Breaking down Sunday's Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns game (8:15 p.m., NBC)...
1. As bad as they looked at times last week, the Browns' defensive front is far from doomed against the Steelers' line. Perhaps I'm the only one who saw anything positive in that unit's performance last Sunday in a 28-10 loss to Dallas. It's quite possible too many of you walked away from that game too early.
Sure, Cleveland was held sackless. Also: They allowed 167 rushing yards, including a completely effortless 11-yard score by rookie Felix Jones; they let the Cowboys drive at least 66 yards on six of their eight possessions, thus creating a time of possession deficit of almost 15 minutes; and if you happened to be surfing channels in the first half you might have seen Tony Romo doing a crossword puzzle, sipping a cup of earl grey behind the line of scrimmage while his linemen played patty-cake with the Cleveland pass rush.
Fine. But there were two spirited series early in the second quarter, when Cleveland was still in it and needed a stop desperately, and those downs have to provide a glimmer of hope if you're a Browns fan.
The first drive came at the opening of the second half with Cleveland trailing 21-7. First play: Cleveland swarms on Marion Barber after a five-yard gain. Next play: Shaun Rogers gets isolation on left guard Cory Procter. He chucks Procter aside, steamrolls up the middle and torpedoes Romo right as he throws. I mean completely horizontal, 350 pounds into the chest of Romo, who would remain rattled the rest of the afternoon. (He was 10 of 15 with an INT after this point.) After that Cleveland stuffed Barber, then forced an incompletion on a jailbreak blitz. Drive stopped.
The following series offered less consistency, but still demonstrates how vicious Cleveland's pass rush potentially can be. On second down at the Dallas 30 Cleveland got a nice rush from Willie McGinest and both ends, and Romo wound up getting a nasty high-low plus a helmet to the chin, which would later require 13 stitches. So, cynics have been ripping Cleveland's line all week, but Romo, who's lucky enough to have Jessica Simpson to kiss his boo-boo, may have something else to say about it.
A proper analysis of Browns-Cowboys might have put the blame more squarely on Cleveland's defensive backfield, which certainly could have bought Rogers and Co. a little more time. If that doesn't happen this week the Browns have got their work cut out for them because they're facing a Pittsburgh line that is: a.) seemingly improved from '07, if their romping of Houston was any indication; and b.) comparable to Dallas's in size. Dallas's linemen average 324 pounds; Pittsburgh's run about 321, and they don't have the same reputation for wearing down late in games that Dallas's do. They also have a center, Justin Hartwig, who's played Rogers before. In 2004, Hartwig, then with the Titans, held Rogers to four tackles and zero sacks. Presumably he'll get plenty of help on double teams Sunday.
In short, no, Cleveland's defensive front is not that bad. Remember who they played in Week 1. But they will need to show more consistency and work much faster on Sunday. If they can bully Ben Roethlisberger (who's already sporting a sore shoulder) the way they did Romo for two series last week, then they stand a chance in this game.
2. Cleveland has to come out firing from the first kickoff -- or else. The Browns' sluggish start against Dallas continued a terrible trend from '07. In five of their seven losses last year Cleveland started out in holes of 24, 16, 20, 14 and 13 points. (They also started out down 14-0 to St. Louis but managed to come back from that one.) Same problem last Sunday: They spotted Dallas a score, evened it up, and then allowed 14 more unanswered points before half, which is when their defense appeared to begin trying. Cleveland won the second half 10-7, but 14 points is a tough handicap to overcome against anyone, let alone the Cowboys.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh is the type of team that knows when to step on an opponent's throat. There were only three occasions during all of last season in which Pittsburgh surrendered a lead of any kind. (At least one of those, a squandered 3-0 lead against the 16-0 Patriots, can be forgiven.) Then they opened '08 by dropping 21 unanswered on the Texans. When Houston finally managed a field goal, Pittsburgh drew a line at their opponents' 48-yard line and kept them from passing it on the next three possessions. Meanwhile, the offense laid on 14 more points while practicing smart ball-control offense, including seven straight runs to open the second half.
As a Browns fan, you have to wince at hearing that. On your sideline, you've got guys like Braylon "We have a lot of time to get better" Edwards and Jamal Lewis, who blamed the loss on a lack of playing time with his teammates in the preseason and even fessed up to not knowing a certain play that was called last Sunday. Seriously? In the NFL? Is this not the least professional thing we've heard so far this year? How about a little urgency, guys?
News flash, Cleveland: If you fall behind Pittsburgh early on, then 0-2 is a near-lock, and only three teams have come back from 0-2 to make the playoffs in the past five years.
