Five things to watch: Browns-Steelers

December, 8, 2011
12/08/11
11:00
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The Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3), who are tied for the AFC's best record, know another loss could drastically hurt their chances at a sixth AFC North title. With four weeks remaining in the regular season, the Steelers need to finish one game ahead of the Ravens (9-3), who swept them, in order to win the division. The Browns (4-8) have lost seven straight in the the division. Since 2009, Cleveland's 2-13 record in the AFC North is the NFL's worst division record, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Here are some areas to watch when the longtime division opponents meet for the first time this season:

The Browns have to know the pass-first Steelers will run the ball. Cleveland ranks second-to-last in run defense, giving up 151.3 yards on the ground. A league-high eight running backs have gained more than 100 yards against the Browns this season, and Baltimore's Ray Rice surpassed 200 yards four days ago. The expectation is that the Steelers will change their usual strategy and keep it on the ground against Cleveland. Rashard Mendenhall is averaging 3.8 yards per carry -- his lowest since his rookie season -- but he's been effective in the red zone. His five rushing touchdowns in the past four games trails only Carolina's Cam Newton for the most since Week 9, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Steelers linebacker James Harrison looks to carry the pass rush. For the fourth time in five games, Steelers sack leader LaMarr Woodley will be inactive with a hamstring injury. That means Pittsburgh will continue to lean on Harrison to be the team's main source for getting to the quarterback. During that time, when Woodley has failed to finish a game, Harrison has recorded six of the Steelers' seven sacks. Getting to the quarterback might be tough when he lines up against left tackle Joe Thomas, who has had success in stopping Harrison over the years.

Cleveland needs to create turnovers to pull off the upset. The Browns' offense has struggled mightily this season, scoring more than 17 points in two of 12 games this season. Generating points will be difficult against Pittsburgh, which has allowed a total of 16 points in its past two games. The problem is the Browns have the league's least explosive offense, producing 27 plays of 20 or more yards this season (tied with Jacksonville for the fewest in the NFL), according to ESPN Stats & Information. One way to set up easy scoring chances is to force turnovers. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard has forced a fumble in three straight games, and his five for the season is the most by a Browns player since the team rejoined the league in 1999.

The Steelers and Browns match strength against strength in downfield passing game. The Browns have allowed five passes of more than 40 yards this season. Only three teams have given up fewer. One of the major reasons why has been the play of Joe Haden, who has established himself as the best cornerback in the AFC North. Throwing deep to Mike Wallace has been a staple of the Steelers' offense. Wallace has made six catches of more than 40 yards this season, which is tied for tops in the league.

Another slow start could be in the Browns' future. Cleveland has been the NFL's worst team in the first quarter. The Browns have been outscored, 65-16, in the opening period, managing one touchdown and three field goals all season. The Steelers have been among the stingiest in the first quarter at home. Pittsburgh has allowed two field goals in the first quarter in six games at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh has trailed once this season at the end of the first quarter at home. That came against the Ravens last month.

Jamison Hensley

ESPN Ravens reporter

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