Friday, November 23, 2012

Steelers ripe for upset

Just about everything points to a Browns victory over Pittsburgh Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

Ben Roethlisberger won’t suit up for the Steelers. Troy Polamalu won’t suit up, either. And the Steelers have become an aging team whose window of opportunity is nearly shut.

Oh, and Joe Haden is expected back in the secondary for the Browns after missing last week’s debacle in Dallas with an oblique injury. His presence in that game arguably meant the difference between winning and losing.

Big Ben has been death to the Browns since coming into the National Football League in 2004. In 15 starts, he has left the field a loser just once, a 13-6 loss in Cleveland in December 2009.

In that one, most fans will recall, Roethlisberger was sacked eight times by the Browns while Cleveland running back Chris Jennings rushed for 73 yards and the game’s only touchdown.

Over the years, Roethlisberger has tortured the Browns, completing nearly 60% of his passes and averaging 231.5 yards a game with 20 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. Whenever big plays were needed, he provided them.

As a result of attrition at quarterback, however, Charlie Batch will start for the Steelers against the Browns. Yep, that Charlie Batch. As in “is he still in the National Football League?”

Significant injuries to Roethlisberger (throwing shoulder and ribs) and his backup Byron Leftwich (ribs) have left Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin with no other choice than to go with the soon-to-be 38-year-old Batch, whose first pass Sunday will be his first of the season.

He has filled in for Big Ben on seven other occasions over the past several seasons, winning five. One came in 2005 against the Browns in Pittsburgh in a 34-21 victory in week 10. He completed 13 of 19 passes for 150 yards and ran for one touchdown, but sat out the second half with a broken hand, suffered late in the first half.

Roethlisberger also missed the second half of the Steelers’ 31-0 victory in the final week of the 2008 season, suffering a concussion after being drilled by linebackers Willie McGinest and D’Qwell Jackson late in the second quarter.

Batch, in some ways, is better suited to run offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s ball-management offense. Haley prefers to combine a strong running game with a short- to medium-range passing game and the club’s lopsided time of possession (34-26) is proof positive.

Now that running back Rashard Mendenhall is healthy and contributing, look for a more balanced attack against a Cleveland defense that seems to have at least temporarily solved its problems against the run. It will be severely tested Sunday. The Steelers are averaging nearly 140 yards a game on the ground in the last five games.

Unlike Roethlisberger and Leftwich, who can stretch the field with their big arms, Batch’s range is much more limited. So it wouldn’t be surprising if the Browns, coming off their seven-sack game against Dallas, stack the box, choke off the run, force Batch to throw the ball and blitz all afternoon. If that’s the case, Steelers tight end Heath Miller figures to get plenty of looks.

Injuries to the receiving corps forced the Steelers to bring back Plaxico Burress this week, but they expect Antonio Brown back after missing the last couple of weeks. Drafted originally by the Steelers, the 6-5 Burress would seem to be a likely target for Batch in the short passing game.

With Roethlisberger out, the Steelers lose their emotional edge on offense. He is clearly the club’s biggest playmaker on that side of the ball and it’s no coincidence that the offense falls off considerably when he’s not under center. His innate ability to keep plays alive has turned potential losses into victories over the years.

Polamalu, meanwhile, continues to languish on the sidelines due to a calf injury that doesn’t want to go away. Unless the veteran safety has a miraculous recovery in the next few days, the young Browns won’t have to worry about the Steelers’ best playmaker on defense.

The loss of the club’s emotional leader on that side of the ball doesn’t seem to have hurt that much, however. The Steelers’ defense limits opposing teams to only 259 yards a game, just 90 on the ground.

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s zone blitz scheme will definitely challenge the Cleveland offensive line, which played well for the most part in last Sunday’s loss in Dallas. Even though they’ve registered just 18 sacks this season, the Steelers’ disruptive style of play might confuse the young Cleveland line.

Where Polamalu’s absence has hurt is in the turnover battle. The normally opportunistic Pittsburgh defense has picked off just five passes this season, three by linebackers. The secondary – and the defense overall – clearly misses Polamalu’s playmaking ability.

What makes this game interesting is that the Steelers face a must-win situation in the race for one of the AFC’s wild cards. And with Roethlisberger sidelined indefinitely, the 6-4 Steelers, whose turnover ratio is minus-3, must play mistake-free football.

The Browns, on the other hand, have nothing to lose. And if their coaching staff approaches this one with that in mind, it could wind up in an interesting afternoon. Pat Shurmur, whose job security slips with every loss, must eschew the conservative approach offensively and let it all hang out.

Again, what does he have to lose? It hasn’t been working the other way. If there are any surprises in his arsenal, this would be the game to haul them out. After all, this is Pittsburgh.

Because he’s a relative outsider, it’s hard to figure out whether Shurmur gets the rivalry between these two teams. Some people, most notably Steelers fans, don’t even consider this a rivalry. How can you when the teams have meet 27 times since Cleveland’s return to the NFL in 1999 and the Browns have won just four.

It’s about time the Browns started making this a rivalry again. It won’t be easy because the Steelers still have more talent. However, it’s very tempting to lean in the Browns’ direction because Brandon Weeden is overdue for a big game. What’s holding me back is Shurmur’s conservative coaching when grabbing a lead.

Guessing here he won’t loosen the reins on his rookie quarterback and Batch, provided he remains vertical for the entire game, does just enough to squeeze out a victory. Make it:

Steelers 16, Browns 12

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