Cleveland Browns: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Cleveland Browns' recent struggles against the Pittsburgh Steelers have been well documented and much discussed. Suffice it to say that Pittsburgh has treated the Browns, in the words of former coach Rob Chudzinski, like a "kid brother."
The Browns made a statement in the season opener in Heinz Field by erasing a 27-3 deficit, but in the end Pittsburgh's statement was louder because it won.
As Browns coach Mike Pettine said, the word for almost winning is losing.
The Browns started this week favored for only the fourth time in 20 years against Pittsburgh, and Brian Hoyer and Pettine give the Browns their best chance in a long time to make a more real statement.
ESPN NFL Nation Browns reporter Pat McManamon and Steelers reporter Scott Brown discuss Sunday's game at FirstEnergy Stadium.
McManamon: Scott, the Browns saw Pittsburgh in the opener. Pittsburgh dominated the first half and held on in the second. What happened to the Steelers after that first half? The Browns came back, nearly stole a win and the Steelers are 2-2 since.
Brown: In talking with Maurkice Pouncey a couple of weeks ago, the Pro Bowl center strongly hinted that the Steelers -- or at least their offensive line -- got a little overconfident after Pittsburgh rolled to a 27-3 halftime lead. I think the entire team had a letdown to some degree but the second-half charge that the Browns made also exposed some of the Steelers' weaknesses. They are no longer the defense that opponents didn't try to bother to run against when the Steelers played in three Super Bowls and won two of them from 2005 to 2010. Nor do the Steelers harass quarterbacks the way they did during that span, and the lack of consistent pressure could be a problem for them Sunday since Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer has been sacked only once this season.
Looking back, the game provided a perfect microcosm for the Steelers' season so far. They have been very up and down and are searching for the consistency that will translate into the Steelers stringing together wins.
Pat, I think when the NFL schedule was released that a lot of us looked at it and figured Johnny Manziel would be starting by the time the Steelers and Browns met for the second time this season. Hoyer obviously had other ideas. How much respect has he earned from his coaches and teammates for the job he has done, and is this his team now or just for now?
McManamon: There has been one Manziel question for this preview every game; why should Pittsburgh be different? The only thing is if the backup played like Manziel did in preseason and his name were Teddy Bridgewater or Derek Carr, there would be no questions because everyone would figure he played like a rookie, so he should sit.
To answer your question, though, Scott, Hoyer has done everything right from the moment he hurt his knee just about one year ago. He attacked his rehab. He was in the facility every day in the offseason learning a new system. He chafed when coaches held him back in OTAs to protect his knee, saying he needed to be on the field to make his mistakes and learn the system. He competed in training camp, though not always well. Once he was named the starter he prepared the way he learned to from his mentor, Tom Brady, and he's played extremely well.
To say the team respects him is an understatement. Hoyer has rewarded the faith shown in him by his coach, and he's made a group of receivers that seemed average when the year began effective. He studies, protects the ball and plays well.
He gives the Browns their best chance in years to avoid the collapses that have plagued them recently. If he can get a win at home against Pittsburgh -- and the stadium will be energized -- he'll have three games awaiting against Jacksonville, Oakland and Tampa Bay.
This job is Hoyer's. The coach has made that clear by sticking with him despite huge road deficits. He showed his feelings about Hoyer when he sent him a personal note a year ago after Hoyer's injury, and Hoyer has justified the decision with his play.
Pittsburgh's defense has been shredded by injuries. Will this catch up to Pittsburgh, or can the Steelers ride out the storm with guys like James Harrison, who came out of retirement to rejoin his old team?
Brown: Well, they don't have a lot of options, which is why they not only talked Harrison out of retirement but also have the 36-year-old playing a significant amount of snaps at outside linebacker. The Steelers were thin at the position before starting right outside linebacker Jarvis Jones went down with a dislocated wrist and Arthur Moats, who is filling in for Jones, started 12 games last season at inside linebacker for the Buffalo Bills. The Steelers' secondary has held up well since starting cornerback Ike Taylor broke his forearm and Sean Spence has been OK at inside linebacker with Ryan Shazier out because of a sprained knee.
The defense, however, was flawed even before it lost three starters and it doesn't appear to be capable of carrying the Steelers as it often did in the past. That is why the Steelers have to fix their red zone problems on offense. I think they are going to have to put up a lot of points more often than not to win and that could be the case Sunday in Cleveland.
I didn't think I'd be saying this but Cleveland might be the most balanced offense that the Steelers have faced with Hoyer playing well. How much of the Browns' success has been because of the offensive line, starting with perennial Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas?
McManamon: That group has been excellent, as the numbers show. The Browns are averaging 127 yards per game rushing -- 4.5 per carry -- and 265 passing. They have scored 21 points in each of the first four games, something they haven't done since 1969. The line has a large role in that, as the assembled group has a perennial Pro Bowler in Joe Thomas, a soon-to-be perennial Pro Bowler in Alex Mack and a born natural at guard in rookie Joel Bitonio. Right guard John Greco is underrated, and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has played well.
The key to the line is their athleticism and ability to move, which makes them an excellent fit for Kyle Shanahan's zone blocking scheme. That requires lateral movement and allows a back to find his hole. The pass protection is helped by Hoyer's ability to get rid of the ball quickly, but the group has played well there, too. This is a line that should get more and more notice as the season goes on, because it is a cohesive, talented group.
