By Nick DeWitt,
Coming off a loss to the Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4) will look to rebound against another familiar foe, the Cleveland Browns (2-8). The Browns will be looking to play the role of spoiler against a team that has routinely beaten them over the last several years.
Here’s a look at 10 keys to a Pittsburgh victory on Sunday.
Protect Charlie Batch
The Steelers will have third-string quarterback Charlie Batch under center when they take on Cleveland this weekend. Batch has served as the savior before. Most recently, he was key to the 2010 team starting 3-1 while Ben Roethlisberger served a suspension.
Now, Batch will have to substitute in a game that, despite the record of the opponent, is crucial to this team’s chances of making the playoffs.
The Steelers must protect him. The hits that Byron Leftwich took last week would be more than enough to force any other quarterback (except probably Roethlisberger) off the field. Batch is old and is also injury-prone.
Newly-signed Brian Hoyer is talented, but he has had less than a week to prepare in this offensive scheme. Having to go to him would likely be a big problem.
Run the Ball
The Cleveland Browns are allowing just over 125 yards per game on the ground. That should indicate a good opportunity for the Steelers to get their four running backs some work. With Rashard Mendenhall now healthy, the Steelers should be able to run an effective rotation.
Pittsburgh needs to run the ball for a few reasons. It is facing a team that also likes to run the ball. Trent Richardson has been very effective so far, and the Steelers aren’t having the easiest time slowing down opposing runners.
The Browns defense has been decent for most of the year and will be facing a quarterback that does not possess a strong arm or a ton of mobility. Running will take the pressure off of Charlie Batch and force the Browns to leave some receivers open to cover the threat of the run.
Manage the Game
One of the biggest issues in last week’s loss was that Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin called a terrible game. He didn’t manage his timeouts well, left an obviously injured quarterback in the game despite a sharp decrease in effectiveness and seemed completely out-coached by Baltimore’s John Harbaugh.
Tomlin has never been good at managing the clock. His timeout usage for years has drawn scorn. Luckily, that is one of the very few holes in his ability as a head coach.
This week, in a game that will be close for so many reasons, managing the game is going to be a very, very important. One timeout lost or kept could be the difference if the game comes down to a final drive.
This is a key to any game, really. But after the debacle of last week, this is now on the front burner.
Another big problem last week was the ridiculous amount of silly mistakes by key players at key moments.
Mike Wallace fumbled away the ball on one drive, decided not to catch a ball that was within reach on another and dropped a sure catch on another.
Defenders missed tackles. Byron Leftwich alternated between throwing too far or too short to his receivers. Some of the short ones were after his arm was spent, but some came much earlier.
There was an interception that killed a promising second-half drive. The breakdowns on the offensive line that lead to sacks were costly too.
All of these things are preventable. The Browns have a good defense and a workable offense, but there’s no reason they should be able to gain a foothold against the Steelers. The only way Pittsburgh should lose this game is if it beats itself.
Last week, it did just that. A repeat would be disastrous.
Exploit the Rookie
A few weeks back, the Pittsburgh Steelers silenced the talented Robert Griffin III. Dick LeBeau is masterful when it comes to undoing rookie quarterbacks. They rarely have any success against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That trend needs to continue on Sunday against rookie passer Brandon Weeden. Weeden is no Griffin III, but he’s been steadily improving as the season has continued. This will be a huge test for him. He’ll be expected to beat Pittsburgh with a lack of talented receivers.
Facing the league’s top defensive unit will be no easy task. If Pittsburgh can make him look like a rookie and force some turnovers, it can make things much easier on an offense that is limping along injured.
Pressure the Passer
The Steelers last week didn’t do a bad job of getting Joe Flacco off-balance. They kept him from accomplishing much against their secondary. That was a group effort between the rushers and the defensive backs.
With a receiving corps that lacks much talent, the Steelers should focus entirely on getting to Brandon Weeden. The Cleveland offensive line doesn’t scare anyone, and it makes a lot of mistakes that lead to sacks.
LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison have to be excited to face this unit. If they can keep Weeden on the grass, the Browns will have no chance to win this game. If they can’t, then those receivers might just look a lot better than they are.
Follow the Trend
The Pittsburgh defense has gone seven quarters without allowing a touchdown. Granted, three of those came against the raging inferno that is the Kansas City offense. Still, the other four came against a Baltimore offense that has been lighting up defenses everywhere.
That trend should continue this weekend. The Browns are averaging less than 20 points per game this year. The Steelers defense can keep the trend moving that way and keep their offense in low-pressure situations.
The Steelers had trouble moving the ball against Baltimore and figure to have a little trouble against the Browns, so giving them good field position by planting the Browns when possible is going to be another essential ingredient.
Avoid More Injuries
With the starting quarterback, the backup quarterback, the starting right tackle, the starting right guard, the starting strong safety, one of the starting receivers and a slew of other players on the shelf or hurting, Pittsburgh can likely not afford another injury.
Losing another key player will sink this team. The Steelers have done a fine job of plugging the leaks and getting the next player in to perform at a high level, but they’ve reached a tipping point. Last week, things started to catch up to them.
With a not-so-simple schedule to close out the season, Pittsburgh must get healthy rather than dig its injury hole any deeper.
Don’t Look Ahead
It’s easy to look past a 2-8 team when an 8-2 team is waiting in the wings. That’s not an option, however. If the Steelers were fully healthy and facing a Browns team that was laying down and surrendering each week, it would still be dangerous.
But banged up and facing a team that can be described as scrappy and spirited, it would be lethal. The Browns would love nothing more than to spoil Pittsburgh’s playoff aspirations. A win against it here would put a serious dent in them.
Pittsburgh can’t worry about Baltimore. It can’t worry about the chances of Ben Roethlisberger’s early return next week.
Instead, it has to focus everything on beating the Browns. Accomplishing that is foremost at this time.
The Steelers have the habit of playing it way too close with bad teams. This is a terrible time to do that.
Key Player: Charlie Batch
As I said earlier, Charlie Batch has been the savior before. The Steelers need it one more time.
Every year, I say that it will likely be his last start or his last season. Every year, he proves me wrong. I can’t imagine the Steelers, who have gotten a very serious wake-up call about needing to get younger behind Ben Roethlisberger, being able to justify bringing Batch back again.
So this is it.
Batch is the key to this game really. The running game and defense will play their usual brand of football. How effective Batch can be will determine how effective those units can be to some extent. He doesn’t have to be great. He just has to play a mistake-free, efficient game.
That’s something he’s good at.