BEREA: The Browns are sick of losing to Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and they’ll receive a chance to find a cure beginning at 1 p.m. today at FirstEnergy Stadium.
“Who wouldn’t be tired of 15-1?” nose tackle Phil Taylor said of Roethlisberger’s record as a starter against the Browns, who are 5-24, including the playoffs, against the Steelers since 1999.
Although the Browns split the season series with their AFC North archrivals from Pennsylvania last year, Roethlisberger was sidelined with rib and shoulder injuries when the Steelers and third-string quarterback Charlie Batch fell 20-14 on Nov. 25 in Cleveland. The man known as “Big Ben” returned for the Dec. 30 regular-season finale in Pittsburgh and threw three touchdown passes to lead his team past the Browns 24-10. His only loss to the Browns came Dec. 10, 2009, when the Steelers lost 13-6 in frigid temperatures in Cleveland.
“You’re going back home to Ohio to play against kind of a hometown team, so it always adds a little extra motivation,” Roethlisberger, a Findlay native, said of his dominance against the Browns. “And they had one of the top-10 picks in the NFL Draft that year and passed over me, so there’s always a little bit of motivation.”
Drafted 11th overall in 2004, Roethlisberger has tormented the Browns ever since they traded up one spot to pick tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. sixth. But they lifted a huge weight off their shoulders Nov. 3 by snapping an 11-game losing streak against the Baltimore Ravens and quarterback Joe Flacco, and they hope to end another skid against Roethlisberger.
Coming off a 41-20 loss to the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals, the Browns (4-6) need to end their drought against Roethlisberger today if they want to remain in the hunt for the AFC’s second and final wild-card berth. The Steelers (4-6) are in the same boat, aiming to keep their season relevant by prevailing in what is essentially an elimination game that’ll be played in the bitter cold and possibly amid snow.
The top priority for the Browns will be to make sure their pass rushers get Roethlisberger on the ground before he can make big plays. Of course, that’s easier said than done because the 6-foot-5, 241-pound Roethlisberger has built a legacy and won two Super Bowls by shaking off would-be sacks and connecting with his receivers, sometimes even with defenders draped on him.
“I don’t think there’s been a quarterback in the league that has taken unabated shots and shrugged guys off [for] more big plays than Ben — in the history of the league,” said Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton, a former Steelers assistant coach. “Now Fran [Tarkenton] would run. Roger Staubach would run. But they were different types of quarterbacks. Ben’s probably the biggest, strongest, most mobile quarterback. I told our players, he was a shortstop in baseball. You’d think he would be a pitcher. He was a point guard in basketball. You’d think he would be the center. And he punts left-footed. So this guy is the most athletic guy that we’ll face, meaning total package of completeness.”
He’s also been on fire lately despite NFL Network reports about him being expected to ask for a trade in the offseason — rumblings he has vehemently denied time and again. After the Steelers dropped their first four games, they’ve won four of the past six, including the last two. Roethlisberger had his best game of the season last weekend in a 37-27 upset over the Detroit Lions. Often operating out of a no-huddle offense, he completed 29-of-45 passes (64.4 percent) for 367 yards and four touchdowns without an interception and posted a passer rating of 119.4.
“I still think Ben is elite,” defensive end Billy Winn said. “When they get going in that no huddle and he’s up at the line, he’s making his checks and reading the defense, he’s still able to get some things going and make some explosive plays for his team.”
The Steelers are ranked 30th in rushing (76.5 yards per game) in the NFL and their offensive line is considered a glaring weakness, yielding 37 sacks, third-most in the league. Roethlisberger, though, still has weapons in the form of wide receivers Antonio Brown (74 catches, 952 yards, five touchdowns), Emmanuel Sanders (42 catches, 509, two touchdowns) and Jerricho Cotchery (34 catches, 503, seven touchdowns). They’re ranked seventh in passing (266.7 yards per game).
“They’re a unique bunch in that their wide receivers thrive on getting open after contact and going up the field and creating plays that are really school-yard basketball plays: ‘Go behind the Subaru and take a left, and I’ll hit you,’ ” Horton said. “They make a ton of big plays that way.”
Added free safety Tashaun Gipson: “I still think that [Roethlisberger is] a top-six quarterback in this league, and we've definitely got a lot of respect for him in our room and it’s going to be a tough challenge come Sunday. But we’re definitely excited on the back end for the opportunities. He’s going to put the ball in the air, and we’re just going to see what happens.”
The respect is mutual. Roethlisberger insisted he doesn’t see any weaknesses in the Browns’ fourth-ranked defense (306.5 yards allowed per game), and he called the matchup “the biggest and toughest test we’re going to face to date.”
The Browns are tied for ninth in the NFL with 31 sacks, but they didn’t resister one last weekend against the Bengals. They must get back on track with a vengeance and bring “Big Ben” down. Their season depends on it.
“You’re going to have wrap him up, grab his throwing arm preferably because he can’t get the ball off, make sure to hold on tight, but don’t come in out of control because he’ll make you miss, too,” strong safety T.J. Ward said.
“He’s a big guy, but it doesn’t matter. I’m going to come with everything I have every time. Regardless how hard he goes down, I’m going to give it all my effort.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.