All of the talk entering this week surrounding the AFC North battle between the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers involves third-string quarterback Charlie Batch, who has been thrust into a starting role for the away side. Although Batch is a third tier backup, he is also a proven veteran who has consistently provided stability in the past, as recently as last season when he navigated the team to a victory over the St. Louis Rams.
Unlike Byron Leftwich last week, Batch shouldn’t be the deciding factor in this game. and although the Steelers are still slight favorites without Ben Roethlisberger, the Browns can feel disrespected by that fact. Recent history is all in the Steelers’ favor, and indeed they do have a better record this season, but the Browns have been very competitive all season long and are coming off an uplifting performance, if not an uplifting result, against the Dallas Cowboys.
Just like for much of the season, that game was played without Joe Haden. Haden’s presence on defense significantly alters how the Browns approach opposing offense’s with their coverage. Both he and Buster Skrine are expected to return against the Steelers, which gives the Browns an area of strength to matchup with what has recently become an area of weakness for the Steelers. Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders remain, but Jerricho Cotchery and Antonio Brown figure to miss this game while Plaxico Burress steps in after just a few days with the team. Had the Steelers not lost so many receivers in recent weeks, they would be able to target Skrine with Sanders as the third options on both depth charts, however now that Sanders is in the starting lineup, he must face the resurgent Sheldon Brown. Brown and Haden won’t be overwhelmed by Sanders and Wallace, while Burress isn’t capable of consistently making receptions to move the chains, even against Skrine.
Furthermore, even though the Steelers have played with an improved offensive line this year, the Browns’ defensive line has been even more impressive. Names like Phil Taylor and Jabal Sheard stand out, but it is the rotation of talented tackles and energetic ends as a whole who have really made this unit fearsome. Regardless of their statistics, 27 sacks in 10 games to rank ninth in the league, it is the Browns’ ability to consistently get pressure and disrupt an offense’s rhythm while still stuffing the run that makes this group a major problem for the Steelers.
On the other side of the ball, Dick LeBeau will feel confident trying to take advantage of rookie Brandon Weeden, but Weeden will also have plenty of time to decipher what the hall-of-fame quarterback throws at him. LeBeau’s tendencies are to focus on the opposition’s best weapon and do everything to remove his impact from the game. That will see the Steelers focus on shutting down Trent Richardson at running-back, while trusting their very talented secondary to contain the Browns’ receivers. Presuming that Richardson doesn’t have a big day, the Browns will be forced to pass the ball an awful lot.
Not running a balanced offense against an elite defense is generally a recipe for disaster. On this occasion, that may not be the case however. With two offensive tackles playing to an elite level, Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz, the Browns should be able to contain LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison even if they don’t have to consider run support a priority. The Steelers don’t have much of a pass rush up the middle, but they do often blitz both inside linebackers on a double A-gap stunt. That puts a huge amount of pressure on the opposing center to make good reads and execute difficult pickups. In Alex Mack, the Browns have a player who can seamlessly carry out that assignment on every single snap.
Because the Steelers play aggressive coverage on the outside these days with Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis, time in the pocket is the most effective kryptonite for the Browns to use. With time in the pocket, Pat Shurmur can call plenty of double moves and deep posts to try and create big plays. The Steelers aren’t likely to score big points in this game without Roethlisberger and two important receivers, so it shouldn’t take too many throws down the field to escape with a close victory.