Friday, October 10, 2014

Steelers at Browns preview

By Pat McManamon and Scott Brown
October 9, 2014

Antonio Brown attempts to hurdle Spencer Lanning in the Steelers' season-opening 30-27 win over the Browns in Pittsburgh. (Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports)

The Cleveland Browns' recent struggles against the Pittsburgh Steelers have been well documented and much discussed. Suffice it to say that Pittsburgh has treated the Browns, in the words of former coach Rob Chudzinski, like a "kid brother." 

The Browns made a statement in the season opener in Heinz Field by erasing a 27-3 deficit, but in the end Pittsburgh's statement was louder because it won. 

As Browns coach Mike Pettine said, the word for almost winning is losing. 
The Browns started this week favored for only the fourth time in 20 years against Pittsburgh, and Brian Hoyer and Pettine give the Browns their best chance in a long time to make a more real statement. 

ESPN NFL Nation Browns reporter Pat McManamon and Steelers reporter Scott Brown discuss Sunday's game at FirstEnergy Stadium. 

McManamon: Scott, the Browns saw Pittsburgh in the opener. Pittsburgh dominated the first half and held on in the second. What happened to the Steelers after that first half? The Browns came back, nearly stole a win and the Steelers are 2-2 since. 

Brown: In talking with Maurkice Pouncey a couple of weeks ago, the Pro Bowl center strongly hinted that the Steelers -- or at least their offensive line -- got a little overconfident after Pittsburgh rolled to a 27-3 halftime lead. I think the entire team had a letdown to some degree but the second-half charge that the Browns made also exposed some of the Steelers' weaknesses. They are no longer the defense that opponents didn't try to bother to run against when the Steelers played in three Super Bowls and won two of them from 2005 to 2010. Nor do the Steelers harass quarterbacks the way they did during that span, and the lack of consistent pressure could be a problem for them Sunday since Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer has been sacked only once this season. 

Looking back, the game provided a perfect microcosm for the Steelers' season so far. They have been very up and down and are searching for the consistency that will translate into the Steelers stringing together wins. 

Pat, I think when the NFL schedule was released that a lot of us looked at it and figured Johnny Manziel would be starting by the time the Steelers and Browns met for the second time this season. Hoyer obviously had other ideas. How much respect has he earned from his coaches and teammates for the job he has done, and is this his team now or just for now? 

McManamon: There has been one Manziel question for this preview every game; why should Pittsburgh be different? The only thing is if the backup played like Manziel did in preseason and his name were Teddy Bridgewater or Derek Carr, there would be no questions because everyone would figure he played like a rookie, so he should sit. 

To answer your question, though, Scott, Hoyer has done everything right from the moment he hurt his knee just about one year ago. He attacked his rehab. He was in the facility every day in the offseason learning a new system. He chafed when coaches held him back in OTAs to protect his knee, saying he needed to be on the field to make his mistakes and learn the system. He competed in training camp, though not always well. Once he was named the starter he prepared the way he learned to from his mentor, Tom Brady, and he's played extremely well. 

To say the team respects him is an understatement. Hoyer has rewarded the faith shown in him by his coach, and he's made a group of receivers that seemed average when the year began effective. He studies, protects the ball and plays well. 

He gives the Browns their best chance in years to avoid the collapses that have plagued them recently. If he can get a win at home against Pittsburgh -- and the stadium will be energized -- he'll have three games awaiting against Jacksonville, Oakland and Tampa Bay. 

This job is Hoyer's. The coach has made that clear by sticking with him despite huge road deficits. He showed his feelings about Hoyer when he sent him a personal note a year ago after Hoyer's injury, and Hoyer has justified the decision with his play. 

Pittsburgh's defense has been shredded by injuries. Will this catch up to Pittsburgh, or can the Steelers ride out the storm with guys like James Harrison, who came out of retirement to rejoin his old team? 

Brown: Well, they don't have a lot of options, which is why they not only talked Harrison out of retirement but also have the 36-year-old playing a significant amount of snaps at outside linebacker. The Steelers were thin at the position before starting right outside linebacker Jarvis Jones went down with a dislocated wrist and Arthur Moats, who is filling in for Jones, started 12 games last season at inside linebacker for the Buffalo Bills. The Steelers' secondary has held up well since starting cornerback Ike Taylor broke his forearm and Sean Spence has been OK at inside linebacker with Ryan Shazier out because of a sprained knee. 

The defense, however, was flawed even before it lost three starters and it doesn't appear to be capable of carrying the Steelers as it often did in the past. That is why the Steelers have to fix their red zone problems on offense. I think they are going to have to put up a lot of points more often than not to win and that could be the case Sunday in Cleveland. 

I didn't think I'd be saying this but Cleveland might be the most balanced offense that the Steelers have faced with Hoyer playing well. How much of the Browns' success has been because of the offensive line, starting with perennial Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas

McManamon: That group has been excellent, as the numbers show. The Browns are averaging 127 yards per game rushing -- 4.5 per carry -- and 265 passing. They have scored 21 points in each of the first four games, something they haven't done since 1969. The line has a large role in that, as the assembled group has a perennial Pro Bowler in Joe Thomas, a soon-to-be perennial Pro Bowler in Alex Mack and a born natural at guard in rookie Joel Bitonio. Right guard John Greco is underrated, and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has played well. 

The key to the line is their athleticism and ability to move, which makes them an excellent fit for Kyle Shanahan's zone blocking scheme. That requires lateral movement and allows a back to find his hole. The pass protection is helped by Hoyer's ability to get rid of the ball quickly, but the group has played well there, too. This is a line that should get more and more notice as the season goes on, because it is a cohesive, talented group. 

Cleveland is favored in this game, which is something that has not happened in a long, long time. Did the Steelers come away from the opener feeling that they fell asleep on the Browns, or do they have a healthy respect for them? Because if Pittsburgh respects the Browns, it's also the first time that's happened in a long time. 

Brown: If the Steelers don't have a healthy respect for the Browns they are crazy and that is something that will fall on coach Mike Tomlin and the veteran leaders. It is absurd to think that the Steelers can overlook any opponent following a home loss to the previously winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers two weeks ago after coming off a resounding win at Carolina. I get the sense that the Steelers are impressed with the talent that the Browns have assembled and Hoyer, at least so far, has provided the strong quarterback play that has too often eluded them since the NFL returned to Cleveland in 1999. 

If Tomlin senses that the Steelers are taking the Browns lightly because of the recent history between the AFC North foes, all he has to do is run the second half of their Sept. 7 game on a continuous loop at team headquarters. 

I think the Steelers' offense is poised to break out. How do you think they will try to attack the Browns based on where they are vulnerable? 

McManamon: Pick your spot. It is surprising to think that with a defensive head coach and talented defensive players that the defense is holding the team back. But it is. The Browns have not stopped anyone for an entire game yet this season. They have for one half in Pittsburgh and Tennessee, but not for an entire game. 

The Browns are especially vulnerable against the run, where they are giving up the ungodly number of 152.5 yards per game. If the Steelers don't use Le'Veon Bell to take advantage of that, Joe Greene may appear on the sidelines to remind them. 

The other issue is at cornerback. Joe Haden has not gotten his hand on a ball this season, and Buster Skrine has not taken the next step. To complicate things, rookie first-round pick Justin Gilbert has struggled to the point he's been replaced by undrafted rookie K'Waun Williams. If Ben Roethlisberger doesn't notice the Browns' corners, Terry Bradshaw may drop by the sidelines and remind him. 

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