Cleveland is favored in this game, which is something that has not happened in a long, long time. Did the Steelers come away from the opener feeling that they fell asleep on the Browns, or do they have a healthy respect for them? Because if Pittsburgh respects the Browns, it's also the first time that's happened in a long time.
Brown: If the Steelers don't have a healthy respect for the Browns they are crazy and that is something that will fall on coach Mike Tomlin and the veteran leaders. It is absurd to think that the Steelers can overlook any opponent following a home loss to the previously winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers two weeks ago after coming off a resounding win at Carolina. I get the sense that the Steelers are impressed with the talent that the Browns have assembled and Hoyer, at least so far, has provided the strong quarterback play that has too often eluded them since the NFL returned to Cleveland in 1999.
If Tomlin senses that the Steelers are taking the Browns lightly because of the recent history between the AFC North foes, all he has to do is run the second half of their Sept. 7 game on a continuous loop at team headquarters.
I think the Steelers' offense is poised to break out. How do you think they will try to attack the Browns based on where they are vulnerable?
McManamon: Pick your spot. It is surprising to think that with a defensive head coach and talented defensive players that the defense is holding the team back. But it is. The Browns have not stopped anyone for an entire game yet this season. They have for one half in Pittsburgh and Tennessee, but not for an entire game.
The Browns are especially vulnerable against the run, where they are giving up the ungodly number of 152.5 yards per game. If the Steelers don't use Le'Veon Bell to take advantage of that, Joe Greene may appear on the sidelines to remind them.
The other issue is at cornerback. Joe Haden has not gotten his hand on a ball this season, and Buster Skrine has not taken the next step. To complicate things, rookie first-round pick Justin Gilbert has struggled to the point he's been replaced by undrafted rookie K'Waun Williams. If Ben Roethlisberger doesn't notice the Browns' corners, Terry Bradshaw may drop by the sidelines and remind him.
This offseason has seen plenty of high-profile additions and departures in the AFC North.
The Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens brought more excitement to their offenses. The Browns drafted quarterback Johnny Manziel in the first round, and the Ravens signed wide receiver Steve Smith.
The Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers dealt with some significant losses. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer left to become the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, and three starters (Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley and Ryan Clark) are gone from the Steelers defense.
How will these changes affect the teams in the division? That's the focus for ESPN's AFC North reporters: Scott Brown in Pittsburgh, Coley Harvey in Cincinnati, Jamison Hensley in Baltimore and Pat McManamon in Cleveland.
Johnny Manziel will be the starting quarterback for the Browns in the season opener in Pittsburgh.
Scott Brown: Fiction. Johnny Football has too much ground to make up to overtake Brian Hoyer as the starter by the time the Browns open the regular season in Pittsburgh. Manziel will start at some point this season, but it won't be Sept. 7 at Heinz Field. Even if it is a toss-up between Hoyer and Manziel leading up to the season opener, the Browns will be wise enough to go with the player who has NFL starting experience over the one who will have a Texas-sized bullseye on his jersey. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau generally torments rookie quarterbacks and definitely doesn't take selfies with them. The Browns wouldn't put Manziel in a position in which he has little chance of succeeding ... would they?
Jamison Hensley: Fiction. There are too many factors going against Manziel starting right away. Browns coach Mike Pettine was on the Bills' sideline this past season when he watched EJ Manuel struggle as a rookie. The Browns have a legitimate alternative in Brian Hoyer. And the Browns' first game is against the Steelers, who are known to rough up young quarterbacks. Including the playoffs, the Steelers are a league-best 17-2 vs. rookie quarterbacks since 2004, when coordinator Dick LeBeau re-joined the Steelers as defensive coordinator. Plus, Manziel hasn't done much to prove to the coaching staff that he's mature enough to handle the starting job after becoming Johnny Las Vegas on holiday weekends. It just makes too much sense to sit Manziel as a rookie. Then again, the Browns aren't known for making logical moves
Pat McManamon: Fiction. The Browns simply do not want Manziel to start the opener, and Mike Pettine has made no secret of that. Over and over, he's said that though Manziel can start at some point, he does not believe it's ideal. Given that the first three opponents are the Steelers, Saints and Ravens, it's even more reason not to rush him. Those three opponents have chopped up a lot of veterans, not to mention rookies. If Josh Gordon is not on the team, the quarterback's challenge is even more difficult. The Browns want to take things slowly with Manziel, and right now he admits he's not the best quarterback on the team. The only way he starts in Pittsburgh is if Brian Hoyer is hurt.
The Bengals have a top-10 defense even without coordinator Mike Zimmer.
Brown: Fact. With all due respect to Zimmer, he didn't make one tackle in the six seasons he coordinated the Bengals' defense. Not to marginalize coordinators, but Dick LeBeau has one of the keenest and most imaginative defensive minds in NFL history, and he somehow forgot how to coach defense this past season, when injuries and age caught up with the Steelers. The Bengals have plenty of talent, assuming defensive tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall make a healthy return from their respective injuries. And the adjustment to new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther should be a relatively smooth one since Guenther coached the Bengals' linebackers before succeeding Zimmer. If the Bengals don't field a top-10 defense this season, it will be because they can't make up for the free-agent loss of defensive end Michael Johnson or their secondary springs too many leaks.
