Well, here we are. The Steelers have lost four in a row. Now, our hopes of righting the season come on a cold and blustery day against the winless Browns. A win puts the Steelers right back in the thick of the division race. Mathematically, a loss doesn’t doom them but for all intents and purposes the season is shot if they lose to the Browns. Then again, the Browns can’t even properly unfurl a banner, so who knows.
What To Watch For
The Steelers have played numerous games in terrible weather conditions in Cleveland over the years. Sunday’s game will be no different. The forecast calls for temperatures in the 30s with snow and winds gusting between 25 and 35 miles per hour. The nadir of Bruce Arians’ tenure as Steelers offensive coordinator was a Thursday Night game in Cleveland with -20 degree wind chill thanks to 40 mph wins when he called 43 passes and just 19 runs. That night, the Steelers lost to the 1-11 Browns. Ben was sacked 8 times and Arians kept calling pass plays against the worst run defense in the league at the time. That loss prevented the Steelers from making the playoffs in 2009. This game will be a measuring stick for Todd Haley. Will he repeat the mistakes of his predecessor or will he be willing to give the ball to Le’Veon Bell?
2. Mike Tomlin vs The Spread
The Steelers are favored by 8.5 points. However, in his career Mike Tomlin is 8-6 in road games when favored by at least a touchdown. The Steelers .571 winning percentage ranks just 23rd in the league over the last 10 years. On top of that, the Steelers have lost 3 of their last 4 road games when favored by at least a touchdown, including earlier this year in Miami. Against the Spread, Tomlin’s teams have been a disappointing 3-11 when favored by 7+ on the road. The common refrain over the last few seasons is that the Steelers get up for good teams and play down to the level of their opponent against bad teams. These numbers back up that theorem so don’t take this game for granted just because it’s the Browns.
Cam Heyward was injured early in last week’s game but stayed in the game and basically played three quarters with only one arm. Now, Heyward has been placed on Injured Reserve with a torn pectoral muscle and the defense is without its leader and captain. More concerning is that Markus Wheaton was also placed on injured reserve this week which not only ends his season but might be the end of his Steelers career as his contract expires at the end of the season. It is worth noting (and possibly something I will explore at a later date) that the Steelers have been extremely poor in their injury diagnosis and treatment this season. There are a growing number of players that have suffered injury setbacks from Ladarius Green in the preseason, to guys who did not play in any games like Senquez Golson and Cody Wallace, to Wheaton who was injured in the preseason but never really got back to form and is now on IR. It is hard to tell whether players are being rushed back to practice too soon or if their injuries are being mis-diagnosed or mis-treated, but something is not right. The Steelers need to take a serious look at their Strength, Conditioning, Training, and Medical staff moving forward.
4. Bud Is Back
If there was any silver lining this week, it is that 2015 first round pick Bud Dupree is back. He had surgery during the preseason on an abdominal muscle injury and started the season on injured reserve. This also means that the Steelers have burned their “designated for return” label and all other players on IR are out for the season. The Steelers desperately need a spark at the outside linebacker position as they enter Week 11 tied for last in the league with just 13 sacks. Objectively, the Steelers will have the opportunity to improve upon that number as 4 of their last 7 games are against teams that rank at the top of the league in sacks allowed. The Browns currently rank second, just behind the Colts who the Steelers face on Thanksgiving night. Unfortunately for the Steelers, Cam Heyward was their team leader with 3 sacks and he is out for the year. James Harrison was elevated into the starting role to replace Jarvis Jones and the Steelers will probably work Dupree back into the lineup slowly. Either way, the pass rush desperately needs a boost, and Dupree has the athleticism to provide that as his 4 sacks last year were more than any Steeler has this season.
5. Hometown Boys
Since the Browns re-entered the league in 1999, only one Browns quarterback has double-digit wins at home. That is Derek Anderson, who has 10. In 2004 the Browns passed on a local Ohio kid in favor of a tight end from Miami. The Steelers took that kid from Ohio, and since then Ben Roethlisberger has won 9 games in First Energy Stadium. If the Steelers prevail, Roethlisberger would have more wins in Cleveland than every Browns quarterback except Anderson. On the other side, the Browns have gotten an offensive spark this season by former Jeannette star Terrelle Pryor who successfully converted from a quarterback to a wide receiver. The Browns have been able to line Pryor up all over the field and he has completed 5 passes, rushed 8 times, and has 627 receiving yards and 4 TDs. Pryor has produced big plays against the Steelers in the past and could cause problems for a Steelers secondary that has been terrible at tackling lately.