The Steelers are up against the wall to some point now playing their third string quarterback and sitting two games back of the Ravens with the season already in the second half. A win here is pretty important if they want to have a chance at the division and a loss would have them setting their priorities primarily on the wild card.
Bad Browns teams have beaten the Steelers before. Hopefully Sunday won’t be one of those days.
Let’s get this preview rolling.
Baltimore 13, Pittsburgh 10
Passing: Leftwich: 18-39, 201 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Dwyer: 12 car., 55 yards, 0 TD
Receiving: Sanders: 3 rec., 82 yards, 0 TD
Dallas 23, Cleveland 20 (OT)
Passing: Weeden: 20-35, 210 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Rushing: Richardson: 28 car., 95 yards, 1 TD
Receiving: Gordon: 5 rec., 53 yards, 0 TD
Offense (rank in NFL)
Pittsburgh: 349.8 yards/game (17th)
Cleveland: 311.9 yards/game (27th)
Pittsburgh: 243.0 yards/game (13th)
Cleveland: 219.7 yards/game (19th)
Pittsburgh: 106.8 yards/game (17th)
Cleveland: 92.2 yards/game (27th)
Pittsburgh: 21.7 points/game (19th)
Cleveland: 28.2 points/game (25th)
Pittsburgh: 259.1 yards/game (1st)
Cleveland: 374.1 yards/game (23rd)
Pittsburgh: 169.3 yards/game (1st)
Cleveland: 248.8 yards/game (22nd)
Pittsburgh: 89.8 yards/game (4th)
Cleveland: 125.3 yards/game (24th)
Pittsburgh: 19.0 points/game (5th)
Cleveland: 23.4 points/game (18th)
All-Time Record vs. Cleveland: 62-56-0 (2-0 Playoffs)
Last Five Meetings
January 1, 2012 – Pittsburgh 13, Cleveland 9
December 8, 2011 – Pittsburgh 14, Cleveland 3
January 2, 2011 – Pittsbrugh 41, Cleveland 9
October 17, 2010 – Pittsburgh 28, Cleveland 10
December 10, 2009 – Cleveland 13, Pittsburgh 6
Hit the jump for the rest of the preview
The history of the Cleveland Browns quarterbacks have been somewhat of a hodgepodge of mediocrity and just flat terrible QB play. Since the 1999 season here are the leading passes for the Browns: Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derrek Andering, Brady Quinn, Colt McCoy and Brandon Weeden. Yikes.
That is a group of really, really, bad quarterbacks and subsequently the Browns have only had two season with nine wins or more. Just not good. Weeden was the last guy that I talked about there and he is the latest in that lineage after he was a first round pick of the Browns this season. The weird thing about Weeden is that is he is old. Like, real old. He is 29 years old and a rookie and while that is old for a NFL quarterback Weeden’s trip to the NFL was a little different. Before he was a college quarterback for Oklahoma State he was in the New York Yankees professional organization so that really put a halt on his football career until he messed him arm up and then switched to football.
Weeden really hasn’t been all that good this year as you might expect with a rookie quarterback and there have been a ton of highs and lows, with more lows than highs. So far this season he is completing only 55% of his passes for 2,298 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has also thrown 12 interceptions so when I talk about not being overly great all you need to do is look at the low completion percentage and the fact that he has thrown more picks than touchdowns.
The raw numbers can say one thing and then you get into the advanced metric which usually can dig down a little deeper into a player’s worth to a team and when looking at those numbers on Weeden it just really reaffirms the raw numbers. He has a defensive-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR) number of -283 which gives the value of the players performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage. That puts him near the bottom of qualified quarterbacks at 32nd of 35. He also has a defensive-adjusted value over average (DVOA) of -22.4% which represents value, per play, over an average quarterback in the same game situations. The more positive the DVOA rating, the better the player's performance. Negative DVOA represents below-average offense. The simple version of the two is that DYAR represents a player with more total value and DVOA represents a player with more value per play. Weeden ranks 30th in terms of DVOA. All in all things were not really going that well for Weeden as he also ranks 33rd with a 21.8 QBR which was created by ESPN to measure a quarterbacks play on a scale of 100 where 50 is average.