Harvey: Fact. Zimmer was rightfully deified during his time in Cincinnati, but his exit for Minnesota doesn't mean there's now a sudden end to the Bengals' era of defensive dominance. Cincinnati will be bringing back a defense that mostly mirrors the group it had last year. The only absences of note are Michael Johnson, James Harrison and Chris Crocker. Johnson was signed by Tampa Bay in free agency, and Harrison was released. Signed to a one-year deal when he emerged from retirement this past September, Crocker was a free agent this offseason who didn't have his contract renewed. Still, knowing Crocker's track record of signing as a September off-of-the-couch call-up the past two years, you can't fully rule out an appearance from him in Cincinnati at some point this year. Of all the Bengals' defensive departures, Zimmer's was certainly the biggest. The coordinator who helped revolutionize the Bengals' defensive system and turned them into a perennial power implemented unique rotations, lineups and blitz and coverage packages. As the league's No. 3 defense this past season, the Bengals pulled off a franchise feat that hadn't been replicated in more than 30 years. Under new coordinator Paul Guenther, who formulated many of the blitz packages for Zimmer, the Bengals are hoping to be even better than that No. 3 ranking this year. While they probably won't get ranked as high as No. 3, they still will be among the top 10.
Hensley: Fiction. It's true that a defense is only as good as its players on the field. But let's not disregard the impact of Zimmer on the Bengals' defense. In Zimmer's first season in Cincinnati (2008), the Bengals jumped from No. 27 to No. 12 in defense. The Bengals then went on to finish in the top 10 in yards and points allowed in four of the next five seasons under Zimmer. He's a fiery leader who got the most out of his players. Many expect a smooth transition with Paul Guenther being promoted to defensive coordinator, but he's never been in charge of a defense in the NFL. His job won't be made any easier by the fact that defensive end Michael Johnson left in free agency and defensive tackle Geno Atkins is still recovering from an ACL injury. The Bengals secondary is dealing with aging veterans (Terence Newman and Adam Jones), injury (Leon Hall) and unfulfilled potential (Dre Kirkpatrick). Don't be surprised if the Bengals slip out of the top 10 this season.
Pat McManamon: Fact. The Bengals have too many good players and too good a system to falter with Zimmer's departure. He'll be missed, but defenses are as good as the players on the field, and with stalwart Geno Atkins coming back from injury to go with a crew that includes Vontaze Burfict, the Bengals should still be formidable. Also, new coordinator Paul Guenther knows the system, knows the blitzes and worked closely with Zimmer. It always hurts to lose a coordinator like Zimmer, but the Bengals seemed to be as prepared as a team can be. The other thing to remember is that offenses can help defenses by possessing the ball, and new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will run the ball more than Jay Gruden did.
Steve Smith will become Joe Flacco's top target this season.
Brown: Fiction. I'm tempted to say fact here because of the trust and rapport that Flacco developed with Anquan Boldin before the Ravens traded the veteran wide receiver to the 49ers this past year. Boldin, however, is bigger and more physical than Smith and doesn't rely as much on speed as the latter still does, even at the age of 35. Look for tight end Dennis Pitta to re-establish himself as a big part of the Ravens' offense after missing all but four games this past season because of a dislocated hip. Pitta caught 61 passes and was targeted 93 times by Flacco in 2012, while Boldin caught just four more passes than Pitta, despite getting targeted 112 times. A healthy Pitta becomes Flacco's go-to receiver again.
Harvey: Fiction. Another Smith will end up being Flacco's top passing target this season. Torrey Smith, the man who saw 139 throws directed his way this past season, will remain the go-to receiver in an offense that hopes for increased production from 2013. During the mostly down year for Baltimore's offense, Torrey Smith caught 65 of the 139 balls thrown his way, leading the team in receptions. While at Carolina last year, Steve Smith caught 64 passes on just 109 targets from Cam Newton. The longtime Panther was one of the stars of an offense that also relied on Newton to make plays with his feet, in addition to spreading the ball to other receivers. The Ravens had difficulty getting any kind of rushing offense going, which made it easy for defenses to sell out on guarding their receivers. If Ray Rice struggles to perform out of the backfield again this year -- or if he ends up missing considerable time due to a possible suspension from commissioner Roger Goodell following his arrest in Atlantic City this offseason for assault on his now-wife -- much the same could happen to the Ravens' receivers in 2014. Even if that happens, Steve Smith's addition ought to help Flacco and the Ravens. Still, don't look for the 35-year-old to take over as the team's dominant receiver. That title ought to remain Torrey Smith's.
Hensley: Fact. There's a chance tight end Dennis Pitta or wide receiver Torrey Smith will end up being Flacco's go-to receiver. In the end, Flacco will spread the ball around to Pitta, Torrey Smith and Steve Smith. But if you're asking who will be Flacco's top target, the best bet is Steve Smith. All you needed to do was watch one practice this offseason, and you'd see the chemistry building between Flacco and Smith. Many have compared Steve Smith to Anquan Boldin because both are tough receivers. Smith, though, stacks up more favorably to Derrick Mason, who averaged 71 receptions in three seasons with Flacco. Like Mason, Smith can get open on the comeback route as well as slants. A prideful player such as Smith will also do everything in his power to show the Carolina Panthers he can still play. The Ravens will get the best out of Smith this year.
