Saturday, November 14, 2015

Steelers ripe for upset?

As hard as it is to believe, when the Browns take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in Death Valley Sunday, it’s entirely possible they will do so in the role of bully. At least on defense.

OK, that’s a bit of a stretch, but consider the Steelers, who have dominated (not a strong enough word) their division series with the Browns since 1999, will be without their two most valuable weapons on offense.

Last week’s last-second victory over Oakland cost the Steelers’ their two most valuable weapons on offense. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger banged up a foot and running back Le’Veon Bell tore his medial collateral knee ligament.

Bell is done for the season and Roethlisberger, although he practiced some this week, probably will watch this one from the bench. In other words, the Pittsburgh offense is playing with one hand tied behind its back.

All of which means if the Browns can’t knock off a team that is handicapped on that side of the ball, they are worse than we thought. Which, come to think of it, wasn’t that good in the first place.

When Roethlisberger and Bell are in the lineup, the Steelers’ offense is one of the most potent in the National Football League. Because of injuries and suspensions, they have been together for only one full game and parts of two others this season.

Landry Jones, who will start Sunday, replaced the injured Michael Vick, who replaced Roethlisberger the first time around when he had kneed issues that kept him lout of four games. The Pittsburgh offense becomes much more conservative when the third-year quarterback is under center.

DeAngelo Williams replaces Bell for the second time, having filled in the first two games of the season while Bell served a two-game suspension. The 10-year veteran racked up games of 127, 77 and 170 yards (in the Oakland victory) when Bell was unavailable. In spot duty, he has just 106 yards in six games.

With Jones and Vick at quarterback, the Steelers focus more on the running game and average less than 20 points a game. It’s as though Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley doesn’t trust either quarterback. With Roethlisberger in charge, the Steelers have scored 124 points in three full games and parts of two others.

Most affected by Roethlisberger’s absence is Antonio Brown, arguably the best pass receiver in the NFL. But the All-Pro is far less lethal with either Jones or Vick. For whatever reason, the number of times he is targeted drops significantly with Big Ben as a spectator.

The 5-10, 180-pound Brown is coming off a ridiculous 284-yard game against the Raiders during which he caught 17 passes (but did not score). With Roethlisberger playing well into the fourth quarter in that one, Brown was targeted 23 times.

To give you some idea of how much Brown is virtually ignored with Roethlisberger sidelined, consider he was targeted just 31 times in the four full games his main man missed. It’s possible that with at least half of the Cleveland starting secondary absent due to injury, Haley might dial up more passing plays and work Brown into the game plan on a broader basis.

In Roethlisberger’s absence, the Pittsburgh defense will be relied upon more than normal. That’s because Big Ben is more than capable of putting points on the board in the event that defense is having an off day.

In order to be effective against a very ordinary (for them) Steelers defense, offensive coordinator John DeFilippo needs to swing quarterback Johnny Manziel out of the backfield where he is much more effective. He is especially adept at misdirection rollouts.

That, however, plays against what coach Mike Pettine wants his quarterback to do: Stay in the pocket and make quick decisions. The coach believes straying against what he labels Pittsburgh’s “exotic” defense could prove detrimental.

The Steelers still run a basic 3-4 front, but new defensive coordinator Keith Butler has modified his approach and does not run a zone blitz scheme as often as his predecessor and mentor Dick LeBeau.

Keep an eye on the run-pass ratio for the Browns. DeFilippo has become so pass-centric, the offense seems to have only one tendency. He needs to run the ball more to keep the Pittsburgh defense honest. But he’ll need cooperation from an offensive line that has been disappointing.

If there is abject failure in that department, look for a repeat of what took place 10 days in the loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. It’s rather ironic the Browns have turned into a pass-heavy team considering the run game was believed to be the strength of the offense when the season began.

The Steelers, limping along at 5-4 this season, need a Browns game at this point of the schedule to get healthy enough to make a strong run for the postseason. They are looking for their first AFC North victory after losing earlier to Baltimore and Cincinnati.

The Steelers are 27-6 against Browns since they returned to the NFL in 1999, having reeled off winning streaks of six games, 12 games and a pair of four-gamers. But the Browns enter the game with a one-game winning streak, having won the second meeting last season.

The last time the Browns won two games in a row against their hated rivals was 1999-2000. And it will stay that way after Sunday. The Pittsburgh defense, mimicking what the Bengals did to neutralize Manziel, will hem in the Cleveland quarterback and force him to throw from the pocket. Pettine gets his wish.

Manziel, who has not thrown an interception in his two starts this season, coughs up two picks; the Cleveland ground game grinds to a halt once again; Williams runs for another 100-yard game and a touchdown; and Jones plays error-free football, connecting on scoring bombs to Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. The Browns counter with a Manziel sneak for a score and a trio of Travis Coons field goals as the losing streak reaches five games. Make it:

Steelers 23, Browns 16

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