Saturday, September 6, 2014

These stats tell sad tale

Any story about statistics can be, for the most part, boring, tedious and an immediate turnoff.

But when it comes to stats related to the storied rivalry between the Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers, stats are anything but. In fact, they are rather fascinating. So sit back, relax and try to enjoy what the wonderful world of statistics has to offer in what used to be one of the most heated rivalries in the National Football League. Here we go.

It all starts with the number of times these teams have met. When the Browns and Steelers open the 2014 regular season in Pittsburgh Sunday, it will mark game No. 125 between these teams, who have sustained one of the fiercest rivalries since 1950.

Well . . . fierce, storied and rivalries might not be the proper words to use here since the Steelers have dominated the series since the early 1970s, currently holding a 67-57 lead.

Ever since the Browns bolted out to a 34-11 lead (winning the first eight, 12 of the first 13 and 16 of the first 18) in the Paul Brown-Blanton Collier era from 1950 through the 1960s, they are just 23-56 (a winning percentage of .291) against Pittsburgh, a franchise that languished for years until Cleveland native and former Brown Chuck Noll took over as head coach in 1969.

The Paul Brown disciple yanked the Steelers from the NFL trash heap and turned them into one of the most successful teams of the last half-century, winning four Super Bowls in the late 1970s and adding two more in the last decade. Noll, who died a few months ago, had a 209-156-1 record and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.

The tide began to turn in Pittsburgh’s favor from 1972 through 1983 with an 18-4 Steelers run. It was interrupted slightly during the Bernie Kosar era when the Browns rang up seven straight victories from 1986 to 1989.

It wasn’t until Bill Cowher, another ex-Brown, came along that the rivalry really started falling apart. From 1992, Cowher’s first season, until his departure after the 2006 season, the Steelers dominated the Browns, winning 21 of the 26 games. That of course, does not include the Browns’ three-year absence from the NFL.

Mike Tomlin, Cowher’s successor, has been just as successful with a 12-2 record against Cleveland in his seven seasons with both losses in Cleveland. That’s a 7-33 record against Pittsburgh since 1992.

Since the final game of the 1993 season, the Browns are 5-32 against the Steelers with losing streaks of seven, six, 12 and four and the current three games. The Browns remarkably won two of the first three games in this series following the resurrection in 1999. Since then, they are 3-25.

There are many more stats with regard to these teams, but enough already.

Now then . . . about Sunday’s game.

The Browns arrive in Pittsburgh – they are 1-13 at Heinz Field – with only a portion of a football team.

They have no passing game to speak of. Oh there is a quarterback (maybe two if you buy Mike Pettine’s veiled threat of giving Johnny Manziel a package that caters to his unique talents).

Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is taking no chances and will be ready in case Pettine decides to inject some Manziel into his offense as a change of pace to Brian Hoyer. “I’ll be very surprised if we don’t see him,” LeBeau told USA Today.

“He was one of the top football players in the nation (last year). You look at his offensive numbers. It’s not a magic wand he waves out there. He’s creating situations, making plays. They’re going to want to bring him along and give him some game action. I’m sure of that.”

Is LeBeau baiting Pettine? Maybe. But LeBeau can’t deny one aspect of the Browns’ offense. None of the their wide receivers can frighten a defense. Miles Austin? His main goal is to stay away from hamstring injuries. Andrew Hawkins? The Pittsburgh defense will chew up the little guy and spit him out. And those are the starters.

Coming off the bench are Travis Benjamin, less than a year removed from ACL surgery; third-year man LaRon Byrd, who joined the team just a few days ago; and rookie Taylor Gabriel, just an inch taller than the 5-7 Hawkins and 12 pounds lighter at 167.

Scary, no? Scary, no!

Optimists argue that tight end Jordan Cameron is a weapon and cannot be ignored. Yes and no. Yes he is a weapon and no, he will not be ignored. With the non-threats at wide receiver, the Steelers can afford to double Cameron with a linebacker and safety and completely take him out of the Browns’ game plan.

Unless, of course, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has other ideas. Like playing two or three tight-end sets in order to enhance the running game. Pettine has all but promised that aspect of the offense will return this season after being AWOL last season. Only problem there is Cameron is a much better receiver than blocker.

If it is Pettine’s intent to establish the ground game with Ben Tate, Terrance West and maybe Isaiah Crowell, he can expect to see the Steelers confront it with eight or nine men in the box all afternoon and force – no, make that dare – Hoyer to throw the ball.

It is possible Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu will establish permanent residence in the box for the afternoon no matter how the Browns line up. Shut down the run and make them do something they don’t do well – pass the ball.

This one will not be a runaway, though. That’s because the defense will keep the Browns in the game. That will be their one saving grace this season until the offense manages to get untracked, if that ever happens.

The Steelers, coming off an 8-8 season, have a much more balanced attack this season. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (another telling stat . . . he’s 17-1 against the Browns) has the luxury of handing off to Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, a couple of large, grinding running backs, or throwing to the likes of Antonio Brown, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Markus Wheaton and tight end Heath Miller.  The Browns can’t come close to matching talent like that.

The goal for the Browns will be control the ball, move the chains, run the clock, shorten the game and keep the defense off the field and well rested. If they can successfully execute such a package, they’ve got a shot.

But this is Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh. In the first game of the season. C’mon. The Browns are 1-14 in the last 15 season openers.

One more stat and then we’re done. If the Browns keep the game close, they’ve got a chance against Big Ben, who is just 36-28 in games decided by seven points or less. In games decided by eight points or more, he is 59-20.

The Cleveland defense will hang in there. For how long depends solely on how well the offense performs. It probably will be for at least a half, but the Steelers will finally wear down the defense and add yet another victory over their archrivals. Make it:

Steelers 26, Browns 9

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