Pat McManamon: Fiction. The Ravens still have this guy Torrey Smith, right? He's a little younger than the 35-year-old Steve Smith. A little bigger too. And he should be ready to be the No. 1 receiver on the team. This is not to say Steve Smith won't help. He will. He brings a veteran presence the Ravens lacked -- though it's curious they gave away Anquan Boldin before last year and signed another aging guy who fits the "crafty veteran mold" a year later. Ozzie Newsome said Smith is not the "typical aging player," which is good, because he'll catch a lot of passes and open up the field more to provide opportunities for Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta. The Ravens also seem to be a team well-suited to getting the most from veterans. But if Baltimore brought Steve Smith in to be the top guy, it's a problem. That role and responsibility belongs to Torrey Smith.
The retooled defense is enough to get the Steelers back to the playoffs.
Brown: Fact: The Steelers got younger and faster and will be better on that side of the ball if their outside linebackers provide some semblance of a pass rush. The Steelers don't need dramatic improvement from their defense if their offense builds on its strong finish in 2013. The Steelers averaged just under 28 points in their final eight games this past season, and they only lost one starter (wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders) on offense. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey returns from a torn ACL to lead an offensive line that allowed just seven sacks in the final seven games last year. And the Steelers have enough talent at the skill positions for Ben Roethlisberger and the offense to carry the defense.
Hensley: Fact. The Steelers got younger and quicker with their first two draft picks this year, linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Cam Thomas, a free-agent addition, will be a space-eater on the interior of the line. What will help this retooled defense become even better are the moves made on offense. The Steelers stockpiled their backfield by signing free agent LeGarrette Blount and drafting Dri Archer in the third round. Plus, Le'Veon Bell was beginning to hit his stride at the end of his rookie season. This commitment to the run will control the clock and take pressure off a defense adjusting to its new parts.
McManamon: Fact. There is no team in the league that finds personnel to fit its system better than the Steelers. With three new starters defensively, Pittsburgh continues its transition from the James Harrison-James Farrior-Casey Hampton-Brett Keisel days. Kevin Colbert's drafting is usually logical and sound, and in Ryan Shazier the Steelers believe they found an immediate starter. One thing will be true about Pittsburgh this season: They will be faster on the field and they will not start slow. Pittsburgh will build on the momentum of an 8-4 finish in 2013 (after an 0-4 start), and as they build the defense will grow..
TE Dallas Clark: He looked like a tight end playing in his final season, catching 31 passes for the Ravens (his fewest in a season since 2006). It wouldn't be a surprise if Clark retired. He turns 35 in June.
TE Ed Dickson: The signing of Owen Daniels rules out a return for Dickson. He'll be playing in the NFL in 2014, and it will likely be for about the league minimum. Dickson needs a fresh start elsewhere, and he's visiting the Carolina Panthers.
RB Bernard Scott: The Ravens opted to sign Justin Forsett instead of Scott to be their third running back. Scott could have trouble catching on with another team. This offseason, Scott turned 30, which is not a kind number for running backs.
WR Brandon Stokley: He said after the season that he plans to retire after suffering another concussion. Stokley was the last active player from the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl championship team.
LB Michael Boley: Signed to a one-year deal early last season, Boley has been seen as little more than a stop-gap for last season's team. His return is unlikely.
DB Chris Crocker: Danieal Manning's signing last week might have been enough to prevent the Bengals from re-signing Crocker. The two play similar positions and serve similar purposes as older players. Crocker still hasn’t announced -- for a third time -- if he’s retiring.
P Zoltan Mesko: Much like Boley, Mesko was a stop-gap solution while punter Kevin Huber was out injured. When OTAs and minicamps resume, Huber is expected to be near full health from a broken jaw.
OT Dennis Roland: Though the Bengals signed former Packers tackle Marshall Newhouse this offseason, they still could re-sign Roland for depth, and to give them a tackle who can be a good short-yardage edge blocker.
TE Alex Smith: There is still a chance the Bengals could bring Smith back, considering H-back Orson Charles was arrested and charged with wanton endangerment March 31 in Richmond, Ky., the result of what police believe was a road rage incident involving a handgun.
C Alex Mack: His only visit has been to Jacksonville, where the Jaguars are expected to sign him to an offer sheet. The Browns then will have five days to decide if they want to match the offer.
RB Willis McGahee: Not surprising there has been so little interest. His age and the poor running back market make him a tough sign.
OT Levi Brown: Suffered a season-ending triceps injury before playing a down for the Steelers last season; would have to accept a non-guaranteed contract to return and try to make the team in 2014.
WR Plaxico Burress: Wants to play in 2014, but is 36 and coming off a shoulder injury that sidelined him all of last season; does not appear to be in Steelers' plans.
RB Felix Jones: Didn't show enough last season as a change-of-pace back or a kickoff returner to warrant serious consideration for the Steelers to bring him back.
DE Brett Keisel: Re-signing the 12th-year veteran is still an option for the Steelers, who are thin along the defensive line, though nothing will happen until after the draft.
P Mat McBriar: McBriar did OK after the Steelers signed him in October, but it looks like they will go with a younger leg at the position in 2014.
C/G David Snow: Didn't dress in final four games after signing with Pittsburgh last December, and the Steelers have added depth to their offensive line.
RB LaRod Stephens-Howling: Another player coming off an injury (torn ACL) the Steelers might consider re-signing once he is healthy or close to full strength.
LB Stevenson Sylvester: Is a core special teams player and a depth guy the Steelers would probably have interest in bringing back at the right price.
C Fernando Velasco: The Steelers are likely to re-sign one of their most unsung players in 2013 once he has fully recovered from the ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered in November.
