passing game in the league, but there's no telling how they'll perform with Batch under center. It's likely Todd Haley will play it safe and utilize the short-passing game. Cleveland has one of the worst pass defenses in the league, and with Joe Haden still nursing an oblique injury, Haley and Batch should still take some shots down the field with their array of weapons on the outside (including a newly-signed Plaxico Burress).
The strength of this Pittsburgh team continues to be LeBeau's unit on the defensive side of the ball. They have the best pass defense in the league, and No. 5 rush defense. They will rely on this defense to harass the young Cleveland offense and force turnovers, which will be crucial to continuing their dominance against the Browns. Those turnovers could be the difference in the game, especially with their shorthanded offensive unit.
Local Takes: Browns
Chris Pokorny of Dawgs By Nature examines the Browns mentality heading into a rivalry game against a depleted Steelers team:
I think there are two types of attitudes that the players on the Browns can have heading into this game. On one hand, while they might usually fear inferior to the Steelers, they may now think, "great, we can beat this guy now." On the other hand, they can think, "we don't care who is back there; we're going to give him hell." I hope their mentality is more along the lines of the latter viewpoint. If there is anything we know about the Steelers and head coach Mike Tomlin, it is that they put themselves in position to succeed even when they are without Ben Roethlisberger. I think the injury to Byron Leftwich threw a wrench in last week's plans; with a healthy Leftwich, they probably beat the Ravens.
Local Takes: Steelers
Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain previews the game, and thinks Cleveland's young offense will be in for a long day against that dominant Pittsburgh D:
Offensively, this Browns team plays so much into Dick LeBeau's defense, it's hard to see them scoring on more than two possessions. They throw the ball on 61 percent of their offensive snaps, yet, Weeden's 6.19 yards per attempt is among the lowest in the NFL. Richardson is a young and powerful runner but not nearly as effective as some may feel he is.
This is a one-dimensional offense that should struggle greatly to move the ball on Pittsburgh's defense.
Follow the Fun
Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:
Weekend Check Down: the top stories of the week sbn.to/ThRUxl— BTSC Steelers (@btsteelcurtain) November 24, 2012
@TonyGrossi - Browns beat reporter
@MarkKaboly_Trib - Steelers beat reporter
When will Polamalu return? sulia.com/my_thoughts/e7…— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) November 24, 2012
Time for the new look Steelers to show their face. Byron Leftwich may not play, and Ben Roethlisberger is out. So that leaves Charlie Batch and new backup Brian Hoyer. Batch has started seven games for the Steelers in the Roethlisberger era, winning five of them. Also important: Cleveland has beaten Pittsburgh just twice since 2000.
The pick: 16-9, Steelers
The Steelers injuries at quarterback obviously throw this game out of whack, and according to OddsShark, the Steelers are slight favorites, with the game also as a pick'em in some spots.
The Browns will cross the country for a game in Oakland against the Raiders. The Steelers will continue their three-week slog through the AFC North, and hit the road for their second game against the Ravens in three weeks.