Friday, October 10, 2014

Definitive statement game

If there is one thing Mike Pettine will not have to guard against this week, it’s his team’s overconfidence.

For the first time in a long time, the Browns enter Sunday’s home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers knowing – not thinking – knowing they have the talent to exact revenge for the frustrating season-opening loss in Pittsburgh.

The way they played against the Steelers in the second half of that game might have something to do with it. In what turned out to be a prelude to the season thus far, the Browns showed in the final 30 minutes of that game that they could hang with the big boys.

It hasn’t reached the overconfidence level. Nor should it. The Browns still have a lot to prove before the rest of the National Football League takes notice that football will be different this season in Cleveland.

If nothing else, overcoming a 27-3 halftime deficit in Pittsburgh to tie the game in the late stages proved these are not your same old Browns who will fold. Yes, they lost it on a last-second field goal, but the Steelers were a scared bunch of football players by then.

Subsequent close games in the next three outings only served to toughen the team that had been relegated once again to the bottom of the AFC North barrel by national pundits.

For way too many seasons now, the Steelers have dominated – in the truest sense of the word – this series. It was at one time one considered one of the NFL’s fiercest rivalries. It takes two teams to make a rivalry, though and the Browns have merely shown up the last 15 seasons.

After winning two of the first three games in the series since the resurrection in 1999, they have lost 26 of the last 29. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 18-1 against them.

No matter where the game is played, the Steelers know they are going to come out on top. There is no doubt in their minds and they play like it. Losing to Cleveland is worse than an anathema to them.

However, the way the Browns rebounded in the first game of the season has to make them at least think that perhaps Cleveland’s fortunes are turning. It’s entirely possible their confidence against the Browns has been disrupted at best, shaken at worst.

Buoyed by comebacks in all four games this season, the Browns’ confidence level has increased exponentially, especially on offense.

That offense has played well beyond all expectations, especially with the lengthy suspension of wide receiver Josh Gordon and the semi-disappearance of tight end Jordan Cameron.

Nevertheless, this has been a peculiar season so far.

This team has been a major question mark for the coaching staff. In the first half of games, the offense sputters and the defense, the so-called strength of the team, plays miserably. The defense has been a major disappointment, ranking near the bottom of the NFL statistically.

In the first half of games thus far, the Browns have scored only 36 points (35% of their season total of 103) and the defense has permitted 75 points (71.4% of the season total of 105). Of those 75, 55 have been scored in the second quarter. They have been outscored, 55-16, in that quarter.

The second half of games is an entirely different story and explains why they are 2-2 at this juncture.

The offense has produced 67 points (65% of the season total) in the final 30 minutes of games, while the defense, ranked above only Jacksonville at the bottom of the league statistically, has allowed just 30 points (28.6%). Go figure.

It begs one question: Why are the Browns so abysmal in the second quarter? And concludes one assumption: It sure looks as though halftime adjustments are taking root.

The trouble spot has been identified. Now it is up to Pettine and his staff to figure out why the second quarter is such a football sinkhole for both sides of the ball and then fix it.

Sunday’s game against the Steelers can rightfully be labeled a statement game for the Browns. The game where they stand up and say, “Hey, look at us. We are not your pushovers anymore. Those days are over.”

Win it and an entirely different atmosphere will permeate Berea Monday. Lose it and it will be more of the same old, same old.

Sometimes, the fortunes of a season can turn on the result of one game. It is not preposterous to label this one that game.

Over the years, the Steelers have whipsawed the Browns, who then slink away to take up what seems to be permanent residence in the AFC North cellar. At some point, that has got to stop.

The Steelers are hurting on defense with linebackers Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier and cornerback Ike Taylor all out. Their pass rush is not nearly as dangerous or intimidating as it used to be.

Offensively, they have scored just seven touchdowns (three in the first Cleveland game) in 16 quarters. Five of those seven have been scored by wide receiver Antonio Brown.

When Roethlisberger, who completes nearly 70% of his passes, isn’t throwing, he’s handing off the ball to Le’Veon Bell or LeGarrette Blount, two big pounders who turned the Browns’ defense into silly putty in the first meeting.

Bell, who averages 137 yards a game from scrimmage, accumulated 197 yards in the first Cleveland game. If the Browns can’t stop him, Roethlisberger, who has been sacked 15 times, becomes that much more effective.

The same scenario holds true with the Browns. The vast improvement in their running game has prompted opposing defenses to deploy a box safety, which means they can expect to see a lot of Troy Polamalu on first and second down.

That opens up all kinds of possibilities for Brian Hoyer, whose second-half heroics in the first Pittsburgh game will give Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau at least cause for some concern.

Look for a variety of play-action fakes, misdirection rollouts and reverses in order to keep the Pittsburgh defense honest. The big X factor is whether the Cleveland defense finally plays at the achievement level most people expected at the beginning of the season.

Emotionally meaningful games like Sunday’s are usually decided early. To borrow an old sports bromide, the team that makes the fewest mistakes and the biggest plays will win this one. Ball control will be a factor. So far, the Browns have been stingy in turning over the ball.

This one will not be close, though. Unlike the first game when the Steelers allowed the Browns to climb back into the game, that will not be the case Sunday. Big Ben and his merry men jump out in front early, finish the job they almost didn’t in Pittsburgh and leave Cleveland with a season sweep. Back to the same old, same old. Make it:

Steelers 34, Browns 16

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