Weeden has never thrown for more than two touchdowns in a game and he has done that five times this season and he is coming off one of his best games of the season against the Cowboys as he went 20-of-35 for 210 yards and two touchdowns with no picks. While his yard per attempt average of 6.0 in the game wasn’t the greatest the biggest thing for Weeden to focus on is to take care of the football and not turn it over. Weeden only has gone four games without throwing a pick but three of those four have come in the last four games.
There really isn’t much else to go off of since Weeden is so new to the league but he has really gone up and down this season. While he hasn’t threw a pick in three of the last four games but he hasn’t been great in any of those games. He has had a YPA under five in two of those games and only went over 200 yards passing in two of those games. Really just comes down to Weeden not being a guy that can beat you by himself with his arm so that should be something the Steelers take note of and make him beat them.
While the Browns aren’t a very good team at throwing the football they really aren’t that great at running the football either. While they have what looks like a stud running back in Trent Richardson they rank very low in the league in both the raw numbers and the advanced numbers. Cleveland ranks 29th in the league in rush offense with a DVOA of -18.7% that is actually worse than its passing offense.
The focal point of the running game is first round pick from Alabama. Richardson was a top-5 pick for the Browns and to be quite honest I thought that was a pretty big risk for the Browns to take. In today’s NFL it is all about throwing the football and pushing it down the field. While the running game is still important in the NFL the running back position is the most volatile in the league where you can be out of the league with one busted up knee. It has also become more and more apparent that you can find guys off the scrap heap and from small college programs in late round so for the Browns to take a back that high was a real gamble in my opinion.
So far this season Richardson has carried the ball 180 times for 670 yards and five touchdowns. He is only carrying the ball for a 3.7 yard per carry average and he has only two carries, all season, of 20 yards or more.
Richardson actually ranks out as one of the worst backs in the league by Football Outsiders as he posts a -65 DYAR and a -17.5% DVOA which both rank 27th or worse in the league. Richardson also ranks 27th in the league with a 42% success rate which represents a players consistency by taking into account successful running plays (determined by down and distance) divided by running plays. The low success rate mixed with a very low DVOA tells you that while Richardson has been productive he really hasn’t been too valuable on the field plus the fact that he is getting his yards on a lot of carries and hasn’t shown the ability to break a big play from time to time.
While that went into bashing Richardson to some extent he has been much better over the last four weeks after a pretty slow start to his career. In his first seven games with the Browns, Richardson only had a single 100 yard performance and that came in the second game of the season over the Bengals. After that game against Cincinnati he gained over 50 yards in one of the next five games which was low lighted by an eight carry, eight yard performance against the Colts. Since then Richardson has been worlds better. He went for 122 yards on 24 carries against the Chargers before going for 105 yards on 25 carries against the Ravens. He didn’t get to the century mark against the Cowboys last week but went for 95 yards on 28 carries. Over the last three weeks he has 77 carries for 322 yards and a touchdown. Things are going much better.
While Richardson has been getting a ton of carries, especially recently, he has also been a factor out of the backfield. He has six catches for 49 yards last week and has at least four catches in six games this season and while he isn’t going to break any of those for big gainers he is another viable option for Weeden in the passing game.
The Browns really have little else in terms of running backs. Montario Hardesty is the second leading rusher on the team but only has 29 carries for 110 yards and really has done nothing of note on the season. Fact is that if you stop Richardson you really make this a game where Weeden has to beat you and if that is the case I really like the Steelers chances.
The Browns don’t really have a lot at the receiver position but they have some interesting pieces that are basically just athletes that run routes for Weeden. Josh Gordon leads the pack with only 24 catches for 470 yards and four touchdowns and caught eight passes of 20 yards or more. Gordon’s 19.6 yard per catch average is third in the league right now but the rest of the stats really don’t look all that impressive as he has many fewer catches than others around him in the YPC catch and is only one of two players in the top-10 of YPC players with less than double digit catches of 20 cards or more.
