Well, here’s a challenging assignment. In the last 15 years, Pittsburgh is 26-4 against the Browns. Now who do I think will win? Well, let me try to put some suspense into it.
1. Three of Pittsburgh’s four losses occurred when the game was played in Cleveland, so history suggests the Browns have a 20% chance of winning.
2. In two of the three games, the Browns were pretty terrible:
- They were 2-11 in 2009, when they beat Pittsburgh 13-6 to ensure the 6-7 Steelers couldn’t have a winning record.
- They were 3-8 in 2012, when they won 20-14 against the 6-6 Steelers
- Only in 2014 could you reasonably say the Browns (3-2) were a better team than Pittsburgh (3-3). And they blew the Steelers out 31-10.
3. After starting 4-1, the Steelers have lost four straight– all to teams the Browns have already played:
- 30-15 to Miami in Miami
- 27-16 to New England in Three Rivers (I’m tired of mentioning sponsors)
- 21-14 to Baltimore, on the road
- 35-30 against Dallas, at home
Both Pittsburgh and Cleveland scored 75 points. The only edge for Pittsburgh is that the Steelers allowed 113, but the Browns 129. You could say the two teams have been pretty close.
(Of course Pittsburgh beat Washington, Cincinnati and the Jets, while the Browns got stomped by all three, so they’re not really that close. But I’m trying to be upbeat.)
4. The problem with the Steelers is the same it has been since 2013. they’re not a good defensive team anymore. They’re a pretty good defensive team (14th in points allowed this year and 2013, 11th in 2015; 18th in 2014), but how good they look depends on who the divisional opponents are.
Pittsburgh has become a team that goes as far as the offense takes them. They’ve always been pretty good or better– 16th in 2013, 4th in 2014, 7th in 2015 and 15th his year– but the act is pretty predictable. QB Ben Roethlisberger stands behind a mediocre line and tries to throw to WR Antonio Brown, with a little bit of running and receiving from RB Le’Veon Bell.
5. It’s not hard to figure out how to beat the Steelers:
- If Roethlisberger is hurt, they lose. That’s happened once this year (Landry Jones started against the Patriots).
- If Roethlisberger (who is 34) has a bad game, they lose. That happened against the Bengals, Eagles, Dolphins and Ravens; they went 1-3 in those games.
- If the opposing defense keeps Brown out of the end zone, they lose. The Bengals, Eagles, Dolphins and Patriots did it; the Steelers went 1-3..
The trick is doing those things. Interestingly, Bell has missed three games, but the Steelers went 2-1 in those starts. He’s gained less than four years a carry in four of his six game– under 3.5 in three. The problem, as it almost always is, is a patchwork line C Maurkice Pouncey and G David DeCastro can play; everyone else protects as well as Alvin Bailey, Austin Pasztor or Cam Erving.
6. The Steelers try to diversify the supporting cast, but thy haven’t drafted that well. Also, it doesn’t matter who plays or what gets called. Roethlisberger is more than happy to try to jam the ball in to Brown. Brown is second in the NFL in pass targets this year, he was second in both 2014 and 2015 and fourth in 2013.
This year’s diversity begins with WR Sammie Coates, a #3 pick last year, who has 20 catches on 42 targets for 425 yards and 2 scores. TE Jesse James, a fifth-rounder a year ago, has 28 catches on 39 tries for 231 yards and three scores. It’s too early to say they won’t pan out yet.
Pittsburgh also has two undrafted free agents this year: WR Eli Rogers (23-35 for 280 yards and 2 scores) and TE Eli Grimble (10-19 for 98 yards and 1 score) .
The problem, historically, is that these intriguing guys never turn out to be good players. They drafted Markus Wheaton in the third round of 2013, so his rookie contract is about to expire. He has caught, in his 47 games (which already tells you something, he could have played in 57), 107 passes for 1,508 yards and 8 scores. That’s what a frontline receiver on a team that throws as often as the Steelers (seventh in attempts this year) do should be getting in a season.
