Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Steelers Game Day 13 - vs. Cleveland Browns

Well, it feels like the Steelers just played like 20 minutes ago doesn't it? You know Thursday night games are really weird for me. I like them because it is a pretty quick turnaround for the Steelers and we get to watch them right away but knowing that you don't have a game to watch on Sunday really sucks. I probably would rather not have a Thursday night game but the powers seem to like choosing horrible match ups for the prime time contests so I guess this one was as good as any other.

The Steelers and Browns are considered rivals but they are really none of the sorts.  The overall series record of these two teams is somewhat close but the last 10 years has been nothing short of total dominance by the Steelers to the tune of 19 wins in the last 21 meetings.

The Browns are in a bad situation with injuries as Peyton Hillis and Colt McCoy are both missing practice time with various injuries and Hillis has been on the shelf for much of the season. They actually have been getting a little better this season as a 4-8 record is not horrible for the level of talent they have but when you have three of your other division peers in the playoff race has to weigh heavy on that organization.

I want to just sit here and say that the Steelers are going to blow the Browns out of the water but to be honest I can see this being a closer game than that. This is a division game and even last week they played the Ravens pretty tough through three quarters before the Ravens blew the game open. I think the Steelers can handle the Browns but you never know with division games. These teams see each other so much that they know what to expect so nothign will shock me sans a Steelers loss. I just don't see that happening.

Let's get to the preview with a look at the statistics.

Last Week:

Pittsburgh 35, Cincinnati 7
Passing: Roethlisberger - 15/23, 176 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Rushing: Mendenhall - 16 carries, 60 yards, 2 TD
Receiving: Brown - 2 rec, 67 yards, 0 TD

Baltimore 24, Cleveland 10
Passing: McCoy - 17/35, 192 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Hillis - 12 carries, 45 yards, 0 TD
Receiving: Hillis - 1 rec, 52 yards, 0 TD

All-Time Record vs. Cleveland: 62-56 (2-0 Playoffs)

Last Five Meetings

Jan. 2, 2011 - Pittsburgh 41, Cleveland 9
Oct. 17, 2010 - Pittsburgh 28, Cleveland 10
Dec. 10, 2009 - Cleveland 13, Pittsburgh 6
Oct. 18, 2009 - Pittsburgh 27, Cleveland 14
Dec. 28, 2008 - Pittsburgh 31, Cleveland 0

Team Stats

Offense (rank in NFL)

Total Offense
Pittsburgh: 367.9 yards/game (11th)
Cleveland: 290.7 yards/game (30th)

Pittsburgh: 256.1 yards/game (9th)
Cleveland: 197.0 yards/game (24th)

Pittsburgh: 111.8 yards/game (17th)
Cleveland: 93.7 yards/game (30th)

Pittsburgh: 22.3 points/game (18th)
Cleveland: 14.6 points/game (28th)


Total Defense
Pittsburgh: 273.8 yards/game (1st)
Cleveland: 324.6 yards/game (8th)

Pittsburgh: 176.8 yards/game (2nd)
Cleveland: 173.3 yards/game (1st)

Pittsburgh: 96.9 yards/game (7th)
Cleveland: 151.3 yards/game (31st)

Pittsburgh: 16.3 points/game (4th)
Cleveland: 20.0 points/game (8th)

Hit the jump for a closer look at the Cleveland Browns


Colt McCoy runs the offense for the Cleveland Browns and so far this season has been pretty underwhelming although he doesn’t have a lot to work with on the field. McCoy has tossed for 2,524 yards this season which is good for 17th in the league and is a handful of yards less than Andy Dalton has thrown for.

While McCoy is about average among signal callers in yards he is pretty below average in two other categories which are completion percentage and yards per attempt. McCoy is only completing 57.7% of his passes, good for 23rd in the league for a miniscule 5.90 yards per attempt which is only better than Blaine Gabbert among qualified quarterbacks. You know what that means, a lot of check downs and a lot of throwing to the backs out of the backfield.

McCoy has only thrown for over 250 or more yards one time this year in a 31-13 loss to the Titans where he threw the ball 61 (!) times and he ended up with 350 passing yards but only a 5.74 yard per attempt average. He has been all over the place but you are going to get about 20 completions and maybe 200 yards. The last two games, against the Ravens and Bengals, he has combined to only completed 48% of his passes and thrown for a combined 343 yards so we can see how maybe the division teams have a little clearer look on McCoy and might be more apt to getting to him. In the first meeting against Cincinnati he went 19-of-40 for 213 yards. He did throw five touchdown passes in those three games but it was not pretty.

