Browns Preview: Game 16 (@ Pittsburgh)

Opponent Preview

I’ll be damned if I do a lot of involved analysis for another one of those “Close out your cruddy season in Pittsburgh” games. But due to uncertainty. I have to work a little harder than normal.

The Steelers have nine more wins than the Browns– primarily because they have scored 132 more points (at 24.8 points per game, they’re 12th in the NFL) and have allowed 122 fewer (20.2 per game; ninth in the NFL).

In my opinion, Pittsburgh is an unbelievably weak 10-5 team. They’re 4-1 against the AFC North (Baltimore beat them by a TD), have beaten all three teams playing in New York (the Jets, Giants and Bills are different shades of putrid) and got to have fun with Indianapolis and Washington. They lost to the two good teams they had to face (New England and Dallas) and let both Miami and Philly beat them. The only good win came against the Chiefs.

But they’re 10-5; only the Patriots (13-2) and Raiders (12-3) have been harder to beat. They’ve locked up the third seed– and, according to three different sources, can’t go any higher or lower, no matter what happens.

So the Steelers, uncharacteristically, can afford to rest anyone they want to. And due to growing maturity on the part of the players and coaches, they seem to understand that it would be a good idea to rest their key players– rather than let Ben Roethlisberger play hurt and jack himself up for the playoffs by beating up on Cleveland.

So Pittsburgh allegedly can– and will– rest their ailing players. And because head coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley have no concept of what a “diversified offense” or “depth” looks like, resting their starters on offense comes pretty close to shutting down the entire offense.

Seriously. Roethlisberger, RB Le’Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown are all banged-up enough to be listed as doubtful (75% probability will not play). TE Ladarius Green is out. C Maurkice Pouncey and backup RB DeAngelo Williams are also doubtful.

Bell (261 carries), Williams (75), Roethlisberger (16) and Brown (3) have combined for 93.2% of the Steelers rushing attempts. Brown (154 throws), Bell (94), Green (34) and Williams (23) represent 55.2% of the pass attempts.

QB Landry Jones is 1-2 lifetime as a starter– and his one win was the 2015 game where Jones started, threw four passes, jacked himself up– and then Roethlisberger came in and went 22-33 for 379 yards and 3 scores.

The best you can say is that his 2016 performance– 73.6 rating, 5.7 yards per pass, 1 TD and and INT– is a little misleading because his one start came against New England. But he wasn’t any better in 2015.

RB Fitzgerald Toussaint has 29 carries for 86 yards as a Steeler. Nothing scary there.

With Brown out, the pass receiving threats are WR Eli Rogers (42-60 for 533 yards and 3 scores) and Sammie Coates (21-49 for 435 yards and 2 scores). TE Jesse James (37-57 for 322 yards and 3 scores) should have a big day against the Browns’ linebackers– every other tight end has– but it’s hard to see these guys lighting up the scoreboard.

Defensively, DE Stephen Tuitt (second on the team in sacks) is out with a bum knee– and LB Ryan Shazier (third, and second in interceptions) is listed as questionable (50% chance he won’t play) with an undisclosed illness. Plus, Cam Heyward is out for the year.

To be fair, the Steelers are still tied for #12-17 in sacks  and 19th in interceptions. Nobody is playing well, but everyone is contributing. And corners Ross Cockrell (who is 25) and #1 pick Artie Burns (21) have turned into pretty decent cover corners.

But the defense isn’t really that imposing. The offense has usually controlled the ball and given them a lead early. They’re 8-1 if they’re leading by 3 points at the end of the first quarter and 2-4 when they aren’t.

And with Landry Jones at the controls– a mediocrity who can’t even decide which former Dallas coach he prefers (Tom or Jimmy)– there is a very good chance that the Steelers won’t jump out to such a lead– at any point– and the game might be winnable for Cleveland.

I agree– up to a point– with Terry Bradshaw’s recent blast at Mike Tomlin. In his first five seasons (2007-11),  Tomlin went 55-25, with four trips to the playoffs (5-3 record; 1-1 in the Super Bowl). In his last five, Tomlin is 48-32 (putting the Browns game in the win column) with three playoff trips (counting this year) and a 1-2 record in the playoffs.

Naturally Bradshaw went way over the top. And he had a love-hate relationship with the franchise.

You can argue the dropoff in the last five years is due to free agency (a lot of teams raid the Steelers). Maybe it’s worse drafting (some front office people have retired). Maybe it’s the result of a more competitive league (or division). Maybe it’s as simple as Tomlin dumping Bruce Arians after 2011. Or it might be just bad luck.

Last year, Vontaze Burfict deliberately injured Brown in a playoff game. Brown missed the Denver game– a game Bell also missed with injury– and the Steelers lost it 23-16. Maybe, in a universe where Burfict is suspended for some of his cheap shots earlier in the year, the Steelers beat Denver, get by New England in the AFC Championship and win it all.

Or maybe Tomlin is another one of those coaches who looks a lot better than he is because he inherited Roethlisberger (who can win games singlehandedly for him) and will look a lot less smart when he doesn’t have a cinch Hall-of-Famer. We’ll see.

Browns Preview

The other problem predicting this game is that we don’t know what to expect from Cleveland.

The best thing one can say about the season is that Chris Palmer’s “Runaway Train” never formally pulled out. because the team has so many younger players (only 8 over 30), the veterans haven’t checked out– and the Browns haven’t been taking beatings by an increasingly lopsided score. In the San Diego game, everyone seemed to be fighting hard; nobody seemed to have given up.

Of course the problem is that the team is so bad that it’s hard to tell when a player is tanking. I pride myself on my scouting ability, but I don’t know what (say) DT Stephen Paea looks like when he’s phoning it in.