LB Jamaal Westerman: Played in the regular-season finale after signing with the Steelers last December, but is not not in the team's plans.
The rivalry took a hiatus after Art Modell moved the Browns franchise to Baltimore, and the luster hasn’t returned to it since the NFL returned to Cleveland in 1999. The Steelers have lost to the Browns just five times since 1999, and Cleveland hasn’t won in Pittsburgh since 2003.
The Browns will try to snap a nine-game losing streak Sunday at Heinz Field and extinguish what remains of the Steelers’ playoff hopes. NFL Nation reporters Pat McManamon (Browns) and Scott Brown (Steelers) take a closer look at the 1 p.m. ET game.
Scott Brown: Pat, what type of effort and performance do you expect to see out of the Browns on Sunday?
Pat McManamon: Well Scott, you’ve seen how these late-season games between these teams have gone. This should not be any different than the past four -- which were ugly. It also should be pretty similar to what we saw against the Jets. The Browns were lifeless, lackluster and gave every impression they have their cars packed and ready to get out of town -- if not physically, then mentally.
A team that loses constantly and starts losing at the end of the season has a hard time pulling it together. All are true of the Browns. The coaches are trying, but the players ... well ... this could be like a lot of season finales against the Steelers: ugly.
Do folks in Pittsburgh marvel at the Browns' annual struggles? It’s like the winter [solstice]. It comes every year.
Brown: I think older fans who remember the Browns teams before they were uprooted are actually a little bit wistful about what Cleveland’s struggles have meant for this rivalry. It has become too one-sided for the Browns to even be in the conversation of the Steelers’ chief rival, and that is sad given the proximity of the two working-class cities, the Browns’ history and how passionate their fans are despite the franchise’s struggles since the NFL returned to Cleveland.
I wonder if younger fans here look at the Browns the way they did the Pirates when the latter endured two decades of losing. They don’t see the tradition, the great fan support. They see a franchise that can’t get out of its own way and is not one to be taken seriously. All of that could change if the Browns continue to build on what appears to be a solid nucleus and add the obvious missing piece sooner rather than later.
Speaking of which, how close are the Browns to winning and is it simply a matter of getting the right quarterback to pull everything together?
McManamon: A few weeks ago it would have been convenient to say the Browns were a quarterback away. That was the simple solution. It also was the wrong solution. A quarterback is needed, yes, but so is a lot more. And once the Browns let center Alex Mack and safety T.J. Ward leave via free agency -- there has been no effort to sign them -- there will be two more self-created holes to fill.
The Browns need a quarterback, a running back, a fullback, a second and third receiver, two or three offensive linemen, a second corner, a safety and perhaps another inside linebacker. Or two. If that doesn’t sound like a two- or three-year rebuilding project, it’s hard to say what does.
The Steelers need a ton of help to reach the playoffs. Do you think it’s possible?
Brown: It’s possible, but still very unlikely. First things first, the Steelers have to take care of their own business and beat the Browns. I do think they will win, but it is anything but a guarantee. The Steelers have had some bad losses this season, and anyone who thinks the Browns can’t add another one to their total needs only to be referred to games against the Vikings, Raiders and Dolphins.
If the Steelers won any one of those three games they wouldn’t have needed nearly as much help as they do to get into the playoffs. As it stands, the Steelers need to beat the Browns and also for the Jets, Bengals and Chiefs to win. It sounds like the Chiefs are going to rest some of their key starters, so even if the three things that need to happen in the 1 p.m. ET games come through, the Steelers might not get the cooperation they need from Kansas City in San Diego. I will say this: The Steelers would love to take their chances on the Chiefs in the late-afternoon game, but I’m not sure they get wins from both the Jets and the Bengals.
Pat, given the futility that has plagued the Browns’ organization, do you think it ever reaches a point where a significant numbers of fans will desert the team because they are so fed up with losing?
McManamon: What’s amazing is it hasn’t happened yet, Scott. The Browns treat their fans like sheep, and the sheep just keep coming back. Six years in a row of 11-loss seasons add up to six years in a row of frustration. Empty promise has built on empty promise. A good portion of the fan base does seem turned off, but just as many are (again) excited about having a high draft pick. It’s mind-boggling. The Browns smack their fans in the face over and over and over, yet they keep coming back to be smacked again. Call them loyal, call them lemmings. They just keep coming back.
What’s the future for Pittsburgh? The Steelers seem to be in a period of transition. Can they do it on the fly and still continue the winning tradition?
Brown: I’m a lot more optimistic for the Steelers’ future than I was a couple of months ago. The offense has really come together, and I think it has a chance to carry the team while the Steelers retool their defense. The Steelers have a lot of youth on offense, starting with rookie running back Le’Veon Bell, and the line is relatively young too. If it could ever stay healthy, it could develop into a strength, and the Steelers may take a left tackle with one of their top picks in the 2014 draft.
The biggest reason I don’t think the Steelers are facing a rebuilding period: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still in his prime and has played at a very high level this season. If the Steelers’ record was better, we’d be talking about this probably being Roethlisberger’s best season, and he said earlier this week that he feels his best football is still ahead of him.
Pat, if I’m convinced of anything in the NFL it is this: If you have a quarterback, you have a chance. Look at the respective paths the Browns and Steelers have taken since the former passed on Roethlisberger in the 2004 draft to take tight end Kellen Winslow. It is a case study in how important quarterbacks are in the NFL.
Results will be announced after the season.
