Steelers Week 10 Opponent Preview: The Browns are in the House
I think it is fair to say the mood in Steeler Nation is much more subdued. There’s hope for Ben to return to his old self, but fear that it might take too long to save this season, which started with such promise.
And right on cue, The Death Dealers of Doom, aka the Oakland Raiders, are flying out to Pittsburgh. Filled with playoff hopes, uncharacteristic for this late in the season in recent years, sporting a winning record, stocked with playmakers signed from the 49ers and the Seahawks and gleaned from their draft picks, they fly into the City of Champions with the determination to continue their march to a wild card berth. And, like the Steelers, it’s probably a wild card or nothing, as their division is headed by the undefeated Broncos. Will they further damage our beleaguered quarterback and crush our hopes in the process?
Well, they did. Or they tried, anyhow. Another week, another potentially catastrophic injury. This time the Steelers managed to make it all the way into the fourth quarter before the most crucial player on the team left on the cart. And so the Steelers will face the Cleveland Browns next Sunday without Ben Roethlisberger.
Admittedly, this Browns team is nothing to write home about. They have had injuries and issues of their own. It’s easy to say it boil down to “It’s the Browns,” and maybe that’s the best explanation, because as you look at the team personnel it seems the team ought to be better. But just as it is valid to look at the difficulties under which the Steelers have operated, we have to extend the same thought to how the Browns have ended up where they are.
History of the Matchup:
Unlike the other teams the Steelers have played thus far, the Browns don’t have a long history in the league. But these new-fangled (post-1998) Browns have a lot of history with the Steelers, being as they are in the same division.
Not everyone will agree with my contention about the Browns’ history in the league. There has been a team of that name since 1950, and Pro Football Reference, for instance, lists it as a single team with a three-year hiatus, which was what was negotiated when Art Modell moved the team and broke Cleveland’s heart. But surely the Baltimore Ravens are really the old Browns. No amount of window dressing can disguise the facts—the Browns as currently constituted are an expansion team, started from scratch in 1999. And, like baking from scratch, the results you get very much depend upon the ingredients you use and who is doing the mixing.
The overall record of the Steelers/Browns games through the years is 66-58, for a Steelers win percentage of .532. The record since 1999, when the Browns “resumed operations,” is 33-6, a .846 win percentage. Case closed.
Part of this is due to the massive amount of instability in the franchise. In the article The Culture That Made the Immaculate Extension Possible I ran some numbers comparing the Steelers’ three head coaches since 1970 with the rest of the league. Not surprisingly, there was a general, although not perfect, correlation between more stability and more wins. The Browns are the poster child for instability:
It’s probably a meaningless calculation, but for kicks I ran the numbers for average wins per head coach. The (expansion) Cleveland Browns have 9.3 wins per head coaching tenure. Said tenures average 1.8 seasons…Conversely, the Steelers have an average of 141.3 wins per head coaching tenure.
On Monday of this week NFL.com published Thirty-three things we learned from Week 9. The article, compiled by NFL staffers, began with this:
And then there were three.
A week after Denver knocked Green Bay from the ranks of the unbeaten, the Colts toppled the previously undefeated Broncos for the third time in their last four meetings.
Meanwhile, the Patriots cruised to a 27-10 victory over the Redskins while the Panthers held off a late Packers charge, both squads joining the Bengals with unblemished marks. For the first time in NFL history, three teams are 8-0.
What do the three outfits have in common? Stability.
New England’s Bill Belichick and Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis are the two longest-tenured coaches in the league, combining for 29 years with their respective franchises. Carolina’s Ron Rivera became the first coach to win back-to-back NFC South titles, rewarding the Panthers organization for sticking with him until he experienced a rare coaching epiphany early in the 2013 season.
Last-place clubs such as the Browns, Titans, Lions and Dolphins have cycled through coaches and general managers every few seasons, which in turn leads to quarterback uncertainty and players ill-suited for changing offensive and defensive schemes.
The Patriots, Bengals and Panthers have established strong identities, on the other hand, elusive feats in a copy-cat league where trends shift with the prevailing winds.
