Thursday, November 21, 2013

There's nothing like Steelers week

It’s always the game most fans circle on the Browns’ season schedule. It’s the game that generates more attention emotion than just about any other.

The only other game that provokes such a bellicose and exciting feeling is the second time that same opponent appears on the schedule.

That team, of course, is the Pittsburgh Steelers. The dreaded Steelers. The team Browns fans want to beat more than any other. Beat the Steelers twice in a season and lose the other 14 games constitute a successful season.

OK, that’s an exaggeration, but only Browns fans know the absolute and unmitigated joy one feels after beating the Steelers.

Playing the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens twice a season is one thing. Those meetings engender visceral feelings, too. But it’s nothing like when the Browns play the Steelers.

And Sunday in Cleveland, the two teams will meet for the 123rd time in one of the classic National Football League rivalries. Although it’s a rivalry in name only lately because of the Steelers’ dominance, they are still the most anticipated games of the season.

For whatever reason, this Ohio Turnpike-Pennsylvania Turnpike rivalry captures the imagination of what a rivalry should be about. Fans in the respective cities really do not like – or respect – one another.

Losing is hard to swallow. And Browns fans have had to swallow hard the last 20 years. Since the Browns ended the 1993 season by knocking off the Steelers, they have won just five of the next 35 games in the series, winning those games by 1, 3, 20 (where did that come from?), 7 and 6 points.

The Steelers have dominated this series so much, it’s difficult to call this a rivalry anymore. The definition of the word has lost its meaning. One-sided is a much more apropos term whenever these two teams get together now. Since 2000, for example, the Browns are 3-23 against their rivals.

When this series began in 1950, the Browns dominated in the manner Pittsburgh does today. They won the first eight games, 12 of the first 13 and 16 of the first 18. After 41 games, the Browns built up a 32-9 lead by the middle of 1970.

Since then, it’s been nearly all Steelers with the exception of a seven-game winning streak the Browns put together during the Bernie Kosar era in the late 1980s.

The constant losing stopped for the Steelers when they hired Cleveland native Chuck Noll as coach in 1969. Since midway through the 1970 season, the Steelers are 56-25 against Cleveland, winning numerous division and conference championships along the way. Oh yes, Super Bowls, too. Six of them in eight attempts.

The Steelers under Noll became what the Browns so proudly boasted as the teams of Paul Brown and Blanton Collier resided almost annually in the league’s penthouse: The Greatest Show in Football.

The Steelers, who resided in the NFL outhouse on an annual basis until Noll arrived, became the league’s glamour team along with the Dallas Cowboys. And it has been that way, with a few belches along the way, ever since with only three head coaches.

This season has proven to be, at least at the beginning of the season, one of those burps. After losing their first four games in untypical Steelers fashion (bad defense and no running game), they have rebounded nicely, winning four of their next six.

They arrive in Cleveland Sunday feeling pretty good about themselves, having won their last two games and putting up 91 points in their last three outings. Conversely, they have surrendered 92 points in those games.

This is not your typical Steelers team. They don’t scare anyone like they used to. Intimidation, especially on defense, used to be their modus operandi. No longer is that the case.

Hard to believe, but the Steelers have racked up just 18 sacks this season (outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Jason Worilds have half of them). That’s less than two a game for a team that used to thrive on getting up close and extremely personal with opposing quarterbacks.

The Pittsburgh run defense, which always seemed to set the standard for excellence in the league, now gives up 125 yards a game. All of which should make Norv Turner’s game plan for Sunday an interesting topic of conversation. If his running backs don’t touch the ball at least 30 times, there’s no hope for the Cleveland offensive coordinator.

Four of the Steelers’ five leading tacklers are members of the secondary. That right there tells you the Steelers’ strength up front is non-existent. And that secondary has produced five of the club’s six (that’s correct, only six) interceptions.

The Pittsburgh offense, much like the Browns’, is one-dimensional. It’s Ben Roethlisberger and that’s it. Big Ben, who has lost to the Browns just once in his career, averages 38 passes and nearly 300 passing yards a game with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

He has to throw that often because he has no ground game on which to rely. The Steelers average 76.5 yards a game and frighten no one. Rookie Le’Veon Bell, who missed the first three games of the season with a foot injury, is the best they have to offer. He averages just 42 yards a game.

Roethlisberger, meanwhile, has been hot lately with nine TD passes in his last three games. Chief targets Sunday will be Jericho Cotchery (seven TDs), Antonio Brown (five TDs), Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Heath Miller.

Where the Browns have a substantial advantage in this one is in the pass-rushing department. The Steelers’ offensive line is much more porous than that of the Cincinnati Bengals, who shut down and shut out the Cleveland pass rush last week.

Roethlisberger has gone down 36 times already this season, been hit on substantially more occasions and been hurried just about every time he drops back. Look for defensive coordinator Ray Horton to dial up blitz after blitz against Big Ben, who is not as agile as he used to be.

Horton might just want to show his mentor, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, that he was paying attention when learning the coaching ropes.

A couple of statistical oddities in this game: The Browns have never defeated Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the same season. And they have never defeated all of their division rivals at least once in the same season. They have beaten Cincinnati and Baltimore in the same season four times and Pittsburgh and Cincinnati thrice.

Now that they have knocked off the Bengals and Ravens this season, they have two shots at ending that little note of misery. The call here is they won’t have to wait until the season-ender Dec. 29 in Pittsburgh.

Jason Campbell plays just well enough to throw a couple of scoring passes to Josh Gordon and the rediscovered Jordan Cameron, while the defense drops Big Ben five more times and intercepts him twice. Make it:

Browns 17, Steelers 13

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