By Vinnie Iyer - SportingNews
Apr 30, 9:57 am EDT
With their win-now mentality evident during an aggressive offseason, the Cleveland Browns are hoping they will be the fourth different winner of the AFC North in as many seasons. Unfortunately, the team they are trying to dethrone, the archrival Pittsburgh Steelers, remains the best in the division.
The Steelers, as usual, didn’t break the bank to keep one of their key free agents—left guard Alan Faneca—or bring in marquee newcomers. That has been their M.O. throughout the salary-cap era; they’ve focused on building primarily through the draft. No one can argue with the results.
The Browns, meanwhile, decided not to do much drafting this year. Starting with the deal in 2007 that netted quarterback Brady Quinn, and continuing with trades for defensive tackles Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers this year, Cleveland is putting all its eggs into getting into the playoffs in 2008.
Going back to last weekend’s draft: The Steelers had picks in each of the first three rounds; the Browns had to wait until Sunday to make their first pick—in Round 4.
The offseason isn’t quite over, but with March’s free-agent frenzy and April’s selection meeting in the books, the Steelers’ approach has won out again.
A constant focus on the future keeps Pittsburgh above most of the conference, and in contention for big things. The organization has gotten into such a rhythm with the draft that it can recognize which holes will need filling in a few years and thus can avoid having to scramble to find replacements in one short offseason.
Just look at some of their projected starters this season. Tight end Heath Miller, left guard Chris Kemoeatu, wide receiver Santonio Holmes, right tackle Willie Colon, inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley and punter Daniel Sepulveda were drafted over the three previous Aprils. Several other recent draftees are in place as key backups and future replacements.
The Steelers have picked up just two notable veterans this offseason, but each is atop the depth chart. Former Panther Justin Hartwig is expected to start at center; former Viking Mewelde Moore will handle kick and punt return duties.
Their biggest offseason move was locking up quarterback Ben Roethlisberger—a rare talent who plays the position that’s hardest to replace—to a lucrative long-term deal.
Still, because they look ahead to add depth and the right-fitting players, the Steelers still have the best defense—both in terms of personnel and scheme—in the division. The Baltimore Ravens are behind in rebuilding their defense, and the Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals won’t immediately shoot up from the bottom tier despite their recent acquisitions.
That brings us to what the Steelers did in the first two rounds of the most recent draft.
The Browns pushed the pedal on offense last season, finding great balance with Derek Anderson’s passing and Jamal Lewis’ running. Now they’ve added speedster Donte’ Stallworth to their fine receiving corps.
How did Pittsburgh respond? It grabbed a couple more offensive players who can help the team this year—running back Rashard Mendenhall and wide receiver Limus Sweed.
Last season, the Steelers lacked their usual power-running ability, which hurt them in closing drives and games. The biggest reasons: so-so line play and the fact that Willie Parker is a speed back. Pittsburgh responded by throwing more in the red zone.
The physical Mendenhall is an ideal complement to Parker, and giving the rookie 10 to 12 touches a game will keep Parker fresher and healthier.
The Browns, on the other hand, didn’t get a young back; they’re counting on Lewis to somehow pound through another full load unscathed. That’s risky.
Although the Steelers still adhere to the Bill Cowher approach of pounding the ball, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has installed a more dynamic passing game. Holmes became a big-play threat last season, and Hines Ward shook off some early injuries to again be a red zone reception machine.
Sweed reminds many of former Steeler Plaxico Burress with his 6-4, 210-pound frame, but in the short term he will add more pop as a huge target in three- and four-receiver sets.
In other words, the Steelers matched the Browns’ addition of Stallworth.
Let’s go back to the relevant Steelers-Browns matchup of a season ago—we can throw out Week 1 because Charlie Frye was Cleveland’s starting quarterback then. In Week 10, with the well-established Anderson as their leader, the Browns were outplayed statistically but lost by just 3 points, 31-28, on the road.
Cleveland saw how far it had come, and it came out swinging in the offseason to close what not too long ago was a huge gap. The club certainly has improved and is much more confident than it was a year ago, but so are the Steelers under second-year coach Mike Tomlin.
The Browns were closer than they appeared in the Steelers’ rearview mirror, so the Steelers stepped on it. It’s easy to keep the right distance when you’re always looking out for what’s well down the road.