McCoy should be no stranger to the Steelers as he started both games against the Steelers last season and he didn’t fair that well. He lost both games and only completed 58% of his passes for a combined 490 yards, 2 touchdowns and five interceptions. McCoy never really could get comfortable in the pocket as he was sacked 10 times last year in two games against the Black and Gold. As a team this year the Browns have given up 30 sacks, 29 of those with McCoy in the game, so I think the Steelers will be able to get after him a little bit and make him uncomfortable.

McCoy comes into the game ranked 24th in the league with a 157 DYAR which is Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. This gives the value of the players performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage. McCoy actually ranks out worse with a -6.0% DVOA which is good for 28th in the league out of 41 qualifying quarterbacks. DVOA , or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average is a number which represents value, per play, over an average quarterback in the same game situations.

The simple version of the advanced stats of DYAR and DVOA is that DYAR will give you the number that gives you the player with the total value while DVOA qualifies the player that gives you more value per play. You can use this as a reference as I will refer to both players as we go in the preview. Either way McCoy has struggled and hasn’t given the Browns a whole lot this year.

Running Back

At running back the Browns are as big of an unknown as there is. After a wildly successful season in 2010 Peyton Hillis earned the Madden cover and then proceeded to get hurt this year for a number of different reasons and has missed a ton of time. Even though Hillis has totted the ball 91 times he still leads the team with 321 yards although he sports a pedestrian 3.5 yard per carry average. He has scored two of the Browns three rushing touchdowns this year.

Hillis has only participated in six games this season and only two in the past [almost] two months and has yet to break the 100 yard mark with his season high being 94 yards on 27 carries against the Colts in the second week of the season. He also scored his only two touchdowns of the season on that day. In the last two games, which were both against division opponents, he ran for 65 yards on 19 carries against the Bengals and 45 yards on 12 carries against the Ravens in a loss.

Hillis hasn’t had much success against the Steelers in his career as he only has 18 attempts for 54 yards in two games against them. He also has seven catches for 52 yards against the Steelers which is something they will have to look for. This year he has 18 catches for 124 yards and he actually led the team in receiving yards last week, albeit on one catch, with 52 yards. In the first three games of the season he had six, four and five catches, respectively, so he can catch the ball.

Outside of Hillis, and maybe even including him, the Browns just aren’t good at running the football. They are among the worst in the league with a 3.6 yard per carry average as a team and they only have four rushes, all season, of 20 yards or more and three total touchdowns. Just not good. Chris Ogbonnaya has been productive for them with 71 carries for 303 yards and a touchdown. He also holds two runs of 20 or more yards while having a team-best average of 4.3 yards per carry.

Montario Hardesty is also in the backfield and has 244 yards on 75 attempts so that isn’t too scary. While I was driving back home from Pittsburgh I drive through Cleveland and listened to their pregame show a few weeks ago and they are pretty high on Hardesty. Hardesty is a second year player out of Tennessee but has been battling a calf injury which is why he didn’t even get a touch against the Ravens. In his rookie season he was put on the IR with an ACL tear so this is the first real look they are getting of him. He carried the ball 33 times for 95 yards in a win over Seattle but hasn’t been used a great deal, especially since Hillis is back.


When you talk about Colt McCoy not being very consistent from the receiver position this year you can really attribute that to the weapons he has to work with at the receiver position. When your top option is Greg Little and your second best option is Ben Watson then you are hurting a little bit for big play guys.

Little is the top pass catcher with 50 receptions for 513 yards and a touchdown. He also is second on the team with four catches of 20 yards or more and has 28 of his 50 catches converted as first downs. Not a particularly good percentage there. Little doesn’t have a 100 yard game and only has three games of 50 yards or more. He was pretty much shut out of the Ravens game with only three catches for 18 yards.

The other receivers that the Browns employ consist of a name that has killed the Steelers in the past. That person is stil known as Josh Cribbs. Cribbs is an electric punt and kick returner but has never really flourished into a receiver like Browns fans might have liked him to. This year he is the team’s third leading receiver in terms of yards and receptions with 358 and 29, respectively, while scoring a team-high four touchdowns. He also leads the team with six catches of 20 yards or more so he is a guy that can stretch the field and use his speed for more than just the special teams aspect of the game. I wouldn’t get too worried about him as he only has two games with more than five catches and has yet to turn in a game with more than 60 yards of receiving.