Gordon ranks 65th among qualified receivers with a +2 DYAR and he ranks 62nd in the league with a -8.1% DVOA, which shows that is pretty below average in most aspects as I talked about above. Gordon also has a very low catch rate of 47% which is the percentage of passes that to the receiver that are completed. He is among the team-leaders in targets with 51 but most of those passes are coming up as incompletions which certainly isn’t going to help long term.
Greg Little also tries to catch passes for the Browns but really he is just a complimentary piece that is looked to produce more numbers that he probably should. Little has 30 catches for 354 yards and a pair of touchdowns and also has six catches of 20 yards or more. Little is pretty well known, to me at least, for not being able to hold on to the football but his catch rate (55%) is significantly higher than Gordon’s but the difference is that Little isn’t a guy who can pop the top off the coverage. Hr ranks 77th with a DYAR of -59 and a DVOA of -24.6% that ranks 76th of the 81 qualified receivers. Yikes.
Overall there is production from those two guys but it is just medium production. Little is going to average around 40-50 yards and four or five catches in a game as his season-high is a 77 yard performance against the Ravens and in three of the last four weeks he has caught for at least 50 yards, but no more than 53. Gordon is really in the same space as his top game is a 99 yard performance against the Bengals but he’s only gone over 60 yards in a game twice on the season. The past four weeks he has two 50 yard performances and before last week he didn’t play in a game where he had more than three catches.
There really isn’t much that the Browns get from the tight end position but they do have two of them that they use in Jordan Cameron and veteran Ben Watson. Watson has 25 catches for 229 yards and three scores while Cameron only has 12 catches for 140 yards. Watson is the guy that most people are familiar with Cleveland. Watson really hasn’t done much as he is 37th in DVOA among qualified tight ends (47 of them) with a -21.2% mark while he ranks 44th with a -49 DYAR. Watson had a pretty productive day against the Cowboys last week with four catches (eight targets) for 47 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Watson’s season high in both catches and yards came against the Ravens when he made five catches for 52 yards.
Overall a huge problems with the Browns are dropping passes. Weeden ranks second in the league with 32 dropped passes which is only one less than league-leader Matt Stafford.
From left to right on the Browns offensive line they read Joe Thomas, John Greco, Alex Mack, Shawn Lauvao and Mitchell Schwartz. Thomas and Mack are the staples of this offensive line that is actually better than one might think of when they think of the Cleveland Browns. Thomas is a six year pro from Wisconsin and is easily the best of the bunch. Mack is in his fourth year and as some in the division has said he might be the best center in the division. Otherwise it is a very young offensive line with Schwartz playing in his rookie season and Lauvao and Greco having three and five years, respectively.
When rushing the football the Browns rank 20th in the league with an adjusted line yards (ALY) of 3.92.
ALY takes 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. Finally, we normalize the numbers so that the league average for Adjusted Line Yards per carry is the same as the league average for RB yards per carry.
That ALY number is better than their running back yard per carry average that is 3.61. The Browns don’t do a very good job for their running backs in short yardage situations as they rank 29th in the league with a power success rate of 47%. Power success is 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. While there is a distinction of how much responsibility running numbers are for the offensive line and for the running backs but really when you look at short yardage situations your line has to be able to get you that one or two yards and yardage after that is more on the running back, in my opinion.
Cleveland, however, does a much better job in not getting its running back stuffed at the line of scrimmage. A nice stat that Football Outsiders use is what is called stuffed ranked where the Browns rank 12th in the league at 19%. Stuffed rank is the percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. As I talked about in the paragraph above a lot of the offensive line’s job is to keep the quarterback clean and give the backs a chance to make a play. For the most part the Browns line is getting the rusher back to the line of scrimmage but it is a little curious how they are ranked as a fringe top-11 in stuffed percentage and then they are ranked so low in power success.
