What: Steelers @ Browns Preview (The rivalry)
When: 1:00 pm EST
Where: Cleveland Browns Stadium, Cleveland, OH
One of the most storied rivalries in the history of the NFL. Every time these two teams take the field you can expect a dogfight, no pun intended. This is all of our favorite time of year getting to make the 2 hour trip to Lake Erie to surround ourselves with fat guys in rubber dog masks eating chicken wings by the dozen in mini lots screaming to every thing in black and gold that this is their year. These two cities are so close fans cant help but jaw at each other and for the past 30 years Steelers fans have made no secret as to the success we've had. The series is currently tied at 55-55 after last seasons sweep of the Brownies and the Steelers look to take their first ever series lead. The series is also tied at 2-2 in season openers with such lopsided victories as a 51-0 thrashing by Cleveland in 1989 to a 43-0 returned favor by the Steelers in 1999. Through the years there has been no love loss between these teams as evidenced by the grudge matches when Joe "Turkey" Jones slammed Bradshaw on his head in the '70's
to James Harrison returning the favor to a drunken Cleveland fan who ran onto the field.
From Joey Porter and William Green being ejected for a pre game fight
to the revered story of Jack Lambert coming to the rescue of "Mean" Joe Greene after being pinned on his back on the Cleveland sideline while Browns players lined up to kick him while on the ground.
But make no mistake about it, these are not the Cleveland Browns of old led by Jim Brown and Marion Motley that dominated the Steelers early on in the series. The Browns, where head coach Paul Brown was the first to take football into the classroom surgically dissecting opponents with the original West Coast Offense. These are the modern day Browns, The team that after a 3 year hiatus from the NFL in the late '90's has been entrenched in rebuilding mode trying to find the combination of personnel to get them back to the prominence they once knew. On the other hand, these are still same old Steelers your father remembers taking on the personality of the cigar chewing Art Rooney, the "Chief". Since the early '70's, the Steelers have brought a physical brand of football to the league unmatched by anyone that relies on a dominating ground attack and a suffocating brand of defense designed to pound opponents into submission. While we are still awaiting what identity this years version of the Pittsburgh Steelers will take on, you can bet they will take the field to punch somebody in the mouth on every play. The modern day version has these teams with big changes coming into the season. Cleveland Browns coach Romeo Crennel knows he need to win now to keep his job and an off-season free agent spending frenzy over the last two seasons should help. The biggest addition of the Steelers is rookie head coach Mike Tomlin about to make his debut in the National Football League. Tomlin knows he has big shoes to fill following the likes of Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, who both won their respective inaugural games.
The Browns enter the season trying to improve on an abysmal showing last year that netted them in the bottom of the league in nearly every statistical category that counts. Some Browns insiders such as Bernie Kosar have gone on record as saying the Browns chances to win this year have increased due to the Steelers searching for an identity on both sides of the ball and showing too much of the playbook in preseason giving the Browns plenty of game tape to study for the opener. On offense, they have a revamped offensive line that includes pricey free agent acquisition Eric Steinbach and #3 overall pick in this years draft Joe Thomas out of Wisconsin. Expensive disappointment Kevin Schaffer moves to right tackle to a position he's probably better suited for. GM Phil Savage also signed an ex fellow Raven in Jamal Lewis to take the bulk of the carries in the run game and '06 incumbent Charlie Frye has been named the starting QB. TE Kellen Winslow, who proclaimed he will never be back to 100% after a motorcycle accident, led all TE's in catches last year with 89. They will look to improve from a 31st ranked run game from a year ago that hasn’t looked much better in preseason. The Browns have kept quiet on the status of preseason injuries to projected starting OL Eric Steinbach (knee) and Kevin Schaffer (concussion). Offensive Coordianator Rob Chudzinski, acquired from San Diego, will attempt to pound Jamal Lewis early and often behind his mammoth offensive line. He will be patient in the run game attempting to draw the safeties up trying to control the time of possession. Expect a lot of high % passes to TE Kellen Winslow with an occasional shot deep to Braylon Edwards trying to catch the Steelers in the wrong coverage. I expect to see a lot max protect formations against the Steeler defense with a TE and back staying in to counter the famed Steeler blitz. This idea led to a solid performance last year by Browns fill in QB Derek Anderson.
The Steelers will need to counter this by doing what they do. Stop the run with the front 7 and get pressure from the outside forcing QB Charlie Frye to step up and get out of his comfort zone forcing bad throws. Steelers safety Troy Polamalu will help with all the pre snap looks and confusion he'll give. More consistent secondary play in the preseason has shown Mike Tomlin has begun to put his stamp on this team.