Ben Watson is the pass catching tight end for the Browns and he is also the Browns second leading receiver. Woof. He has 35 catches for 399 yardes and two touchdowns including three catches of 20 yards or more. Watson had three catches for 34 yards in the Browns last game against the Ravens but only combined for four catches and 32 yards in the previous two games before that. Watson hasn’t been very productive this year as he ranks 37th in the league with a -9 DYAR and also 37th with a -9.2% DVOA. Watson’s catch rate is only at 51% so needless to say I am not worried about him. This is your second leading receiver for the Browns. Again, woof.

Offensive Line

From left to right the Browns line goes Joe Thomas, Jason Pinkston, Alex Mack, Shawn Lauvao and Tony Pashos. For those of you that haven’t watched football, ever, Joe Thomas is far and away the best player on this line and might be the best left tackle in the NFL. He is in his fifth year and stands 6-6 320 pounds and is one of the best at his craft and has been since coming out of Wisconsin. Alex Mack will be one of other well know names on the Browns line as he was taken by the Browns three years ago and is pretty good in his own right. Jason Pinkston might sound familiar to some Pittsburgh folks as he was with the Pitt Panthers last season and now is starting on the left side for the Browns.

Overall Cleveland is not very good on the line as a whole even with Thomas and Mack. They rank 22nd in the league with a 3.95 adjusted line yard (ALY). ALY is graded where all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on the following percentages: Losses: 120% value; 0-4 Yards: 100% value; 5-10 Yards: 50% value;11+ Yards: 0% value. These numbers are then adjusted based on down, distance, situation, opponent, and the difference in rushing average between shotgun compared to standard formations.

Cleveland also isn’t very successful on power running as they have only a 58% power success rate which ranks 23rd in the league. This represents the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer. The Browns have not been overly successful in the run game this season and also struggling in short yardage is not going to help Colt McCoy in the passing game.

The Browns do rank tops in the league in stuffed percentage which Percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. As I said they are tops in the league at 16% which is intriguing because while they are good at keeping their running backs from getting caught in the backfield they are not good at picking up the short yardage necessary needed to pick up first downs and touchdowns. Interesting.


The Browns defense is easily the best part of this team and statistically they are having a pretty nice season. They lead the league in pass defense and aren’t giving up a gastly amount of total yardage either. Where the Browns do struggle is stopping the run. They are near the bottom of the league giving up over 150 yards per game on the ground which isn’t very good.

In terms of advanced stats Cleveland is 21st in the league with a 9.0% DVOA which is not good since you want to be negative on the defensive end. While the Browns are tops in the league against the pass in terms of numbers they don’t really grade out all too well with only a 7.9% DVOA which is good for 14th in the league. With the success against the Browns on the ground this isn’t too surprising as team’s don’t throw a lot. Teams only throw on average 28 times a game on their secondary which is the second fewest in the league. That would make up for the difference as you are not going to get as many yards if don’t throw as many passes. On run defense the Browns are as bad as advertised ranking 30th in the league with a 9.8% DVOA.

D’Qwell Jackson is the team’s leading tackler with 112 on the season with 84 of those being solo from the linebacker. He is coming off one of his best games of the season making 12 tackles against the Ravens and six games this season where he had double-digit tackles and five other games with eight or more tackles. He does have 2.5 sacks on the season but that is not his forte as two of those sacks came in a week one loss to Cincinnati.

The Browns are a little below average in terms of getting after the quarterback as they have 23 sacks on the season and are led by former Pitt standout Jabaal Sheard. Sheard has 5.5 sacks so far this season and 44 tackles from the defensive end position so he is someone that the Steelers are going to have to account for and he will largely be going against rookie Marcus Gilbert. Sheard is on a three game sack streak as he has one each in his last three games and has forced a team-high five fumbles on the season.

Phillip Taylor is the other threat to get to Ben Roethlisberger with four sacks while also having 48 tackles on the season. The defensive tackle is fifth on the team in tackles and he is a massive human being. He only stands at 6’3 but is 335 pounds and is only 23 years old. Good Lord.

The backend for the Browns defense is led by stud corner Joe Haden. Not only is Haden sixth leading tackler on the team but he is one of the best corners in the league. Last year he gave the Steelers receivers fits and sometimes I think it gets lost in the shuffle how good he is since he plays for a pretty bad team. Haden has 17 passes defended this year buy hasn’t picked off a pass yet after picking off six passes in his rookie season. I am sure he will say hello to Mike Wallace on Thursday night.

