Saturday, December 31, 2011

Rivalry Week: Steelers at Browns Preview

I have a bunch of excuses as to why this post is going up on Saturday afternoon as opposed to Thursday or Friday afternoon.  The sun was in my eyes, I had a flat tire, there was a car coming, it was end of year at work, I cut my finger on Thursday night and typing sucks.  But, I think it ultimately breaks down to the fact that I haven't been able to get fired up for this game.

The Steelers are playing Cleveland and Cleveland does not, in fact, rock.  This used to be a rivalry game during the first Cleveland iteration, back when Andre Rison and Matt Stover played for the team, but the second coming of the Browns has been pretty disappointing.  Plus which, I came into the season knowing that Cleveland was going to suck -- then again, I also though Detroit and Cincinnati were going to suck, so there's that -- so I circled this game as a potential late-season blowout or as an opportunity for the Steelers to rest their starters.  I also thought the Steelers were going to sweep the season series against the hated Ravens, so there's that on top of that.

Then there's the fact that this is the last game of the season and the two teams are, once again, headed in opposite directions.  I remembered Week 17 of the 2010 season, where the Steelers were crushing the Browns in the third quarter and my cousin and I decided to head off to the casino.  I remembered all the times that the two teams met this century under similar circumstances and couldn't remember any of those games ending well for Cleveland.  So, I did what any upstanding member of the Internet would do: I looked it up.

Thus far this century, the Steelers and Browns have faced each other four times either in Week 16 or Week 17 (three times in Week 17, one time in Week 16).  All four times (2001, 2005, 2008, and 2010 seasons), the Steelers have been playing for playoff seeding and Cleveland has been playing for pride.  Final scores of those games, in order: 28-7, 41-0, 31-0, 41-9.  That's some history right there.  And, since the Browns roster has turned over so many times in the last ten years, there are way more Steelers that have experienced that history than Browns.  The Steelers own the Browns late in the season and they know it.  If you play for Cleveland, the only hope for victory is that you weren't a part of that history and you can attempt to start a new chapter.

But, given the talent disparity between the two teams, I don't think that new chapter starts on Sunday.  With something to play for, the Steelers will be motivated and angry.  With nothing to play for but pride, Cleveland players are probably just looking to get through the season without getting hurt.  The only wild card in play is the fact that the Browns players probably aren't very happy with James Harrison and they may be motivated to take some of that anger out on Ben Roethlisberger.

I don't think that Roethlisberger needs to play for the Steelers to win this game and I don't think he should play.  But, my feedback and suggestions for the Steelers have largely been met with resistance and restraining orders.  He has practiced all week and says that he intends to play at least 25 snaps.  Since Ben generally gets what Ben wants, that means Bruce Arians should include a lot of max protect blocking schemes for when the Steelers do decide to pass.  I think Cleveland is going to come after him.

More to the point, I think the Browns need to come after the Steelers on offense and defense if they want to win this game.  Pat Schurmur has been extremely conservative thus far this season and that conservative approach has led to a 4-11 record.  He's overmatched and outgunned and he needs to go big or go home if he wants to win this game.  He needs to throw in some gadget plays on offense and throw the ball down the field.  He has Seneca Wallace at his disposal and Wallace has enough arm strength to get the ball vertical and enough athletic ability -- especially when you add Josh Cribbs to the mix -- to run some trick plays and catch the Steelers defenders asleep at the switch.  Schurmur has the coverage guys in the secondary to take some chances with overload blitzes.  He has a lot of the tools necessary to take his best shot at the Steelers and possibly pull out a victory.

The issue is that he's had these tools all season and he hasn't used them.  Does he throw the kitchen sink at the Steelers on Sunday, or does he stick with the same game plan that got him to 4-11?  When you're 9-6 and fighting for playoff position, you do whatever it takes to win.  When you're 4-11 and thinking about the offseason, you do whatever it takes to avoid criticism.  Sure, ending the season with a win would be positive, but it would also open up questions as to why Sunday's game plan wasn't used all season.

Will Schurmur go all out or will he dance with who brung him?  I think he'll dance with who brung him and that will bring his team another loss on Sunday.  Steelers roll.

Steelers 34, Browns 6

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