...Of course, one of those was the '08 Super Bowl Giants, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
3. All of that said, Pittsburgh appears tailored to pick Cleveland apart. We've only seen one Steelers game in '08 but I took two things away from the opener: Roethlisberger is picking and choosing better than I've ever seen him do; and Willie Parker is suddenly a goal line back. Imagine that.
Roethlisberger averaged 10.5 yards per completion (down from a career 12.9) in dissecting Houston, and he only threw one incompletion. His longest pass went 29 yards and nothing else went more than 17. He took what the Texans gave him, thus limiting their sack opportunities at the same time.
A similar approach might be smart against Cleveland, whose exploitable corners tended to play far off the line of scrimmage against Dallas. If Roethlisberger keeps it short, Hines Ward will have plenty of chances to run after the catch and the Cleveland defensive line won't have enough time to work. Plus, long, time-consuming drives are exactly how you get big guys like Rogers and Corey Williams off the field. Rogers was a regular on the Cleveland sideline last week when Dallas had four drives of more than 10 plays.
When they do get inside the 20s, presumably Pittsburgh will look to Willie Parker, who was surprisingly effective in the red zone last week. Typically Pittsburgh defers to a power back in that area, but Fast Willie scored on runs of 4, 7 and 13 yards last week -- a stark contrast to '07 when he scored just twice. (I know a few fantasy owners who could tell you all about it.) That makes Pittsburgh 5-for-5 in the red zone in '08, and they were seventh in the NFL with 32 TDs on 55 possessions last year.
Cleveland, meanwhile, let Dallas score last week on three short runs, stood pat with a meaningless interception late, and watched Romo kneel out the clock on their 13. If Cleveland finds itself backed up against its own goal line this week, they'd be smart to get the plodding Rogers off the field in exchange for some faster personnel. All three of Parker's running scores last week were kicked to the outside.
4. Did I mention that Cleveland hasn't won this grudge match in four and a half years? Browns-Steelers hasn't always been this lopsided; in fact it's been one of the more intriguing rivalries in the NFL. Who remembers Joe "Turkey" Jones going absolutely WWE on Terry Bradshaw? Thirty years later, James Harrison returned the favor on a Browns fan. Ex-Steeler Joey Porter has his very own Browns rivalry file, having split running back William Green's lip in a '04 pre-game skirmish and having dropped some naughty words on Kellen Winslow in '06.
But it's still the stinkers that stand out. For example, each team has handed the other its all-time greatest defeat. Cleveland has had periods where they've won 16 of 18 and 11 of 12. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh has gone 12 of 14 before. And we're smack in the middle of one of those lopsided runs at the moment. The Steelers have currently won 19 of 22 by 251 points combined. Think Romeo Crennel's aware of all that?
Every week, we'll ask an NFL assistant with relevant game experience to provide an anonymous scouting report on our Game of the Week. Here's what one assistant from a 2007 Browns opponent had to say about game-planning quarterback Derek Anderson:
"Well, he's a year down the road, but when we played him, he was very good. He had gone in having only been sacked [a few] times, they did a good job protecting him, and he did a very good job with the short passing game. He had a good enough arm to get the seven-cuts and the daggers in there, that kind of thing. It appeared that he managed the team very well and played with a lot of poise. We thought he was very, very capable."
On whether there are any obvious areas where he can be exposed: "I don't think so other than that we couldn't get any pressure on him. I don't know how he is under heavy pressure. But they do a very good job of protecting him."
...And we still don't know how Anderson is under pressure. In '07 he was sacked just 14 times, which was a league low among starters, much credit being owed to rookie left tackle Joe Thomas. That line hasn't changed much so we can expect the mystery to continue: What happens when Anderson gets rattled?
The Cowboys didn't do much to find out last week. They only got to Anderson once -- and he had, statistically, one of the worst games of his career, no thanks to Edwards, who dropped two easy balls, including a beautiful pass that had touchdown written all over it.
The Steelers seemingly have as good a chance of anybody to test Anderson's mettle this week, having accumulated 11 sacks over their last three games. But that's where the poise our scout saw comes in. Expect Anderson to sweat it out in the pocket and air a few balls to Edwards, who's a relatively safe bet in any jump ball situation. Browns fans just have to hope he holds on to the ball this week. He lead the league with 12 dropped balls in '07 and he's already off to a poor start in '08.
The Browns' offense will set the pace. If Edwards and Kellen Winslow can combine for at least 12 catches, and if Jamal Lewis can get at least 25 carries, then the defense should be afforded some breathing room, which is key when Rogers anchors your line. Also, they'll need to avoid mistakes against an opportunistic Pittsburgh team that started, on average, at the Houston 45-yard line on scoring drives last week. If all of that happens, the Browns eke it out. If not, then the Steelers romp 30-13. I'd bet on the latter.