Sheldon Brown, Mike Adams and T.J. Ward also make up the rest of the secondary. Ward is battling a foot problem and has not practiced all week so it will be interesting to see if he can give it a go on Thursday night.


-It will be interesting to see how the Steelers come out and perform on a short week. While I think the notion that this team is too old and slow is overblown you can not discount the fact that the Steelers do have some players, especially on defense, who are a little long in the tooth. It takes those players a little longer to recoup from a game and this is a really short week for them to come off of in order to try and get a win. If the rest wasn’t a problem for that reason then it is not going to help in terms of injuries. It is no secret that the Steelers are banged up and this gives them little or no time to heal up. I mean it is what it is and a lot of other teams have this problem but it is just something to keep in mind. Granted the Steelers will then get the extended long week since they play on Monday night against a top notch team so in that aspect I think it works out better.

-I know I talked about how bad the Browns were against the run but it would not surprise me if the Steelers were held in check in this aspect. I think we all know how this works, all week we talk about how bad one aspect of a opponent is and how successful we were at it the week before (130+ yards rushing last week) and we go into the game and get stoned. It wouldn’t be the first time this happened and the Steelers running game aren’t exactly the top of the heap of NFL run offense. The passing game is the way this team is winning and the best player on the team is the quarterback. Bruce Arians is a former Browns coach and Ben still holds it against the Browns that they passed him up in the draft. Don’t be shocked if the Steelers don’t come out and rush for 200 yards. Last week Ray Rice went off for over 200 yards so it is my thought that the Browns will make it a point to stop the run this week.

-The Steelers are starting to hit its stride on the defense in terms of getting to the quarterback and creating turnovers and this would be a nice week to get after Colt McCoy and the sputtering Browns offense. McCoy was banged up in the loss to Baltimore and actually had backup Seneca Wallace come out and run the show for a little bit. McCoy did not fully participate in practice on Monday but was a full participant on Tuesday so there isn’t much debate that he will play but he is less than 100% and a few shots from James Harrison might lend itself to another Seneca Wallace appearance.

-The Steelers actually have a chance to clinch a playoff spot this week. Granted this isn’t a win and in scenario but in week 14 of the season I still think that is some accomplishment for a team that was too old and slow to play in the NFL and the same team that got smoked in week one and didn’t look like they could beat a .500 or better team. With a win and some help they can stamp a ticket to the post season. The help they would need is as follows: losses by Cincinnati, the New York Jets and Tennessee OR losses by Cincinnati, the New York Jets, Denver and Oakland OR losses by Cincinnati, Tennessee, Denver and Oakland. Probably unlikely any of these happen but cool nonetheless.

-So far this season the Steelers have been pretty good in the special teams aspect. I am not just saying this because they took a punt back to the house last week but because the coverage units have done a pretty nice job all year. The Steelers rank 9th in the NFL holding opponents to only 8.2 yards per return and has only given up a long of 20 this year. Pretty impressive. In terms of kick return they don’t really match up very well ranking 22nd in the league at 25.1 yards per kick return but has given up a long of only 45 yards. With Josh Cribbs on the other side of the field it will be interesting to see how Al Everest game plans to kick it to Cribbs. I would expect that they will directional kick on the kickoffs and put as many punts out of bounds. Hopefully they don’t have to punt. Just saying.

-There really isn’t much to add here. This is a tale of two teams going in different directions. The Steelers are 9-3 and the Browns are 4-8 and sitting at the bottom of the AFC North where every other team is playing for a playoff spot. The Steelers are 19-2 aginast the Browns since 2001. Sure the Steelers lost to the Browns in 2009 but that Steelers team was in a bad way and even though they were fighting for a playoff spot they were in the midst of a five game losing streak to some terrible teams. The other loss to Cleveland was in 2003. I think they should be alright on Thursday night barring they don’t turn the ball over an amazing amount of times. McCoy can’t get the ball down the field and the Browns can’t run the ball very well with a banged up Hillis. I would take my chances on the Steelers here.

PREDICTION: Like I said the Browns are bad and the Steelers are going to be able to take care of this. I think they realize they need to win out to have a chance to play at home for the playoffs so they will be focused unlike in 2009. Steelers 27, Browns 10.

Hit it.

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