PITTSBURGH (AP) James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons probably didn’t believe it when they heard it.
The Cleveland Browns (1-4), with their two top quarterbacks injured, likely will give rookie Colt McCoy his first NFL start Sunday in Pittsburgh, where he would go against one of the league’s most physical and intimidating defenses.
The Steelers’ complicated zone blitz schemes and ever-varying looks are troublesome to the league’s top quarterbacks, so sending out a player who has yet to throw an NFL pass to oppose them would seem to be a tremendous mismatch.
That’s why some of the Steelers (3-1) are questioning how much they’ll actually go against McCoy, if he’s chosen to start. They recall how the Browns upset them 13-6 in December, effectively deploying Joshua Cribbs in the wildcat offense during a loss that eventually cost Pittsburgh any chance of making the playoffs.
“Given that we might be facing a rookie quarterback and that we do confuse people who have played football for a long time, it would seem to be a mismatch,” Steelers safety Ryan Clark said Wednesday. “But look at the game last year when Brady Quinn started, they ran the wildcat most of the game. They ran the ball and were able to keep the game close enough so that they never had to get out of that game plan.”
The Browns kept the Steelers off balance by sacking Ben Roethlisberger eight times for 60 yards in losses. While Quinn was an ineffective 6 of 19 for 90 yards, Cribbs ran eight times for 87 yards as the Browns rushed for 171 yards. The Browns also were sacked only once.
Cribbs also has three of his eight career kickoff return touchdowns against the Steelers, including a 98-yarder in Heinz Field last season.
“He’s got great speed and agility and balance,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He’s uniquely powerful for a wide receiver-like guy. He’s extremely tough to tackle, he’s strong and he’s highly conditioned. Anybody that covers kicks, returns punts, returns kicks and plays offense is a highly conditioned athlete.”
Something else gives the Steelers reason for concern.
The Arizona Cardinals appeared to be in deep trouble when they started undrafted rookie free agent quarterback Max Hall against the Super Bowl champion Saints on Sunday. But Hall held his own by completing 17 of 27 passes – 9 of 12 in the second half – for 168 yards as the Cardinals turned a succession of big plays by their defense into a 30-20 victory.
Arizona had the benefit of playing at home, but the parallel is there between Hall starting against the Saints and McCoy potentially starting against Pittsburgh.
“It definitely opens your eyes that on any given Sunday … ” Clark said. “Arizona’s defense played a whale of a game and kept the game close enough to make plays at the end. We want to get up early, because if we get up early Colt has to come to us, and that’s what we want.”
Even if the Browns cut back on the wildcat and try to beat Pittsburgh with a conventional offense led by a rookie, Polamalu and Clark said the Steelers will give him the same respect they do any opposing quarterback.
“That game last year would be a good game for us to watch and understand, that they have ways of making plays without the quarterback having to make tough decisions and tough throws,” Clark said.
What happened to the Saints should make the Steelers wary, Polamalu said.
“He’s got a tremendous opportunity to start off with a great story,” Polamalu said. “We have all been in this situations where we’ve been underdogs or been favored and it doesn’t turn out the way everyone thinks it will. With all the lessons we learned in the past, we could have our hands full.”