Defensively, Cleveland looks to improve upon the 27th ranked defense from a year ago where they had the 29th ranked rush defense in the league virtually giving them no chance to stay in football games. I've seen nothing as far as upgrading this unit from a run standpoint. Nose tackle Ted Washington is pushing 20 years in the league and is only good for 15-20 plays a game and Defensive end acquisition Robaire Smith wasn’t very successful in the 34 defense under current Browns defensive coordinator Todd Grantham in Houston. But for some reason, Cleveland insiders feel Grantham has a great football mind and could possibly be their next head coach. Another key acquisition was 2nd round CB Eric Wright (UNLV) looks to help out what seems to be on paper a solid Browns secondary anchored by CB Leigh Bodden and SS Sean Jones. Savage and Crennell have also brought the LB corps a long way to what seems to almost be a team strength with the speed this corps has led by 2nd year LB's D'Qwell Jackson and Kamerion Wimbley, their top 2 draft picks form 2006, along with ILB Andre Davis. But unless Grantham can get blood from a turnip and get production out of his D line, then entire defense will struggle to produce.
I fully expect Crennell and Grantham to have this defense blitzing early and often in attempts to challenge this revamped Steeler offensive line and test to see if they can withstand the exotic blitz packages the Browns have had 9 months to put together. It will be led by rookie phenom Kam Wimbley who registered 11 sacks alone as a rookie. Marvel Smith will have his hands full and expect to see a TE lined up to that side in certain situation as well as back to stay in and chip at times. I doubt they blitz much from up the middle because Steeler QB Ben Roethlisberger has made a living outside the pocket against the Browns.
The Steelers will come out and attempt to test the Browns DL early trying to establish who owns the line of scrimmage by running Willie Parker between the tackles. They will use 3 and 4 WR sets in order to mix it up but stay focused on the run game forcing the Browns to commit extra men in the box in hopes of getting man coverage on the perimeter allowing offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to unleash his new playbook on his former team. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger will look to rebound from a disappointing 23 interception season last year by making better decisions and spreading the ball around.
Special teams is a different story for the Browns. Kick returner Joshua Cribbs, a former collegiate QB, was very impressive on returns last year and attempts to expand that role by taking on punt return duties as well. The Browns coverage units didn’t disappoint either along with hometown product Dave Zastudil handling the punts. Kicker Phil Dawson was less than impressive last year with a 21 of 29 performance in field goals not showing much leg from a distance.
The Steelers enter the game with an added emphasis in special teams after ranking near the bottom in every major statistical ST's category. Fourth round draft pick Dan Sepulveda (Baylor) has done nicely showing nice distance and hang time on his punts and is also a former linebacker who effectively makes the coverage team an 11 man unit whereas former punter Chris Gardocki was frail and unable to make a tackle. The recent trade to acquire KR/PR Allen Rossum from Atlanta should also help boost field position for a team that ranked almost dead last in the NFL in average field position on both sides of the ball. Steeler kicker Jeff Reed looks to improve on a 20-27 showing last year and he needs to show better depth on kickoffs.
Keys To Success
1. Control the line of scrimmage...With 2 new starters along the offensive line, the Steelers will still be a run oriented offense that will attempt to pound the ball down your throat. Early success in the run game will allow for effective play action in the second half ensuring a victory for the Steelers. Look for some early 2 TE sets to establish the line of scrimmage and help counter the fleet footed Browns LB corps.
2. Protect the QB: with more emphasis on passing game this year, the OL will need to improve on the 46 sacks allowed performance of last year.
3. Get pressure from the edges: Charlie Frye can scramble once out of the pocket but doesn’t have the arm strength to make every NFL throw under fire. He completed nearly 55% of his passes in this rivalry last year so the OLB's will need to finish the job.
1. Establish the run: RB Jamal Lewis will see plenty of carries in hopes of controlling the clock and keep QB Charlie Frye out of 3rd and long situations and the dreaded Steeler blitz.
2 Get Winslow involved: expect Frye to be under pressure most of the day and he'll need to have a plan to get rid of the ball in hurry. Playmaker Kellen Winslow will be his first read on most plays.
3. Stop the run: Keep Willie Parker from breaking free at all costs. Even if it means keeping a safety in the box for the majority of the game and force Ben Roethlisberger to beat you with his arm.