Also, Deangelo Williams is 33 and his talent has evaporated.
7. On defense, the Steelers have 11 fumbles forced (10 recovered), but only 13 sacks and four interceptions. Steeler acolytes keep telling me that the defense isn’t as spectacular as it used to be, but it is steadier. I keep telling them that if Cameron Heyward is still your best player– and 38-year-old James Harrison is still playing and now starting– you probably have issues.
CB Artie Burns– their #1 pick in 2016– does look like he can play, but he’s about the only recent pick. They were desperate enough to backfield help that they took a look at Justin Gilbert (it did not go well)
I got very little to add to what I wrote after the Ravens’ game. The rookies on the defense don’t seem to have quit– but they aren’t playing well.
The backfield is what is killing them most. Joe Haden can’t stay healthy; Tramon Williams is very far away from the hill is he is over. CB Jamar Taylor seems like he can be a decent player, but he is really raw, and he’s hurt. ; Briean Boddy-Calhoun might make it too, but he isn’t anywhere close.
The safeties are a disaster– a self-inflicted wound. Three years ago, Mike Pettine and Ray Farmer pitched T.J. Ward, signing Donte Whitner for nearly as much money, even though he had a lot more miles. At the end of 2015, they drafted Ibraheim Campbell to replace Whitner. Campbell was a perfect clone– also couldn’t cover worth a lick, often out of position, but would knock your socks off with a hit.
The Marx Brothers come in. They ditch Whitner– which makes sense. But then they draft Derrick Kindred– a strong safety identical to Campbell, but even rougher-edged. So now they have two young strong safeties who can’t cover.
They ditch Tashaun Gipson at free safety (a wise idea; his body is falling apart and he wasn’t worth a big contract). They intended to use Jordan Poyer at free safety, forgetting that:
- He’s been unable to crack the lineup since 2013. At the end of 2015, he’d played in 42 of the 48 games– but started only 4 (when Gipson was hurt).
- He was signed to a four-year deal that expires at the end of the year.
So you’re going to make him a starter– which maybe he can do and maybe he can’t– and they you have to re-sign him at the end of the year. He’ll want starter money, Sasho Marx won’t want to pay it and he’ll leave. Brilliant!
Then Poyer gets hurt and is out for the year. They don’t have anyone to play the position, because they drafted Kindred, instead of someone who could cover. They’ve been playing corners (who are undersized)– now they’re trying a Philly castoff named Ed Reynolds, whom my buddy from Philly says “can definitely play well enough to get you beat.”
It’s not a good sign when you call up a friend from Seattle to ask about a player and he says “You’re starting Alvin Bailey? No wonder you’re winless.”A friend from Chicago (a Northwestern alum) called me to ask me what FB Dan Vitale was doing in Cleveland. “He’s like that guy you drafted in the third round from Stanford.” (He meant Owen Marecic, one of Tom Heckert’s brainstorms in the fourth round of 2011.)
Factor in WR Ricardo Louis, Rashard Higgins and Jordan Payton not doing anything at receiver– or the reach for TE Seth Devalve looking worse– or the Browns imagining that Randall Telfer would stay healthy and contribute– and you have a team in chaos.
All the Steelers try to do is throw long passes to Antonio Brown; the Browns don’t have anyone who can stop Antonio Brown. You figure it out.
When the Browns do everything possible to stop Antonio Brown, Roethlisberger throws to the guys the leave open
Last year he went 46-69 for 729 yards, 6 TDs and 3 interceptions. Poyer made two of the picks, Craig Robertson one.
If someone doesn’t step up, he guts Horton’s defense like a ripe trout.
I’d start Roethlisberger and Brown.
Best of all, it’s cold and it snowed. Welcome to Cleveland, Cody “Trust Me” Kessler.
Browns get one score in the first half and one very late; Steelers get as many scores as they want: Pittsburgh 34, Browns 15.