Opponent Preview: Browns @ [Attenuated] Steelers

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It’s a bit difficult, I must admit, to get excited about Sunday’s game. The Steelers have already said they are going to rest those who “need to get healthy,” and perhaps some who seem to be plenty healthy as it is. (Although it’s easy to imagine that anyone who played in last Sunday’s civil but brutal game isn’t going to be exactly “healthy.”) A win on Sunday does absolutely nothing to improve their seeding or anything else, so there’s no point in risking players who are desperately needed going into the playoffs.

On the other side, the Browns have actually already won a game this season. They have thus avoided the dreaded 0-16 record and the derision which comes with that. There’s really nothing for them to play for. Quite the contrary—any more wins and they may lose out on the No. 1 overall pick. They may play for pride or for their coach or for the future—hard to say. But they won’t be playing to win because there would be any benefit to do so, in practical terms.

Having said that, there will be a great deal of interest, at least theoretically, in seeing how the Steelers’ JV squad does against the Browns’ first-teamers. Some of the guys, like Jarvis Jones, will be auditioning for a contract with another team, and while a huge game against the Browns comes with somewhat of an asterisk, it’s got to be better than what he put on tape in Week 16 (namely nothing.) And as Mike Tomlin pointed out in his press conference, this isn’t the pre-season where you have a roster almost twice as large. Some number of the regulars are going to have to play.

For regulars like Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates, it’s a chance to get back out there and have a few passes thrown at you, hopefully in your actual vicinity. For D-Will it’s a chance to try out the knee and see if it is up to snuff. And for that matter it’s a good chance to get Fitzgerald Toussaint a lot of carries.

And none of this means Mike Tomlin isn’t determined to win the game. As he said:

In general our approach is going to be: if you’re dressed it’s business as usual, and I think that’s the appropriate approach to take from a play standpoint, from a preparation-to-play standpoint, and from a planning standpoint. As a staff, we’re not going to live in our fears. We’re not going to fear the what-ifs. We’re going to prepare, and we’re going to play this game to give Steelers Nation what it is they deserve, which is preparation that leads to a winning performance.

But this article is supposed to be about the opponent, so let’s look a bit at the Browns. The difficulty in doing so is not to linger on the dismal stats. Instead let’s take a quick look at why things are the way they are and whether there are hopeful signs for their future.

The first problem, and in many ways the one from which all their other problems stem, is that they don’t have a quarterback. And when I say they don’t have “a” quarterback, I mean it literally. They have many quarterbacks, which they keep breaking. By the end of Week 5 they had already gone through five of them.

Two of the quarterbacks were grizzled veterans (Josh McCown and Charlie Whitehurst) and both were injured early in the season. One was splashy (at least in Browns’ terms) free agent signing Robert Griffin III. He was, of course, hurt in the very first game of the season. No. 4 was Cody Kessler, their 2016 3rd-round pick, who was also injured early in the season. And No. 5 was Terrelle Pryor, who hadn’t played QB since 2015, when he switched to wide receiver.

The situation at this moment is: Terrelle Pryor is still a wide receiver. Charlie Whitehurst was injured in the Week 5 game against the Patriots and was released with an injury settlement in October. Josh McCown is apparently healthy but inactive, as he is, after all, not Cleveland’s future at the position, or so they hope. RGIII has played in the last three games, and was pretty dreadful. He was benched last week and Cody Kessler was able to return in relief (he hadn’t played since Week 11) and played well. He has been their best quarterback by far this season, when he has been able to play. They have also signed some unsuspecting innocent called Kevin Hogan, just in case.

The real kicker is, they could have had Carson Wentz, but traded away that opportunity. Wentz has, of course, rather faltered as the season went on—irritatingly, his best game of the season came against Pittsburgh in Week 3—but it still seems rather short-sighted. Of course, they will most likely have the No. 1 overall pick in April, but they have lost a year.

Somehow or other, despite the new coach and the supposedly new approach, this hasn’t been a great year for the Browns. They lost a couple of offensive linemen, which undoubtedly contributed to the quarterback injuries. They lost one of the best wide receivers in the league when Josh Gordon was suspended yet again by the commissioner. Rookie wideout Jordan Payton is also suspended, as is veteran O-lineman Alvin Bailey. They have a couple of good wide receivers (Terrelle Pryor and rookie Corey Coleman) and a good running back or two (Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson), but when your offensive line is giving up an average of over four sacks per game (and heaven knows how many quarterback hits and hurries) none of these things are going to help much. (The line has given up 62 sacks, which is 19 more than any other team in the league, and 45 more than the Steelers O-line.)

I could go through the various players and position groups, but perhaps the best way to put it is, it is a lost season for the Browns. Apparently Hue Jackson is acknowledging as much, as the rumors out of Cleveland say he’s probably going to view Sunday as a good opportunity to get a look at some of his young players. In other words, he’s doing the only thing possible at this juncture—trying to figure out what benefits the team the most in the long term.

Which is what the Steelers are doing on Sunday as well. The only difference is, the “long term” for them is the first playoff game.

So let’s enjoy the opportunity to look at some guys we haven’t seen much of. Guys like Justin Gilbert, Demarcus Ayers, Johnny Maxey, Tyler Matakevich—I’d love to see what they can do when they get their opportunities. After all, it was just such a situation in which Willie Parker emerged—in a “meaningless” Week 17 game in Buffalo at the end of the 2004 season. May the result be the same…

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