One could assume that their performance is due to the scrappy and competitive nature of the players, and the incredible coaching that Hue Jackson has been doing. Or it might be something much less inspiring– a deep desire not to be associated with an 0-16 team.

I can actually point to a historical example: the 1980 New Orleans “Aints”, the team whose fans began putting bags over their heads. New Orleans also started 0-14, before beating the New York Jets 21-20 in week 15. I paid close attention to that team for two reasons:

  • One of my best friends– a rabid football fan– was from New Orleans.
  • I was living in New York City at the time, and following the Jets.

After losing their first 12 games– only two by less than a touchdown, the Aints put forth an enormous amount of effort to avoid going 0-16. They lost game 13 by three points, game 14 by three points (in overtime)– and then beat the Jets.

Derek and I were speculating on what they would do now that the monkey was off their backs. What they did was lose 38-27 to New England. They gave up 473 yards– 240 rushing, 233 passing.

If the Browns do check out early, the prime culprits would be the list of potential free agents: Paea, RT Austin Pasztor, P Britton Colquitt, FS Jordan Poyer (on IR), LB Jamie Collins and WR Terrelle Pryor. Presumably they all want to leave the NFL’s worst franchise, and the priority will be not risking an injury that might blow their chances to get a big contract..

Before you say “I don’t believe anyone would do that”, remember that Desmond Bryant got hurt doing off-season workouts last year. The Browns refused to pay his contract, claiming that he wasn’t working out at a team facility when he got hurt. Which is a violation of the contract, but it not normally used unless the workout consists of power curls with a beer stein.

Bryant, an enormously intelligent (Harvard grad) and respected player, had to fight to get a settlement– and his chances of returning to Cleveland are nil. All the players and their agents know about stuff like that– which front offices won’t take care of you– and it’s another example of Sashi Brown being penny wise and ton foolish.

Both Collins and Pryor have generously acknowledged that they might stay with the team if it pays them substantially more than market rate. I tend to doubt that will happen– that the analytics guys will overpay or the player will be tempted– but you never know.

Another group of players includes the veterans likely to get dumped for contract reason, poor play or both: Joe Haden, Robert Griffin, Tramon Williams, Josh McCown and Andrew Hawkins.

Also, Isaiah Crowell, is a restricted free agent who is exactly 200 yards away from 1,000 rushing. It would seem obvious that Crowell has no chance to make that milestone– especially against Pittsburgh. But Crowell has never been the epitome of rational thinking, so he might be upset if he doesn’t get the ball enough.

Pryor is also 87 yards away from 1,000 yards receiving, and might focus obsessively on that.

The Browns have already started moving forward. They’ve cut guard Jonathan Cooper to make room for Alvin Bailey. This makes perfect sense: Cooper was below average, but Bailey was terrible.

Pasztor, who will leave the team, has been benched. Earlier in the year, the Browns said that if Cam Erving (who bonbed out when tried at guard last year) played poorly enough at center, they might try him at tackle. Since he’ll start at tackle, we know what they think about him.

RGIII will be starting– not because anyone thinks he’s playing well, but because they want to make sure he really won’t turn back into an MVP candidate before the season ends and his salary will nearly double next year.

Game Preview

I don’t see Pittsburgh scoring a lot of points. They scored 24 last time, but Kessler threw an interceptions that was turned into a field goal– and Josh McCown got sacked and fumbled in the end zone. Roethlisberger threw one TD to Brown and Bell’s 146 yards helped produce two more field goals.

In his one start against New England, Landry Jones went 29-47 for 281 yards, a TD and and INT. It was not a great game– and he had the chance to hand the ball off to Bell and throw to Brown. and Bell. On the other hand, he was facing Bill Belicheat’s defense– not Ray Horton’s.

Of the players Jones threw to in that game– and will be allowed to use Sunday– Cobi Hamilton went 3-6 for 36 yards;  Darius Heyward-Bey went 3-7 for 30 yards and a score.

Toussaint will carry the ball; he has 11 carries for 44 yards. That’s not enough to draw any conclusions– especially since he got 6 carries in one game with the other five split between three others. He gained 28 yards on those six carries against Indianapolis.

The wrinkle here is that Jones (their #4 pick in 2013) will be a free agent at the end of the season– and he’s played so little that nobody knows if he is any good. Pittsburgh might use the game as an audition– a challenge to Jones to show what he can do.

Defensively? The Browns have given up more sacks than anyone else. The quarterback has been sacked at least four times in eight games– in six of the last seven. The Steelers got 8 sacks the last time they played Cleveland (four on McCown, four on Kessler), so you figure the defensive game plan will still be “meet at the quarterback.”

In that game, Crowell got 10 yards on 8 carries and Johnson got 10 yards on two. Presumably they won’t do a lot better.

Game Prediction

This game is unquestionably “in play.” Pittsburgh could bury the Browns, but they seem serious about trying to keep everyone healthy. Without Ben, Bell and Brown, there is no proof that Pittsburgh can score.

If the Browns could win this game, a lot of what has passed before would be forgotten. Doug “Stupidest Man on Earth” Lesmerises would immediately announce that the rebuilding was bearing fruit– and say the Browns are on pace to go 16-0 next year. (Well, they would be if they won two in a row.)

If the players really love Jackson and the Steelers come in cocky, the Browns could catch Pittsburgh off guard and get into the driver’s seat before the Steelers realize what’s happening.

I’d guess that has a 30-40% chance of that happening.

Of course that still leave the Steelers with a 60-70% chance of winning. And that’s being kind. The Browns are 0-8 against the Steelers in the last two weeks of the regular season– and I’d never bet on a 1-14 team– playing on the road, in cold weather, with a warm-weather quarterback– to break that kind of streak.

Steelers 92, Browns -21


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