I actually have a pretty good feeling about the current Browns regime, because I think the new owner is going to give Mike Pettine enough time to turn things around. But so far Pettine hasn’t managed it, and in fact there were some attempts to sell off one of their best assets, left tackle Joe Thomas, just before the trade deadline. The deal didn’t go through, though.
One of the things the Browns still appear to be missing is a really good quarterback. Josh McCown has played well to very well at times, but he’s really beaten up. Johnny Manziel, other than a few pretty passes here and there and a good first half last Thursday has not played particularly well. (He apparently hasn’t grown up sufficiently to understand his responsibility to his team, either.) But I rather expect to see the Browns continue to throw him out there, because at 2-7 they are unlikely to be going anywhere this year. They might as well decide whether they have anything there, or need to go quarterback shopping, again, in the 2016 draft.
But enough opinions. Let’s look at some numbers:
The Football Outsiders ranking for the two offenses according to DVOA:
- Steelers offense: № 4, up from № 6 the previous week
- Browns offense: № 25
I couldn’t resist posting the picture. You can see more here.
Although I still think we might see Manziel, Mike Pettine claims Josh McCown is playing. We’ll see who actually runs onto the field Sunday.
It also wouldn’t surprise me if we saw both of them, assuming McCown is healthy enough to play. I’m guessing if he struggles unduly, he might get pulled.
The Browns have three running backs. Isaiah Crowell has turned out to be the definite № 1. He has 101 attempts in nine games, with a 3.3 average. He also has 13 receptions. Duke Johnson Jr. has 59 attempts, with a 3.0 average. He is used much more in the passing game than either of the others—he has 35 receptions for 369 yards and two touchdowns.
Robert Turbin has 18 attempts for a 3.3 average. In fact, the best back on the team would seem to be Johnny Manziel, who has 14 rushes (in five games) for a 5.2 average.
Football Outsiders has Isaiah Crowell ranked at № 32, not as bad as it sounds, given he’s ahead of Adrian Peterson and right behind Eddie Lacy. If they had enough touches to qualify for a starter ranking, Turbin would be ranked around № 21, Johnson around № 28.
The Steelers have one running back and two question marks at the moment. But the one they do have looked pretty special last Sunday. He and Antonio Brown combined for over 500 yards from scrimmage, an NFL record. His 170 yards on the ground and two touchdowns were despite Pro Football Focus declaring Cody Wallace the worst center in the league on Sunday. (They particularly deplored Wallace’s run blocking.)
They were pretty hard on Alejandro Villanueva as well, naming him the worst left tackle in the league in Week 9 and commenting unfavorably on his play in the running game. So either they’re wrong, the Raiders are a lot worse than we thought, or Williams is even better than we hoped.
Jordan Todman had one carry for three yards. Isaiah Pead was inactive. I don’t suppose we’ll have any “clarity”, as Coach Tomlin would say, on who is going to back up Williams until Sunday, if then. But Williams had 27 carries on Sunday. He’s 32 years old, or 96 in NFL years. This is his tenth season, and it isn’t as if he was mostly sitting on the bench for the majority of them.
He was a starter from day one in Carolina. Furthermore, he played four years of college ball, three of them as a starter. He had 969 attempts over those four years. In Carolina he only had four seasons (2007 and 08, and 2011 and 12) in which he played all 16 games, but he played almost all of them in every year except 2010 and 2014.
He has 1,522 carries in the NFL as of today. I hope the Steelers are looking for ways to reduce his workload. He already has almost 30 carries more than he did all of 2014. I think he is a great back and great guy. I’d like to see him stay healthy for the rest of the season, whenever it ends. I just worry about how well he is going to hold up.
But maybe I shouldn’t. As Ramon Foster commented:
I don’t think he gets enough credit for the way that coach (Mike) Tomlin has challenged him and his conditioning and the way he plays. He’s been A-1 with us and I definitely appreciate the way he’s played for us.
