By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
The Browns hope to draw inspiration from the Grinch and write their own holiday story about stealing the playoffs from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Browns (4-11) buried their postseason hopes weeks ago, but they’ll still have a chance to affect the playoff picture Sunday in the season finale at Heinz Field. Playing the role of a spoiler wouldn’t come close to easing all of the pain created by another agonizing season, but it might offer a bit of relief.
“Our guys are aware of that,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. “There’s a lot of things that we’re playing for and want to play for. Certainly, that’s one of them.”
The Steelers (7-8) need to beat the Browns for the second time this season and catch a few breaks to make the playoffs. They need the Baltimore Ravens to lose on the road to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Miami Dolphins to suffer defeat at home against the New York Jets and the San Diego Chargers to fall at home to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Of course, those other games won’t mean anything to the Steelers if they lose to the Browns. That has a nice ring to it, right?
“I hate to sound kind of malicious, but it does,” Browns strong safety T.J. Ward said. “It’ll help to kind of put them kind of where we are — out of the playoffs. We don’t want to see them succeed.”
It won’t be easy for the Browns, who have lost six games in a row and nine of their past 10. The Steelers started the season 0-4 but are 7-4 since, and one of those wins was a 27-11 thrashing of the Browns on Nov. 24 in Cleveland.
Mark Kaboly covers the Steelers for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He discussed the team in the following question-and-answer session.
Q: What are the main reasons the Steelers have been stronger in the second half of the season?
A: “First of all, quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger’s playing extremely well. If you look at where they struggled the most those first four games of the season, that’s where he struggled the most — turning the ball over. They’re not turning the ball over, and they’re finally getting some semblance of a running game as well. Their offense has not been a problem at all. They finally went over 100 yards for the first time in 23 games with rookie running back Le’Veon Bell. He’s looking solid. It’s just a fact that they’re not giving up any big plays the past couple of games, and they’re not turning the ball over. And they’re getting a lot better play from some of their defensive guys. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley’s [on injured reserve with a calf injury], but Jason Worilds has stepped in, and he’s had sacks in five of the last eight games. I think it was a lot of self-inflicted stuff early on in the season that just kept multiplying on top of itself. They cleaned up a lot of their own little problems. They’re able to win some games because they’re not giving them away.”
Q: Bell is coming off his best game this season — 26 carries for 124 yards (4.8 average) and a touchdown in a 38-31 win over the Green Bay Packers. What has been the key to getting him rolling?
A: “He’s running hard now. Typically, you would see a guy who’s a rookie, a 21-year-old kid, slowing down near the end of the season. But he missed a majority of training camp [with an injured knee and a Lisfranc sprain]. He missed the first month of the season, so it took him a while to get going. He came in Week 4, playing in London, and really didn’t have anything under his belt. It took him a while to get moving along. Part of it is his offensive line finally finding its stride a little bit. They’re on their third center, Cody Wallace, a guy who had five career starts up until two weeks ago. The rest of it has been pretty been much intact. He’s a very talented back that they’re using in a multitude of ways. He’s a three-down back. He has 44 catches. He has more than 1,000 total yards. He’s just getting stronger and stronger and running harder. If you don’t have holes to run through, nobody’s going to run. The offensive line’s playing a lot better than it’s been playing also. It’s been a combination of things. But he’s definitely shown he’s one of the up-and-comers on this team. I’m sure they’re going to go into the offseason feeling very good with where they’re at with Le’Veon Bell. The kid’s a beast, and he won’t turn 22 until February. They love where he’s at.”
Q: Strong safety Troy Polamalu killed the Browns in Week 11 with four tackles, including a sack, a broken-up pass and two forced fumbles, earning AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. Was that performance an aberration or is he having another fantastic season?
A: “He’s very inconsistent, but there’s a reason for his inconsistency. In Week 1, their inside linebacker, Larry Foote, tore his biceps. They had nobody to replace the inside linebacker. So they decide to move Troy Polamalu to inside linebacker in certain dime packages, which they tend to use a lot. So all of a sudden, Polamalu’s playing out of position for the majority of the season, and he’s getting manhandled by bigger linemen. That’s why he’s inconsistent. He’s actually preparing for two or three positions per game because that’s where he moves around. Two games ago, they kept him back at strong safety, and that’s when he’s able to make a lot more of his dynamic plays. If they were able to keep him in his right position the whole year, I think it would have been one of his better years. [But] they had to move him all around, including to inside linebacker. That’s just too much to ask for anybody, let alone a 200-pound strong safety. That’s why you’ll see him make some big plays, and that’s why you’ll see him make some goofs. They’re stretching him quite thin for a 32-year-old.”
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.