Wednesday, November 15, 2006
What: Browns vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday 1 p.m. in Cleveland Browns Stadium.
Steelers’ record: 3-6.
Last game: Defeated New Orleans, 38-31, in Heinz Field, Pittsburgh.
Coach: Bill Cowher, 15th year, 156-97-1.
Series record: Browns lead, 55-53.
Last meeting: Steelers won, 41-0, Dec. 24, 2005, in Cleveland. Winning for the 11th time in 12 meetings and fifth in a row in Cleveland, the Steelers sacked Charlie Frye eight times and recovered one fumble in delivering the second-worst Browns loss in the 108-game series.
League rankings: Offense is fifth (10th rush, fifth pass), defense is 11th (10th rush, 16th pass) and turnover differential is minus-8.
Injury report: KR Willie Reid (foot sprain) is out. LB James Harrison (high ankle) is doubtful. S Troy Polamalu (concussion) and C Jeff Hartings (knee) are questionable.
The long quest to replace retired big back Jerome Bettis may finally be over. Najeh Davenport, a 255-pound reject of the Packers, has been rounding into form and is now the offense’s prime back on third downs and in short yardage. It’s the one element the unit has lacked.
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For the Steelers to make a playoff run, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has to revert to past form. He’s getting there, evidenced by his turnover-free game last week.
No one knows for sure whether Roethlisberger’s recovery from a motorcycle accident and appendectomy accounted for his huge increase in interceptions and sacks. His turnovers definitely dug a hole for the team. Defenses have had success against him dropping seven and eight in coverage.
Roethlisberger seems loathe to run since his injuries.
The problem with coordinator Dick LeBeau’s fire zone blitz scheme is that it forces the cornerbacks to be equal to the task of man coverage.
They haven’t been this year.
The 14 touchdown passes given up equal their output from all of last year. Coach Bill Cowher threatened to bench cornerback Ike Taylor, but didn’t. Adding to the secondary’s woes have been injuries to safety Troy Polamalu — first a shoulder problem and now a concussion.
The defense in general has not played with the reckless abandon of previous editions. Its four fumble recoveries are among the league’s fewest. The most intense pass pressure continues to come from outside linebackers Clark Haggans (4 1/2 sacks) and Joey Porter (4).
Special teams overview
They’ve been, in a word, horrible. Returners have had at least 10 fumbles or muffs while breaking few long gains. Kicker Jeff Reed has field goal misses of 28 and 35 yards and has made just 2-of-5 from 40 to 49 yards.
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Punter Chris Gardocki, 36 and in his 16th year, is 22nd with a 42.8-yard gross average.
His six punts inside the 20 are the fewest in the league.
Players to watch
* Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger: After throwing seven interceptions in losses to Oakland and Denver, he rebounded against New Orleans with three touchdowns and no turnovers, lifting his passer rating to a season-high 78.1.
* Running back Willie Parker: The diminutive speedster can turn any run outside and is coming off a career day — 213 yards on 22 carries, including two touchdowns and runs of 72 and 76 yards.
* Safety Troy Polamalu: A shoulder injury and a concussion have taken their toll; he leads the team with three interceptions, but has no sacks and has been less of a disruptive force than last year.
Steelers coach Bill Cowher played (1980-82) and coached (1985-88) for the Browns.
Other former Browns coaches: offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt (1999), defensive line coach John Mitchell (1991-93), linebackers coach Keith Butler (1999-02), receivers coach Bruce Arians (2001-03) and special teams coach Kevin Spencer (1991). . . .
Steelers punter Chris Gardocki played for the Browns from 1999-2003. . . . Browns defensive end Orpheus Roye was a Steelers draft choice in 1996 and played with them through ’99.
— Tony Grossi