Football Outsiders ranks DeAngelo Williams at № 3 in the league, quite a step up from № 12 or so last week. (He didn’t have enough touches to qualify for the starters list prior to the Raiders game.) Unfortunately he, along with Ben, sprained his foot last Sunday and did not practice on Wednesday. Supposedly his sprain is more minor than Ben’s. If I were Coach Tomlin I would keep him out all week. From the looks of things last Sunday he doesn’t need to practice, and that’s one way to reduce his touches.
The Browns have eight players with five or more receptions, with the top three being Travis Benjamin, TE Gary Barnidge, and RB Duke Johnson Jr. This trio has combined for 12 of the Browns’ 15 receiving touchdowns.
Benjamin’s best game of the season was against Tennessee in Week 2, a game the Browns won 28-14. He had 115 yards and two touchdowns, and averaged almost 39 yards per carry. In the past three games he has not topped 50 yards nor had a touchdown. The next most utilized wide receiver is Taylor Gabriel. This isn’t saying much—his best game was four receptions for 75 yards against Baltimore—his worst was one reception for -3 yards, against Tennessee. He has no touchdowns. Brian Hartline, signed in free agency, has done little so far, although to be fair he’s only played in five games because of injuries. He is expected to be back this week.
And lest we forget, the Browns gave Dwayne Bowe a two-year, $12.5 million contract ($9 million guaranteed.) He has been active for two games and caught a pass for the first time in early November. So far he is making around $3 million per catch, guaranteed.
While there are four tight ends on the depth chart, there is no question that Barnidge is the № 1. He has the most receptions (42) and the most touchdowns (6) on the team. He was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in 2008, played out his rookie contract, and was signed last March by the Browns. I would say the record for AFC North pickups of ex-Carolina Panthers this season is pretty stellar. In addition, Josh McCown played for Carolina, although he had moved on to a number of other teams in the meantime.
The Steelers have Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Marcus Wheaton, and Darrius Heyward-Bey. None of them, heaven be praised, is on the injury list so far this week. [Heyward-Bey was added on Thursday with a hamstring injury.] We know about them, although we didn’t know they were going to drop so many passes last Sunday. Brown, of course, more than redeemed himself. As Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus wrote:
Brown’s +8.8 grade against Oakland is the highest mark we have ever given a receiver for a single game, and he almost single-handedly kept the Steelers in this game and brought them the win.
Besides the ever-faithful Heath Miller, the Steelers have an unexpected addition to the tight end position. Young Jesse James got a hat and made a contribution. Not only did he catch a touchdown pass but he seemed to do pretty well at blocking (which is his specialty anyhow.) Ivan speculated that he may spell the end to the second Matt Spaeth Era. I expect he’ll have to show a lot more than that, but he may get more chances, depending on how bad № 89’s knee injury is. As of Thursday Spaeth still wasn’t practicing.
Here are the Football Outsiders rankings for the qualified wide receivers:
- Antonio Brown: № 4
- Travis Benjamin: № 25
- Taylor Gabriel: № 61
- Gary Barnidge: № 4
- Heath Miller: № 8
The Browns’ line has given up 30 sacks in nine games. The Steelers have given up 22 in nine games, which is a great plenty. Only one last week, but that one was a doozy.
Pro Football Focus published their mid-term line rankings last week. Get ready to be surprised:
- Cleveland Browns: № 2 (Pass Protection, № 1, Run Blocking, № 5. )
- Pittsburgh Steelers: № 12 (Pass Protection № 5, Run Blocking № 20)
It’s fascinating to compare this to the Football Outsiders rankings:
- Cleveland Browns: Pass Protection: № 26, Run Blocking № 30
- Pittsburgh Steelers: Pass Protection, № 22, Run Blocking № 4
So how does it make sense for Cleveland’s offensive line to be so good if they are giving up this many sacks? Well, apparently PFF anticipated this question, because Sam Monson wrote a whole article about it last week. It’s quite interesting, and is part of the open portion of the site, so check it out. As he says:
Every single starter along the line has a positive grade, which looks crazy when their running game can’t get anything done, and their quarterbacks have been sacked more than all but four other teams.