The Browns actually do a pretty decent job running to most spots on the offensive line. They rank top-10 in the league in three different spots of the line so it isn’t as if the running game is dead in the water everywhere. When the Browns run off the right end they are gaining a pretty ridiculous 5.24 ALY which is third best in the league. They ranks 10th in the league running off the left end with a 4.40 ALY and rank 11th off the right tackle with a 4.42 ALY. While they are wildly successful off the edges it isn’t a place where they try to run the ball a whole lot. Of the 217 running back carries this season they run off the left end 5% of the time and off the right end only 4% of the time. Where they really pound the rock is up the middle/off the guards where they run 59% of their carries. That is a pretty common place to run the football for most teams but the Browns have had very little success running the ball up the middle with a 3.96 ALY average that ranks 20th in the league.
Where the offensive line is pretty good is protecting the quarterback. They rank fourth in the league with an adjusted sack rate of 4.5% which gives sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent. Teams have only sacked Weeden 16 times this season so the Steelers are going to have a tough time getting pressure which is something that they haven’t done well this season.
Over the past couple of years the Browns defense has been a little underrated. Now, I am not going to sit here and say that their defense has been good but I don’t really think they have got a ton of credit for their improvement and really keeping them in some games thanks to their terrible offense. In 2009 the Browns had the 30th ranked defense according DVOA at 16.4% but improved to 18th in 2010 (1.7% DVOA) and 22nd last season (4.2%). I know those aren’t top-10 or top-15 defense but for the lack of talent that they really have had and the stress that the offense has put on them to keep games very low scoring. While they haven’t been a great defense they have been better than you probably thought.
This season Cleveland is right around where they were last season as they rank 22nd on the defensive side of the ball with a 5.6% DVOA. They are pretty much the same against the pass (18th) and against the run (22nd) so there really isn’t too much of a discrepancy where the Steelers can really attack. Cleveland is a little below average in both but they play teams tough which is all you can ask for when your franchise is in the state that the Browns is in.
Cleveland doesn’t do a particularly good job in the passing game against opposing receivers. Number one receivers are having some pretty good success against the secondary with 75 receiving yards a game and a 16.0% DVOA which is only 23rd in the league against top receivers. They fair a decent bit better against number two receivers as they hold them to a -7.0% DVOA and only 60 yards on an average of eight pass attempts a game. They also put the clamps down on tight ends and are sixth-best in the league against opposing tight ends with a -16.5% DVOA so while Heath Miller has had a pretty outstanding season so far he is going to have his work cut out for him against the Browns. Where I think the Steelers need to attack the Browns is with running backs out of the backfield. With Chuck Batch tossing the football around the Steelers are going to want to get the ball out quick and keep him clean and there might not be a better way to do that than to start with some screens and passing to the backs out of the backfield to slow the pass rush down. Cleveland ranks 27th in the league against backs out of the backfield with a 16.7% DVOA so I would not be shocked at all to see the offense go that route early. The Browns have done a decent job of getting after the quarterback with an adjusted sack rate of 6.8% that includes 27 sacks and ranks 12th in the league in ASR.
The Browns haven’t been all that good against the run as they have given up a 4.42 average yard per carry to opposing running back and have given up an almost equal 4.38 adjusted line yards to those opponents. The defensive line hasn’t been that good at the point of contact as they have a power success rate of 77% which ranks 29th in the league and rank 30th in the league with a stuffed percentage of 14%. The Steelers have been doing a nice job of winning the battle up front on the defensive lines and picking up close first down plays. With Batch in at the helm this week I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Steelers go to the run a little bit more than they did when Byron Leftwich was tossing the ball around.
The Browns are giving up big runs on the interior which really sets up a good opportunity for the Steelers to get the ball rolling. When opponents run to the offensive right tackle they are gaining an average of 5.29 ALY which is dead last in the league as the league average running to that spot is only a 4.05 ALY. When teams run up the middle or off the guards they are gaining a 4.25 ALY which is also above league average that ranks 22nd in the league. They rank 20th in the league on runs to the offensive left tackle with a 4.29 ALY so the opportunity will be there for the run game.
