Saturday, October 16, 2010

Here comes Big Ben

Most fans expect the Steelers to roll over the Browns tomorrow afternoon in Pittsburgh now that Ben Roethlisberger is back under center for the Steelers.

Not gonna happen.

That's not say the Browns are going to win. That's not gonna happen, either.

You can expect Roethlisberger to spend most of the afternoon chipping off the rust he accumulated while sitting out a four-game suspension for misguided conduct (and that's being kind) off the field. A quarterback does not come off such a layoff and perform as though he had been doing it all along. Doesn't work that way.

Big Ben, who loves playing against the Browns (only one loss in his career), will struggle. The Steelers offense will struggle. Offense is all about timing and it'll take the big fella at least a couple of games to smooth out the rough spots.

He is not going to step in a perform at a high level. But one thing is certain: The Pittsburgh offense will be a lot better than it's been the first four games of the season.

The Steelers, as has been the case the last two decades, win games with a dynamic defense. And that, more than anything, is responsible for their surprising -- not to them -- 3-1 start. Most Steelers fans would have been happy with a 2-2 start with Roethlisberger as a spectator. They've got to be thrilled with 3-1.

When one checks the club's stats sheet and finds receivers Hines Ward and Heath Miller with just 22 catches total in those four games, and notices that the offense has scored just seven touchdowns (the Browns' offense has nine), there can be no question that defense is still the king in Pittsburgh.

Coordinator Dick LeBeau, who reached genius status a long time ago, is still up to his old tricks and not many teams have figured out a way to beat him. As long as safety Troy Polamalu is healthy, the Pittsburgh turnover machine hums merrily along.

In their four outings thus far, the Steelers have six interceptions and six fumble recoveries. That's three turnovers a game on which their offense had a chance to capitalize. Throw in 11 sacks and you have the formula by which you can win three games in four attempts with an offense not much better than a good college team.

And now that Big Ben is back, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians can unbutton the offense, which has averaged just 213 yards a game under Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch, who combined for just 81 passes in four games. The threat of Roethlisberger also will allow Rashard Mendenhall more room to run since opposing defenses won't dare stack the line of scrimmage.

And then there's the revenge factor. Late last season, the Steelers arrived in Cleveland with a chance to get into the playoffs and defend their Super Bowl championship. But the Browns sacked Roethlisberger eight times in a 13-6 victory to eliminate the Steelers from contention. He and his offensive line have not forgotten that Thursday night on national television.

What's going to make Eric Mangini's job more challenging in this one is how he and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll plan to protect Colt McCoy in his professional football debut. The kid will see so many different looks, he'll be cross-eyed by the second quarter.

That said, it would not be surprising to see a lot of Joshua Cribbs in the wildcat, which was moderately successful in last season's victory. And don't expect any quick-count snaps. The more time the Browns can take off the clock, the better. Look for the ball to be snapped with one of two seconds left on the play clock. Shorten the game.

The most important goal for McCoy and/or Cribbs will be to win first down. If they can do that and keep second- and third-down plays at least manageable, they'll be OK. Otherwise, it'll be a long and frustrating afternoon.

The Cleveland defense, meanwhile, hopes to duplicate its eight-sack performance the last time it faced Big Ben. Hoping won't make it so. If it gets half that number, it should be satisfied. They've got a good shot. The Pittsburgh offensive line has allowed 11 sacks this season.

Add it all up and it comes out to a Pittsburgh victory. But it won't be easy if the Cleveland defense continues to play well. Make it . . .

Steelers 23, Browns 10

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