Offensive lines are far too often perceived to be the only component in blocking for both the run and pass; in reality, they are only the most important part of a bigger puzzle. Backs, tight ends, and receivers all play a significant role, especially in certain blocking schemes.
When you add up all the blocking grades by players at positions other than the offensive line, Cleveland doesn’t just rank towards the bottom—they’re dead last in the NFL, with a cumulative blocking grade of -29.1, three times worse than even “bad” teams, and five times worse than the league average.
For as well as Gary Barnidge has been playing as a receiver, he has been little short of disastrous as a blocker—and Jim Dray has been little better in his snaps. FB Malcolm Johnson is our lowest-graded player at his position. No blocking scheme in football can get it done just with the five guys along the line—even a light defensive front has six guys in the box, one more than they can pick up—so you need the other players involved in the run game to hold up their end of the bargain to have any success on the ground.
It won’t help that LG Joel Bitonio, the better of the two guards, is already ruled out for Sunday.
Football Outsiders ranking:
- Browns: № 26, up from № 27 the previous week.
- Steelers: № 12, down from № 11 the previous week.
Cleveland’s secondary has struggled this season, partially due to a large number of injuries. Projected to be a strength of the team going into the season, it’s instructive to watch the progression:
September 13: Tom Reed writes on Cleveland.com:
After an offseason of big talk, the Browns’ secondary had an opportunity to deliver a statement in the waning minutes of the first half Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
The lack of response was telling — and a good reminder defensive backs are judged by more than gaudy numbers.
On September 27 he wrote:
Raiders fullback Marcel Reece caught a short third-quarter pass Sunday and turned it into a 55-yard gain because two Pro Bowl safeties could not execute a simple tackle.
On October 10 Bud Shaw wrote, also on Cleveland.com:
…the way the defense dominated Pittsburgh at home and Cincinnati on the road [last season] was a fundamental gain that suggested a defensive-minded head coach could be, might be, maybe even was the right guy in Berea.
Instead, four games later, a veteran defense built on Pettine’s specifications from the secondary in ranks last in the league in yards allowed and 31st against the run.
The secondary has a number of good players on it, but they are having trouble getting on the field at the same time. With Cleveland coming off a long week (they played Cincinnati on Thursday Night Football to start Week 9) they will have had extra time to heal. Nonetheless, Joe Haden and Donte Whitner both missed practice on Wednesday with concussions.
Football Outsiders has the Steelers’ defensive line at № 15 in passing defense and Clevelands’ at № 21.
The Browns currently have 15 sacks, an average of 1.7 per game. The Steelers defense still has 22 sacks, close to 2.5 per game. (Ryan Shazier was originally credited with a sack last Sunday, which was taken away.)
After last Sunday’s game the Steelers’ run defense numbers took a bit hit. This isn’t much of a surprise, as the run defense was rather on life support.
The Browns’ run defense is ranked № 32 in the league according to the NFL.
The Football Outsiders ranking, Run Defense:
- Browns defensive line: № 31
- Steelers defensive line: № 20
Special teams has traditionally been a strength of the Browns. One of the more famous Tomlinisms concerns returner Josh Cribbs, who had burned the Steelers some number of times. You’ll note by the record it generally wasn’t a fatal wound. But Tomlin didn’t like it, commenting before a Steelers/Browns match in 2011 “We don’t want to be dead Indians in the Josh Cribb cowboy show.”
This season they have a Travis Benjamin 78 yard punt return for a touchdown. Probably partially because of this, they have the highest average for punt return yardage in the league—12.4 yards.
Justin Gilbert takes the bulk of their kick returns, with a 26.9 average, while they have held opponents to a 21.9 average.
However, opposing teams have a lot more kick return yards than the Browns. This is easily explained by the disparity in attempts—16 for the Browns, 26 for the opposition. That will happen when you don’t score a lot of touchdowns. In the punt game the Browns have outgained their opponents by a considerable margin.
Kicker Travis Coons is perfect in field goal attempts, although the longest attempt is 44 yards. (He also missed an extra point.) Punter Andy Lee has been quite good as well.