But we thought it might be fun to get input from readers on one of the tougher positions to select the best: wide receiver.
We are picking three for the All AFC North Team, and the division includes four standouts and one up-and-coming rookie: Cleveland’s Josh Gordon, Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green and Marvin Jones, and Baltimore’s Torrey Smith.
But they didn’t walk the walk. They were embarrassed in Cincinnati, allowing the Bengals to get a team record for points in a quarter while having the ball three minutes, and then getting thrashed -- yes that’s the word -- by Pittsburgh.
Lost in the offensive issues against Pittsburgh (turnovers) and the blather about T.J. Ward’s comments is this reality: The defense has had its own issues since the first quarter in Cincinnati.
For the third time this season, defensive coordinator Ray Horton cut back on pressure against a top quarterback. If madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, well that’s what the Browns had, and received. Not pressuring Roethlisberger allowed him to stand back and take what he wanted -- much the same way Matt Stafford and Aaron Rodgers did. Combine that with the reality that Le’Veon Bell ran better than any Browns back all season, and the result was a thrashing.
Horton has great respect for Dick LeBeau, but it almost seemed that he tried to outthink LeBeau and lost the matchup.
It was the Steelers, after all, who came up with the game-turning blitz that sent Jason Campbell to the sidelines. Yes, Campbell was hit in the head and it should have been called but LeBeau had the blitz that brought William Gay free to blindside Campbell.
Pittsburgh had five sacks, the Browns none.
Pittsburgh forced three fumbles, and recovered all of them. The Browns forced none.
Troy Polamalu played like he was in his prime. The Browns prime-time player was beat for a touchdown.
The Steelers had an interception for a touchdown. The Browns had no interceptions.
Defenses that want to talk big and act like they’re a top defense need to back it up. The Browns didn’t.
Pittsburgh’s defense set up or scored 14 points. The Browns did score seven on Joe Haden’s interception in Cincinnati, but from that point it went south. Too, the Bengals held the Browns to field goals, while the Browns allowed Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to score touchdowns after turnovers.
The Browns still lead the league in yards allowed per play, but they rank 23rd in interception percentage, 26th in takeaways, 27th in third downs and 31st in red zone efficiency.
This weekend the Browns have the Jaguars, a team it might be disastrous to lose to.
In seven of their 11 games, the Jaguars have averaged eight points per game. They’ve got Chad Henne at quarterback, whose passer rating has never been higher in a season than 79.0.
The Browns defense did not stand up against better opponents.
Sunday would be a good time for it to stand up against a lesser one.
That’s the question the Cleveland Browns might be asking after their 27-11 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It was a loss that seems to make one play meaningless, because Pittsburgh pretty much thrashed the Browns.
But one key play in the thrashing came midway through the third quarter when Steelers cornerback William Gay blitzed free and blindsided Jason Campbell at the Browns' 47-yard line. Gay forced Campbell to fumble, Will Allen returned it to the 4 and Pittsburgh scored a touchdown on the next play to extend a 13-3 lead to 20-3.
Live and on replay, it seemed clear that Gay hit Campbell in the facemask as he tackled him. The facemask would be the head, which is a no-no in the modern-day NFL.
A week earlier, Drew Brees drew a flag when San Francisco linebacker Ahmad Brooks tackled Brees in the shoulder and neck.
That was penalized.
The hit to Campbell’s facemask was not.
“I talked to the officials about that,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. “I felt like he was hit on the head. They didn’t feel that way.”
Chudzinski said the official told him Campbell was hit in the shoulder. But the replay clearly showed Campbell’s head snapping as Gay hit him in the facemask.
What would have changed had the call gone the Browns' way?
Maybe not much. Pittsburgh exerted its will on the Browns from the middle of the second period on, and they had earlier sent Campbell to the sidelines for one play with a rib injury. He returned and had the Browns at the Steelers 39-yard line, down 13-3 with 7:59 left in the quarter.
Gay lined up outside Allen on the defensive right of the formation. Gay stutter-stepped to the line as if he were blitzing, then backed off. As Campbell continued the snap count, Gay lined up alongside Allen -- and looked like he was blitzing.
Browns guard John Greco said the protection was focused to the side away from Gay, the Steelers' left.
“It’s just the kind of thing where we’re working one way and they brought one extra,” Greco said. “Just kind of timing. Didn’t get it off fast enough.”
Which would indicate that in that situation Campbell had to get the ball out quickly to his hot read. He didn’t.
Gay and Allen both blitzed, and running back Chris Ogbonnaya had to block the guy closest to the quarterback -- Allen.
Gay made Campbell pay. But even in making a good play, Gay hit Campbell in the facemask.
Had the penalty been called, the Browns would have had a first down at the 24, with Brandon Weeden at quarterback.
Do they go on to win? Doubtful, considering the way the Steelers played.
Should the play have been flagged? Many less obvious flags have been thrown. It wasn’t a vicious hit. It was just a fast play in which Campbell flinched and Gay got his hand up.
But it also sent Campbell to the sidelines for the game with a concussion, which he could have received on the hit or when the back of his head hit the frozen field.
Either way, the no-call cost the the Browns possession, field position and a quarterback they believed in.
Cornerback Joe Haden said the injury deflated the team.
"You saw it," Haden said. "That's what happened."
It also led to a ton of frustration from a team that two weeks ago had hopes of getting into the mix of the AFC North race, but now is back in last place in the division.
