When the Pittsburgh Steelers started this season with a record of 0-4, they appeared to be extremely susceptible to suffering their first sweep against the Browns since 1988.
Now that possibility appears to be far from a sure thing.
The Steelers have won four of their past six games, including the last two, and have caught the Browns and Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North standings at 4-6. Although the 7-4 Cincinnati Bengals are positioned to become kings of the division, the Browns and Steelers will fight Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium for a chance to remain on the fringe of the playoff picture with the 5-5 Miami Dolphins and New York Jets leading the race for the AFC’s second and final wild-card berth.
It’s not a surprise that the Steelers’ turnaround can mostly be attributed to the play of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has denied recent NFL Network reports that he’s expected to ask for a trade in the offseason. He threw for 364 yards and four touchdowns and posted a passer rating of 119.4 Sunday during a 37-27 upset over the Detroit Lions in Pittsburgh.
The Browns know the key to prevailing against the Steelers is keeping Roethlisberger at bay.
“In my mind, it’s just getting to No. 7,” outside linebacker Paul Kruger said. “He’s really what makes it work, and he’s a talented guy. He can extend plays and do all the good things. They have some really good receivers and a quarterback who can find ways to win. So that’s really what I think we’ve got to do is affect him.”
The Browns snapped a four-game losing streak against the Steelers with a 20-14 victory Nov. 25, 2012, in Cleveland, but quarterback Charlie Batch played instead of Roethlisberger, who was dealing with rib and shoulder injuries. Roethlisberger was back for last year’s regular-season finale on Dec. 30, and he threw three touchdown passes to spearhead a 24-10 win over the Browns the day before owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner fired coach Pat Shurmur and General Manager Tom Heckert.
The Steelers are 23-5 against the Browns since 1999, and Roethlisberger, a Findlay native, is a major reason. He’s 15-1 as a starter against the Browns.
Mark Kaboly covers the Steelers for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He discussed the team in the following question-and-answer session.
Q: With the rumblings about Roethlisberger asking to be traded and not getting along with offensive coordinator Todd Haley, what kind of weird ride has it been for him this season?
A: “It’s been very weird. It seems on a weekly basis, almost a daily basis now, he’s denying some sort of rumor. He’s had tons of stuff said about him over the past decade he’s been here, and I’ve never heard him vehemently denying a report or reports like he has denied the ones that have come out [stating] he wanted to be traded and/or had problems with the coaching staff. But ironically since this has happened, he’s probably played a couple of his best games, including this past week against the Lions. He probably had his best game of his career. He threw four touchdowns, ran the no huddle constantly — I think they ran it 60-70 percent where he called the plays. Just like the rest of the team, early on this season he made a lot of mental mistakes, had been turning the ball over. He had turnovers in each of the first four or five games that led to points. When he’s been able to take care of the ball, he’s been very good, and he needs to be good because this team can’t run the ball at all. He’s had a pretty good season, and I think he’s a little bit motivated now with some of this [trade] talk. It might not sound like much to a lot of people, but you’d be surprised how much a game against a team from Ohio means to him. He wants to win these games. He’s circled these games. Somebody asked him about losing in Cleveland last year, and he was quick to point out that he wasn’t playing in that game. So it means a lot to him to win in Cincinnati and in Cleveland. I think that will be a motivating factor this week as well.”
Q: Is there a key matchup in which you think the Steelers can have success against the Browns?
A: “I know one that’s not going to be very good for them is Browns cornerback Joe Haden on Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown. Antonio Brown is a stud receiver right now, but I don’t know if that’s going to be a very good matchup for the Steelers. It’s tough because that is their best offensive weapon — Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown. [But] I’m not going to say that’s their best matchup because I know who’s going to be going against Antonio Brown. I would guess a key matchup is putting safety Troy Polamalu in different positions just to confuse quarterback Jason Campbell. I’m guessing that’s what they’ll try to do, just to move him all around again and try to force Campbell into some mistakes. But I think the key matchup for the entire game is definitely Joe Haden and Antonio Brown, but I’m giving that one to Joe Haden. [Brown has been good], but not as good as Joe Haden. He’s shutting everybody down. They will get Antonio Brown the ball one way or another whether it’s screen passes, quick slants. The question is if he can make any plays after that, and I think Haden’s the best corner in the league right now. The other option, Emmanuel Sanders, is a little banged up [with an injured foot]. I’m not sure if he’s going to play or not. He should be able to go, and Jerricho Cotchery is another receiver. They don’t have a ton of explosive weapons, and the running game is just nonexistent because their offensive line is probably one of the worst offensive lines you’ve seen in a while.”
Q: What were the key factors to the Steelers’ turnaround this season?
A: “They really haven’t played terrible the entire season. They’ve made critical mistakes in critical times. They really looked bad against the New England Patriots when they gave up 610 yards and the franchise-record 55 points, but it’s been basically a tale of two seasons for them. In the 0-4 stretch, they were turning the ball over, they were making critical mistakes, they were giving up long plays, something they’ve rarely ever done, and they weren’t able to come back from that. They were able to put together a couple of tough wins against the New York Jets and the Ravens, but once again, they went back to the problems they had early in the season when they lost to the Oakland Raiders, giving up big plays and turning the ball over. That’s basically what it’s been for them. If they’re able to hold onto the ball, not give the opponent short fields, they’ve been pretty successful, and that’s what they’ve done the past couple weeks.”
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.