Friday, December 28, 2012

It will be different this time

This time, Ben Roethlisberger will be in uniform. So will Troy Polamalu. And the venue will be much friendlier.

Just a little more ammunition for the Steelers when they welcome the Browns to Pittsburgh Sunday in a meaningless game featuring two teams that can’t wait for the season to end.

The Steelers bring a three-game losing streak into the season ender and the Browns lug a two-gamer as they wrap up yet another double-digit loss season in what is expected to be Pat Shurmur’s last game as the head coach.

The last time these two AFC North rivals met on Nov. 25 in Cleveland, Charlie Batch was the Pittsburgh quarterback and the Steelers tried mightily to gift the Browns with a runaway victory.

But those lovable Brownies, bless their charitable hearts, had to beat the Steelers the hard way, converting eight Pittsburgh turnovers into a robust 17 of their 20 points in the 20-14 victory.

What should have been a rout was upstaged by the Browns’ maddening inability to take advantage of the Steelers’ largesse. They figuratively clung to the lead, rather than aggressively try and build on it, because of conservative play calling by you know whom.

Roethlisberger, nursing a rib injury, watched as Batch threw three interceptions and Steelers running backs coughed up the ball eight times, losing four, in truly one of the ugliest games of the season. In fact, ugly might not be a descriptive enough adjective.

Hazarding a guess here, but don’t look for the Steelers to play Santa again. Roethlisberger just doesn’t lose to the Browns. OK, he lost to them in December of 2009. But that’s it. And this will be his 16th start against them since entering the National Football League in 2004.

But this one will be slightly different for Big Ben. The Steelers have nothing to play for since their season, for all practical purposes, ended last week with their loss to Cincinnati. It’s a situation with which he is somewhat unfamiliar. How that impacts on his performance is the X factor because he is rarely in this position.

The Steelers’ running game, usually a strength that helps set up Roethlisberger’s play-action passes, is practically non-existent. DRunning backs have piled up, using the term loosely here, only 198 yards on the ground and one touchdown (a one-yard run) in the last three games. In that span, Roethlisberger has thrown six scoring passes and four interceptions following his three-game injury absence.

But we can’t help but go back to Big Ben’s amazing dominance over the Browns, who haven’t swept a season series from the Steelers since, amazingly, 1988, when Marty Schottenheimer was the coach and the Browns finished 10-6.

Since then, the two teams have met 43 times, including this season, and the Steelers have won 33. That’s a .767 winning percentage in what once was one of the great rivalries in the NFL.

The Steelers are getting old quickly. The window of opportunity is closing just as rapidly and the team’s solid reputation for drafting wisely has taken large hits the last several seasons.

The Browns, on the other hand, are getting younger and the window of opportunity hasn’t opened yet, but several positive signs indicate they are beginning to reach for it. These are teams headed in opposite directions. It’s possible the once-bitter and close rivalry might be stoking up for another run.

The Browns enter Sunday’s game banged up. We have no idea who will be under center. With Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy unable to practice this week because of shoulder problems, third-stringer Thad Lewis could make his NFL debut.

That’s a problem because the kid most likely will be no match for the still-solid Pittsburgh defense, which ranks in the top five in just about every category except points allowed (20 a game). But even with the presence of the oft-injured Polamalu back in the lineup, the Steelers have picked off just nine passes.

The very active front seven has yielded just 87 yards a game on the ground this season and with Trent Richardson hobbled by a number of nagging injuries, the Cleveland running game will be severely challenged. The Steelers’ biggest problem on defense is getting off the field. They have allowed opposing teams to convert 42% of their third-down opportunities.

On offense, Roethlisberger will be without tight end Heath Miller, his favorite target who ripped up his right knee last week. And he’ll have to operate behind an offensive line that has sprung leaks all season. Since his return three games ago, Big Ben has been sacked 10 times.

Working against a patchwork Cleveland secondary should tilt this one in favor of the Steelers. Unless the Browns’ inconsistent pass rush decides to show up this week, Roethlisberger should have plenty of time to throw.

The Cleveland offense, meanwhile, still labors under the shackles of Shurmur and Brad Childress. For once, it would be nice to see these geniuses shed their conservative ways and let it all hang out even if it’s Lewis at the controls.

What has Shurmur got to lose? A game? He’s contributed heavily to 10 losses already. What’s another going to cost him? His job? That ship has sailed.

So what’s going to happen Sunday? Well, it won’t be a rout and it will be relatively close. Shurmur will stay conservative. That’s a given. Big Ben will throw a pair of touchdown passes, a couple of picks and wind up on his keister five times. And Phil Dawson will be the Cleveland attack. Period. Make it:

Steelers 17, Browns 9

(Update) Brandon Weeden, Colt McCoy, Trent Richardson, Jordan Cameron and Sheldon Brown ruled out of Sunday's game by Shurmur. Thad Lewis starts at quarterback with recent signee Josh Johnson backing him up, and Montario Hardesty starts at running back with Brandon Jackson (is he still on the team?) and Chris Ogbonnaya backing him up. That calls for a revise of the final score. Make it:

Steelers 17, Browns 3

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