By Christina Rivers
A game against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday for the Pittsburgh Steelers is normally a rivalry game. Always fighting for position in the AFC North, the two tames face each other twice a season and, although the Steelers have most-often been the victors, the Browns always provide a little wrinkle to conference and division play.
At FirstEnergy Stadium, the wind howls and nasty weather combined by a dedicated ‘Dog Pound’ usually factors in as well. This season, both teams are fighting for relevance, locked in a three-way tie with the Baltimore Ravens (at 4-6) and looking to move closer to Cincinnati’s 7-4 record.
The big injuries are on the defensive side of the ball for Pittsburgh going into the game. Defensive back Shamarko Thomas and linebacker Stevenson Sylvester will not play, and both LaMarr Woodley and Brett Keisel are questionable, which means that the Steelers will need more players to step up as they have in past weeks, but do so in a way that will keep Cleveland from repeating an upset that has haunted the Steelers since it happened last season.
When asked about the 2012 game in which the football seemed to be a slippery nuisance that continued to find the ground, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said, “I remember, unfortunately, not being in there, not being able to help the guys. It was a tough one to watch.” At the time, Roethlisberger had suffered a shoulder-joint injury that kept him out of the game.
As for the Browns being favored this weekend, Roethlisberger admitted that play in Cleveland is always a challenge. “The weather is usually crazy,” said Roethlisberger. “The win is blowing through, and the dog pound…Not much else needs to be said.” According to offensive coordinator Todd Haley, it is no secret that teams have to plan ahead for challenging environments against the Brown.
“When you are (in Cleveland) and playing up here…you better always have a four-minute/bad weather plan, because you never know what you are going to get,” said Haley. The game is expected to include another wet field and sub-par turf conditions as the cleats begin to dig into it. “(Roethlisberger)…likes to play and executes well in bad weather, which you are really happy to have,” Haley added. “At the same time, conditions could get to the point where you better have a plan that involves a lot of big people.”
Offensively, Cleveland is 25th in total offense (26th rushing, 18th passing), having to utilize three different quarterbacks in 2013. The Browns utilize their running backs, yet only have one rushing touchdown to show for it so far this season. Tight end Jordan Cameron leads the team with 56 receptions and six touchdowns, but his production has dropped in the past three games in which Jason Campbell has started at quarterback. Despite those numbers, Cleveland leads the league in fourth-down conversions (11 on 23 attempts at 47.8 percent).
Cleveland fares much better on their defensive side of things. Pittsburgh will be facing a Browns team that is fifth in the league in total defense (fourth passing, eighth rushing). They play a stingy defense against the run and have 15 players on the roster with at least one sack and 11 players with multiple sacks. Linebacker Barkevious Mingo leads the team in that department with four sacks.
With LaMarr Woodley and Brett Keisel questionable to play on Sunday, the Steelers will look for more production from Jason Worilds, who has played on both the right and left ends of the linebacker line.
“(Worilds) played really well,” said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau about last week’s performance by the young player. “He had a lot of splash plays, which everyone could see, but he had a lot of close in plays that maybe only the video showed. He played real well.” When asked about Worilds, Woodley said, “He did a great job putting pressure on the quarterback and played well. This year…he had a few ups and downs but that didn’t stop his game. He continued to go out there and play well. He’s been doing that each and every week now.”
If Keisel is unable to go on Sunday, Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward will play more downs. Regarding the Browns, Hood said, “They’re a tough team. This is a rivalry game so we’re going to come with our ‘A’ game and go out there and play hard.”
On November 19, the Steelers waived halfback George Winn from the practice squad and signed Ray Graham. No word was given this week on how Graham may factor into the Steelers offense. Tight end Matt Spaeth returned to practice, but is not ready for Sunday’s game. Many on the injury report list were limited at some point in practice.
Tight end Heath Miller understands what is at risk on Sunday. When asked about the game, Miller responded, “It’s certainly big for us. We’ve put ourselves in a little bit of a hole here and every game is important.”
He added that playing in Cleveland adds to the motivation of the team. “The close proximity between (the cities of Cleveland and Pittsburgh) has a lot to do with that…It’s a tough environment…”
The Steelers will face two division road games in a span of four day, but Miller was confident when telling the press that the Steelers’ focus was where it needs to be.
“We’re just focused on the first one [in Cleveland]. We know the situation that we’re in and every (game) is important…I don’t think there is a division team that has won on the road this year…so we’re going to try to be the first this weekend.
Official injury report
S Shamarko Thomas (ankle)
LB Stevenson Sylvester (hamstring)
DE Brett Keisel (foot)
OLB LaMarr Woodley (calf)
OG Kelvin Beachum (hip)
OG Ramon Foster (ankle)
WR Emmanuel Sanders (foot)
C/G Fernando Velasco (knee)
For more Steelers news and updates, visit Steelers Central.
Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a reporter and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied exercise physiology and sports psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. Her work can be found on