As for the Steelers, the Jacoby Jones experiment was scarcely a rousing success last Sunday. Dri Archer is still on his couch—according to ProFootballTalk, after Archer cleared waivers he declined offers from 10 different teams, including the Steelers, for a place on their practice squad. But it looks as if there isn’t any point in bringing in anyone until the blocking is better. Or that would seem, well, obvious, but Mike Tomlin declared in this week’s press conference that the blocking isn’t the problem.
It’s rather mystifying, actually—you wouldn’t think it’s that complicated, and special teams have mostly been just fine in defending. Last week they were stellar in that area, with Roosevelt Nix forcing a fumble and Anthony Chickillo recovering it. Bud Dupree also blocked a punt.
The kicking game seemingly settled down very nicely after Chris Boswell appeared to be a field-goal machine and was kicking a reasonable number of touchbacks. But Sunday it suddenly didn’t seem so great. Only two of his eight kickoffs were touchbacks, which was unexpected. One of his kickoffs went out of bounds, which was a sub-optimal result to say the least. And he missed his first field goal. Fortunately he didn’t miss the one that mattered most, with four seconds left on the clock.
Jordan Berry was uneven as well, with some great punts downed inside the 5 yard line and a couple of miserable ones. Maybe someone put lead in the balls. Has anyone noticed any of the Patriot’s equipment managers hanging around Heinz Field?
Football Outsiders Special Teams Ranking:
- Cleveland: № 5
- Pittsburgh: № 19
The week didn’t start well for the Steelers, with swelling all around, it seemed. Ryan Shazier had knee swelling, as did James Harrison, and DeAngelo Williams had mid-foot swelling. He and Ben presumably soak their feet side by side.
These weren’t the only injuries by any means. Wednesday’s injury list contained seven players in addition to Roethlisberger, Williams, Harrison, and Shazier. That is over a fifth of the team. I guess it really was Steelers-Raiders. A couple of the additional names were of particular concern—Marcus Gilbert didn’t practice with a toe injury; Will Johnson was out with a back injury, and Steve McLendon was limited with an elbow injury.
Thursday’s news was better: for starters, Roethlisberger practiced in a limited capacity. Even though there is surely no chance he plays (nor should he, in my opinion,) it’s good to know he’s far enough along to get out on the field, at any rate.
The even better news was, DeAngelo Williams practiced fully. The “swelling” listed earlier turned out to be a mid-foot sprain, but he had no visible limp or “hitch” in his step, even on Wednesday, according to a couple of the beat writers.
Marcus Gilbert also practiced fully, as did Johnson, Isaiah Pead, and McLendon.
But Thursday gave, and Thursday also tooketh away (if that’s a word)—Darrius Heyward-Bey, not previously listed, was limited with a hamstring. Shazier, Harrison, Shamarko Thomas, and Matt Spaeth did not practice. If this team can just hang on until the bye week, perhaps they have half a chance to heal.
The biggest news on the Browns is, their two best defensive backs, Donte Whitner and Joe Haden, have not practiced yet this week—both are still in the concussion protocol. Furthermore, DBs Ibraheim Campbell and Jordan Poyer were limited with a hamstring injury and a shoulder injury, respectively. They will surely play, especially if Haden and/or Whitner are out. QB Josh McCown was still limited with the rib injury.
As mentioned above, LG Joel Bitonio is already ruled out, which is a blow to the offensive line.
So while the Browns haven’t lost several of their Super Starters, if you will, they are definitely compromised in the secondary, unless the concussions resolve quickly.
The Steelers are favorites in this game, as one would expect from the record and because the game is at Heinz Field. However, nobody is predicting a blowout.
But we know how that script has played out before. Clearly, if DeAngelo Williams can’t play that would be troubling. Feel free to predict the score, ladies and gentlemen. I just have no idea. If you could tell me how many interceptions Jones will throw, I could narrow it down a bit…
In the meantime, if you want to see what life is like on the other side of the tracks, check out this video on Cleveland.com, in which the three local pundits predict the results of the game. I won’t spoil it for you by revealing the results. But that job must get old.