“It’s how the tide turns, right?” said safety T.J. Ward.
The defenses are identical.
Not in terms of players, but in terms of calls, language, formation and approach.
"As far as alignment, calls, words, verbage -- identical," Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton said.
Horton learned from the master. He coached under Dick LeBeau of the Steelers for years, and he admires him to this day. Not because of his coaching ability, which is immense, but because of the way LeBeau treats people.
"He's quite the scholar, but I would say he's got that common touch," Horton said. "It's unbelievable how he treats people. He's got an uncanny ability to make you think you're the only person in the room that matters."
Horton always knew he wanted to coach, but LeBeau's integrity and character was the role model for the manner he wanted to coach.
Now he's adopted LeBeau's zone-blitzing, attacking defense -- to the point that he said it would be interesting to see a game with two teams playing the exact same defensive style.
The question is which team benefits. Do the Steelers benefit because they've seen it for so long, or do the Browns benefit because Horton spent so many years as the secondary coach in Pittsburgh watching practice. In years past, numerous Browns quarterbacks were baffled by the Steelers' calls. The sight of Charlie Frye saying he had no idea what was coming after the Christmas Eve debacle remains fresh.
At least the Browns won't be baffled.
Horton calls it a wash.
"It helps because they see it all the time," he said. "But then so does our offense. I don't think it gives a team an advantage one way or the other."
"The plays themselves, the calls are similar," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "But every defense has (its) own individuality that's unique to the people that run it and call it. You can make those comparisons, but Dick LeBeau won't be making calls for the Cleveland Browns. Ray Horton will."
One other Horton note ... since Horton is one of the most refreshingly honest and open coaches to come down I-76 in a long time ...
Horton gushed about Ben Roethlisberger, and in this case it's not worth getting in Horton's way.
"I think I saw a quote somewhere about Fran Tarkenton, saying that Fran Tarkenton was the best quarterback or something like that recently,' Horton said. "It was odd, because I was just thinking about Ben, watching tape.
"There's different style of quarterbacks. I can't go back to Y.A. Tittle and some of those other quarterbacks but as far as the most elusive quarterback, I don't know if there's a better one. Fran was different because he could scramble and run around, but Fran didn't take hits and shake hits like Ben does.
"I don't think there's been a quarterback in the league that has taken unabated shots and shrugged guys off, more big plays, than Ben in the history of the league.
"Now, Fran would run, Roger Staubach would run, but they were different types of quarterbacks. Ben's probably the biggest, strongest, most mobile quarterback.
"I tell people, I told our players, he was a shortstop in baseball; you'd think he would be a pitcher. He was a point guard in basketball; you'd think he would be the center. And he punts left-footed. So this guy is the most athletic guy that we'll face, meaning total package of completeness."
The subject: The Pittsburgh Steelers.
The feelings: Not exactly great.
Ahtyba Rubin said a lot of people in the locker room hate Pittsburgh, and Willis McGahee said he expects the game will be nasty.
“Hate is a strong word,” defensive tackle Phil Taylor said. “But I really do dislike them.”
Rubin went further.
“They’re playing dirty," Rubin said. “We’re playing dirty. It’s just that type of game.”
The Steelers and Browns have a long history of nastiness. Several years ago, punter Chris Gardocki took on the Steelers bench after what he thought was a cheap shot after a punt from Joey Porter. James Harrison changed the NFL’s rules for concussion protocols for his late and cheap hit on Colt McCoy.
Even in a meaningless 24-10 Pittsburgh win to end the 2012 season, there were hijinks.
First Pittsburgh’s Steve Legursky gave Browns linebacker Craig Robertson a late hit to the knees.
Later in the game, Browns defensive tackle
shoved Steelers tackle Kelvin Beachum from behind well behind the play; Beachum’s head hit the frozen ground and he left with a concussion.
“I was just playing through the whistle,” Taylor said.
Pittsburgh disagreed in the strongest terms, and the league fined Taylor for the hit.
In some ways the Browns words sound a little hollow. The Steelers have dominated the Browns since 1999, and the Browns have yet to prove consistently they are at Pittsburgh’s level.
Talk means little when a team is flailing.
But the Browns and Steelers usually produce some gnarly football.
With something at stake, Sunday should be no different.
Since 2001, the Browns have gone 3-22 against Pittsburgh. The litany of losses has been presented for years. The embarrassing return in 1999. The Chrismas Eve Massacre in 2005. The playoff loss in 2002, when the Browns led 24-7 early in the third quarter only to allow Tommy Maddox (Tommy Maddox?) to lead the Steelers back to the win. There was William Green and Joey Porter fighting before a game, with Porter after the game apologizing and Green nowhere to be found. There was James Harrison's scary hit on Colt McCoy, and the Browns putting McCoy back in the game. And on and on and on.
Longtime Browns followers remember Browns-Steelers games being played on Saturday night at old, cavernous Municipal Stadium. They remember the Kardiac Kids trying to blow through the Steel Curtain. They remember competition.
But an entire new generation of Browns fans has seen little but futility against the Steelers. Night game, day game, early season, late season -- it hardly seems to matter. Except for the occasional aberration -- Charlie Batch starting last season and the Steelers turning the ball over eight times -- the Steelers find a way to win. And when a quarterback the Browns could have drafted wins 15 of 16 games against Cleveland, well it's really folly to pretend there's competition.
