Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Steel City blues

The last time the Browns won a football game in Pittsburgh, Tim Couch was the quarterback and a national television audience sat in on the upset.

Playing arguably his best game ever as a professional, Couch that Sunday night in October in 2003 threw for only 208 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-13 victory. But he completed 20 of 25 passes and was masterful as the Browns controlled the ball for 37½ minutes.

The Cleveland defense sacked Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox three times and limited the Pittsburgh offense to just 209 yards and 11 first downs. It was the most complete Browns victory in Pittsburgh in recent memory, or at least since the return.

No Browns fan will ever forget Couch’s nine-yard touchdown run around right end on the final play of the first half, the quarterback pumping his right arm up and down triumphantly as he cruised into the end zone.

Nor will they forget Daylon McCutcheon’s 75-yard pick 6 of Maddox late in the third quarter that gave the Browns a 30-10 lead in front of what had to be a stunned crowd. Nor William Green’s 115 yards on the ground.

Why do we bring that up? Because the Browns make their annual trek to the Chamber of Horrors, a.k.a. Heinz Field, Thursday night in front of another national TV audience.

Since that 2003 game, the Browns have dropped seven in a row at Heinz and been outscored 212-103. On average, that’s 30.3-14.7. Since that game, Cleveland has not been to the playoffs and the Steelers have won two Super Bowls.

What is labeled as a rivalry is a rivalry only from a geographic standpoint. The two cities are roughly 120 miles apart. From a competitive standpoint, however, their pro football teams are galaxies apart.

Since the Browns returned to the National Football League in 1999, they have played the Steelers 25 times and lost 21, including the infamous 36-33 loss in the AFC wild card game in Pittsburgh in the 2002 playoffs.

That’s the one where the Browns blew leads of 24-7 early in the third quarter and 33-21 early in the fourth quarter, and coach Butch Davis decided to play prevent-defense football after taking over play-calling duties from coordinator Foge Fazio.

As the old saying goes, the only thing that strategy prevented was the Browns from winning their first playoff game since 1994 as the Steelers scored 22 fourth-quarter points to steal the victory.

This season, there is no reason to believe the Browns can replicate what happened in 2003. There is no reason to believe Colt McCoy can come close to matching what Couch did. And there’s no reason to believe the Steelers will fall that far behind as they did eight years ago.

These two teams are heading in opposite directions. The Steelers share first place with a 9-3 record in the AFC North with Baltimore only because they can’t beat the Ravens, who are responsible for two of Pittsburgh’s three losses.

And the Browns are careening toward another dismal season. Losers of two in a row and five of their last six, they are flirting with their third straight 5-11 season. That’s only if they can beat the Arizona Cardinals in Glendale, Ariz., in 10 days. If not, 4-12 will serve as Pat Shurmur’s debut record.

The way they are playing, it’s definitely not outside the realm of possibility that the Browns will finish their fourth straight season with at least 11 losses. No other NFL team can make that claim.

So what can we expect Thursday night in Pittsburgh? A blowout of some proportion to be certain. First of all, it’s a short week and we all know how poorly the Browns’ offense performs even when given the standard seven days to prepare.

In their last seven games, they’ve scored 84 points on six touchdowns and 14 field goals. Placekicker Phil Dawson is the runaway scoring leader this season. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, has produced 72 points in winning its last three games after losing to the Ravens in the rematch.

The Steelers win games the old-fashioned way. Nothing fancy. Nothing flashy. They beat you with sound, fundamental football. On both sides of the ball and on special teams. They rarely beat themselves.

Not with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger running a balanced offense that features the running of Rashard Mendenhall and receiving of speedsters Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown.

And certainly not with an opportunistic defense that might be getting a little old. But it should have no trouble shutting down McCoy as Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau confuses him with his zone blitz schemes.

Roethlisberger enters every Cleveland game knowing, not thinking or hoping, knowing he is going to win. In 10 games against the Browns, Big Ben owns nine victories. His only loss was couple of years ago at Cleveland Browns Stadium when the Browns sacked him eight times in a 13-6 victory. The Cleveland quarterback that day? Brady Quinn.

On paper, this one looks and sounds like a mismatch, right? Factoring in all the factors, is there any question the nation will witness a blowout Thursday evening?

Uh, no. Make it:

Steelers 38, Browns 6

No comments:

Post a Comment