D’Qwell Jackson leads the defense as he is having a pretty solid all-around season with a team-best 75 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions. The Browns have four players with three sacks or more and 14 players that have combined for their 27 sacks. While they don’t have one guy that can get to the passer on a consistent basis they are relying on a sort of “sack by committee” crew. Jabaal Sheard, Juqua Parker and Frostee Rucker each also have three sacks to lead the charge with Jackson.
Joe Haden might be one of the more underrated defensive backs in the league but he has been plagued with injuries and also served a four game suspension earlier this season. Haden missed last week’s game with an oblique injury and is listed as questionable this week although he probably will play. Haden has a pair of interceptions on the season as does Jackson, Craig Robertson and Usama Young.
-Another game and another backup quarterback for the Steelers. With Leftwich out for a while with some broken ribs it will turn to Batch and thus playing the number three quarterback for what seems like a yearly occurrence. Batch seems like he will never leave the NFL as he has appeared in just a handful of games for the Steelers over the last four years and has only recorded a 2-1 record over the last four seasons. He hasn’t got much playing time but he is the kind of guy that Pittsburgh fans love. I don’t think he is going to go out of his way to win ballgames himself but if the Steelers can keep the rush off his back I think he can do just enough to get the job done. He isn’t going to be slinging the ball down the field like Leftwich can but I believe that he is way more than capable to make the right reads and get the ball where it is supposed to do.
-The Steelers really have dominated the Browns for much of the recent history. Since 2000 the Steelers are 22-3 against the Browns and really it hasn’t been much of a challenge for the Steelers. With the Steelers losing to the Ravens last week they are now two games back and they are really counting on getting two wins against the Browns this season. Winning on the road in Cleveland will go a long way in telling us if the Steelers are still going to have a chance for the division or if they are just going to roll over. Hopefully they can continue the winning trend.
-The injury bug still continues to give the Steelers fits. Along with Leftwich not being available wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery will join fellow receiver Antonio Brown on the sidelines with a pair of busted up ribs. That injury forced the Steelers to sign veteran, and former Steeler, Plaxico Burress to help fill the void. It will be interesting to see what Plax has left but it is much better than some of the other options that he Steelers could have turned to. Burress is now 35 years old and really hasn’t had too much action since the 2008 season thanks to shooting himself in the leg and going to jail. He came back in 2011 with the Jets and caught 45 passes for 612 yards and eight touchdowns playing in all 16 games. I don’t expect him to come out and score a bunch of touchdowns and do what he did for the Giants in his time there but he will give Batch a taller target to look at in the red zone and someone that has been there and done that. It will be really interesting to see how much playing time he gets since he hasn’t been a Steeler since 2004 but if he can grasp most of the offense we should see him a good bit, especially in the end zone.
-The key is stopping the Browns running game. That is about it on the defensive side of the ball. If you make Weeden beat you I don’t think he is going to be able to do it. They don’t have the playmakers on the outside and Weeden is still a rookie and has made some mistakes. The Browns offense runs through Richardson and if the Steelers can limit him then they are probably going to win the football game.
-Just like I talk about in every game when the Steelers play against a team that they should beat is that they don’t want to give them a chance to win the football game by turning the football over and playing bad defense. If the Browns are going to win this game they are most likely going to get a big play from the special teams unit and just like last week if the Steelers are going to give up a special teams touchdown they are probably going to have a chance to lose. According to Football Outsiders the Browns have the sixth best specials teams unity with a DVOA of 4.9%. Cleveland is dangerously good at kicking field goals with kicker Phil Dawson knocking down all 19 of his chances including all five tries from 50 or more yards. In the punt return game the Browns have the third-best team return average of 14.2 yards per return and typically do a nice job of setting up the return with only three fair catches on the season to give their return men a good chance to make a play.
PREDICTION – I just can’t see the Browns doing enough to win this football game. It is going to be much harder for the Steelers to win with the third string quarterback in the game but the offensive line has been doing a pretty nice job and the Steelers defense has really been playing some outstanding football lately. It is going to be a low scoring game but I think the Steelers gets back on the winning track. Steelers 16, Brown 10.