A few years ago, Porter basically dismissed this matchup as a rivalry. Porter said it's really not a rivalry unless both teams win. This week in an article for ESPNCleveland.com, Tony Grossi talked to Steelers president Art Rooney, and Rooney said: "It's probably fair to say [the Ravens are] our biggest rival right now."
Clearly this Steelers team is not the Steelers team of the past several years. They lack a run game, are aging in spots and give up big plays. The Browns want to hope they are a different team, one that can beat Pittsburgh in a real and accomplished way.
They wanted that in Cincinnati a week ago, and that result was ugly. They have another chance Sunday. It's a game between teams who are fighting for relevance, with the loser in terrible shape for the final five games. It could be the game that slightly alters the perception of the AFC North. Or it could be one that firmly establishes the Browns as a team that is not quite ready for that next step.
Now let's continue with some Morning Brownies:
Grossi also discusses the remarkable growth in Joe Haden (which I wrote about here), and points out Haden is only 24 and he didn't start playing corner until his freshman year at Florida.
In Pittsburgh, the Steelers acknowledge how well Haden is playing, but Antonio Brown told the Post-Gazette's esteemed Ed Bouchette "I hope so" when asked about Haden simply covering him man-to-man. "One-on-one is better than two-on-one. If you study game plans and prepare for one guy, it's a lot easier with your matchup planning for him than other guys or other zone coverage."
Bud Shaw of The Plain Dealer minces no words in saying the loss to the Bengals was a terrible loss, but points out the Browns have three home games in the next four and can still make a jump this season.
Tom Reed of The Plain Dealer points out that the Browns would be alive for the playoff chase with a win over Pittsburgh. He does so by running through the way the other teams are playing.
Following Sunday's loss, Marla Ridenour of the Akron Beacon Journal says what everyone wonders about Jason Campbell: "His performance against the Bengals could have been an aberration. But so, too, could have been the two that came before it."
The Cleveland Browns cornerback is a different person in a different place this season, and the ways he’s acting and preparing and living have made him a different player.
“I think it's mostly, honestly, the way I'm living,” Haden said as the Browns prepared for the Steelers this weekend. “Just me and my wife, I have a really good relationship with her. We're doing super well just relaxing all the time. I've been studying the Bible a whole lot more and I'm just really comfortable with myself and how my life is going and honestly that's what really got me here.”
Haden acknowledges, too, that his four-game suspension a year ago in Weeks 2-5 was a wake-up call. That suspension contributed significantly to an 0-5 start, and the Browns never recovered. As the season continued, he had issues with being late for practice after being out the night before.
It played into an image Haden did nothing to quash. In his first few seasons, Haden was known as much for being seen at Cavs games and on TV as he was for interceptions. His play never matched the celebrity he gained in Cleveland merely by being a first-round draft pick.
He said it wasn’t that he got caught up in being a celebrity, but that he was suddenly young and wealthy.
“You went from having nothing in your pocket to you got a lot of money and you can do what you want,” Haden said. “You can enjoy yourself, so that's what you're going to do for sure. I mean there's nothing wrong with it. It's all in moderation and [you] make sure you don't get in trouble, but it's a big life-changing experience.
“You're just sitting there and you become a millionaire. You've got to put things in perspective."
Perspective arrived as he reflected on the suspension, which he said was for offseason use of Adderall. That was a wake-up call that Haden might have been taking his talent on a destructive path.
“That really slowed me down and helped me settle down and made me become a better professional …” he said. “You always get hit with curve balls. Everything happens for a reason, and I think the whole suspension thing got me to where I am now.”
Where he is now is in a different level from his previous play, and a special level in the league.
His attention to detail. His stature with his teammates. His candor and willingness to discuss things with the media. All are indicators of an attitude that started in the offseason when defensive coordinator Ray Horton challenged Haden to eliminate the word “potential” from the suggestion that Haden had Pro Bowl potential.
To remind himself, Haden keeps a map of Hawaii in his locker. For some, that would be boastful. The way Haden carries himself, though, it's a humble reminder of where he wants to be.
His offseason marriage to Sarah Mahmoodshahi was the next step. Haden still enjoys life; his wedding was a lavish event at the Fountainbleu on Miami Beach. But he's more properly focused.
“It’s just the whole way of living,” he said. “I’ve just been chilling. Just chilling, resting up and being with my girl and praying a lot more and honestly just the way of life changed me.
“That’s the truth.”
Combine that with the fact Haden is in his fourth year and can use the knowledge he’s gained the right way. Haden is playing as well as any cornerback in the league.
Sunday he had a career game with two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. Bengals standout A.J. Green had two catches for seven yards, career lows. Whether it’s Green, Mike Wallace or Dwayne Bowe, Haden has blanketed the top receiver on the opposition. The next challenge will be Antonio Brown, who has 74 catches for 952 yards and five touchdowns.
“I don’t believe that any corner is playing better, at least that we have faced,” said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. “He’s a very talented player whose experience is catching up with his talent.”
“You’d have to really look with a fine tooth comb to pick out things he’s not doing well,” Horton said.
It’s not hyperbole.
Haden deserves a ton of credit. He took a negative from last season and used it to become more of a pro. He’s accepted the responsibility his experience and position demand. It’s hard to think of one player who has grown more in any single year than Haden has from last year to this. If he maintains this approach, January will be the first of many visits to Hawaii -- something that can only benefit the Browns.
“I'm just in a whole different place,” he said. “And it's finally really starting to click.”