Friday, December 30, 2016

Missing Big Ben

They are why the Pittsburgh Steelers came from behind and knocked off the Baltimore Ravens, 31-27, last Sunday.

They are why the Steelers won the AFC North Division championship for the second time in the last three seasons.

They are why the Steelers will return to the National Football League playoffs for the 22nd time since 1972.

They are why the Steelers are considered in some quarters the team you do not want to face in the playoffs.

They are quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown and they will not play against the Browns Sunday in Pittsburgh in the season finale.

In addition to those three Pro Bowlers, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin hinted other starters on both sides of the football might join his prize trio as spectators against the Browns.

All of which gives the Browns a fighting chance to pull an upset, right? Not unless you believe the Browns’ first stringers are better than the Steelers’ second stringers.

The Steelers want to enter the playoffs in good health, or at least relatively good health at this point in the season. And right now, the Steelers’ big three on offense are healthy. Playing them against the Browns exposes them to the risk of injury.

Bell has missed the last two postseasons with knee problems and a concussion kept Brown out of a divisional playoff game a year ago. Having those two back and healthy for the playoffs makes Roethlisberger that much more dangerous.

So get ready for large doses of Landry Jones and maybe Zach Mettenberger at quarterback, running backs DeAngelo Williams and Fitzgerald Toussaint, wide receivers Eli Rogers, Sammie Coates, Demarcus Ayers, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Cobi Hamilton, as well as tight ends Jesse James, Ladarius Green and Xavier Grimble.

Roethlisberger understands the move and backs his coach. “If we’ve got a (playoff) spot and the three (third seed) clinched, I think a lot of guys should get healthy,” he said following the Baltimore victory.

In other words, why risk injury in what is the clear definition of a meaningless game for the Steelers. Nothing to gain; nothing to lose. In no way does the outcome of the Browns game impact on where the Steelers finish in the playoff standings or hamper who plays where and when.

They know exactly where they will be next weekend. At home against either the Miami Dolphins or Kansas Chiefs, depending on what happens to those teams this weekend.

Only Steelers starting cornerback William Gay doesn’t agree with resting the starters. “Resting?” he said. “What are we here for? . . . we’re playing the Browns. We’re playing a rival. Who wouldn’t want to be in that game?” Too bad the thinking in Berea isn’t the same.

No matter the situation, the Steelers love to play the Browns, whom they used as a punching bag and launching pad to their current six-game winning streak. When they met on Nov. 13 in Cleveland, they hauled a four-game losing streak and a 4-5 record into the game with four of the next six games on the road.

That game could not have come along at a more appropriate time for the Steelers, who have feasted on the Browns for nearly three decades now. It was perfect schedule timing for the struggling team. A 24-9 victory ignited the current streak.

Here is how badly the Steelers have turned this once-great rivalry, which the Browns owned from 1950 until the early 1970s when native Clevelander Chuck Noll took over as the Steelers’ head coach, into a joke.

The Browns haven’t swept a season series from the Steelers since 1988 when they were in the midst of a seven-game winning streak against them. Other than that, it has been total Pittsburgh domination.

The Steelers have won 39 of the 49 games played since 1990, losing at home only twice. And since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999 after a three-year absence, they have bested the Steelers just six times in 36 games, two of them in Pittsburgh.

What Roethlisberger has done to the Browns borders on criminal (latitude to be hyperbolic). At the risk of being repetitious, he has quarterbacked 23 games against Cleveland (22 as a starter) and lost twice, 13-6 in Cleveland in 2009 after winning his first 10 starts, and 31-10 in Cleveland in 2014 after winning another eight in a row.

Those gaudy numbers, barring unforeseen circumstances, will remain the same until the teams meet against next season.

The former Miami of Ohio star has thrown 35 touchdown passes against the Browns, who have pilfered 17 of his 659 throws and sacked him only 36 times. Brown, who also loves to play against Cleveland, has caught 75 passes in 11 games (10-1 record) for 1,130 yards and seven touchdowns.

Bell, another native Ohioan, has played five games against the Browns. (He missed the last half of the 2015 season and both Browns games with a right knee injury.) He has run for 507 yards, scored three touchdowns and caught 21 passes for another 190 yards.

As it turned out, the Steelers did not need Bell for these two games last season, both Cleveland losses, of course. Roethlisberger was 46 of 68 for 728 yards and six touchdowns. Brown checked in with 23 receptions for 326 yards and three scores.

Of course all three would love to play Sunday against their favorite opponent to pad their stats, but common sense and the importance of being healthy for the playoffs trump any such notions.

Defensively, it’s anyone’s guess what Tomlin will do. But that should not make an appreciable difference because the Cleveland offense has staggered all season long, logging the fewest points in the NFL.

It is entirely possible the Steelers’ second stringers and occasional contributors on both sides of the ball might be better than what the Browns can put out there with their starters, especially on the defensive side of the football.

Whether Robert Griffin III (concussion protocol) or rookie Cody Kessler gets the call at quarterback for the Browns, a heavy Pittsburgh pass rush can be expected. In the first game this season against the Steelers, that pass rush bullied the Cleveland offensive line, dropping Kessler and Josh McCown each four times while limiting the run game to just 33 yards.

Sunday’s game will be, in effect, a litmus test for the Browns to determine whether their front-line people can defeat what will amount to be, to some degree, second liners for the Steelers.

If the Steelers continue to prevail, it should send a strong message to those in Berea responsible for the product this season that their best cannot even knock off the irregulars of another team, especially one in their division.

And they will prevail. Even the oddsmakers agree. After spotting the Browns a dozen points in the opening line on the game, they shaved only half those points following the announcement the Steelers’ three offensive stars will sit out this one.

It might not be the rout Steelers fans are accustomed to against the Browns. In fact, it might be close for a half before the Steelers’ superior roster depth begins to dictate the flow of the game. Make it:

Steelers 17, Browns 6

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