BEREA: The Browns’ run defense has quietly improved during the past couple of weeks, though it’s still far from ideal.
It certainly can’t afford to take a step backward today if the Browns (4-11) hope to finish strong in their regular-season finale against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers (11-4). Running back Rashard Mendenhall is coming off one of his best games of the season, and he could become a focal point of the Steelers’ offense, especially with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger expected to play with a left high-ankle sprain suffered Dec. 8 in the Browns’ 14-3 loss at Heinz Field.
“We anticipate Pittsburgh coming in with the nicks and bruises from a few of their star players, you figure they would kind of keep the game kind of vanilla,” Browns middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “But at the same time, they want to win. It’s important for them to get a victory.”
The Steelers can win the AFC North title and secure a first-round bye in the postseason if they defeat the Browns and the Baltimore Ravens tie or lose to the Cincinnati Bengals. The Browns have aspirations of ensuring the Steelers enter the playoffs as a wild-card team, but they probably won’t reach their goal unless they hold Mendenhall and his backup, Isaac Redman, in check.
With Roethlisberger sidelined on Dec. 24, Mendenhall had 18 carries for 116 yards (6.4 average) and a touchdown to go along with one reception for 35 yards as the Steelers rolled to a 27-0 victory over the St. Louis Rams, who have the NFL’s 32nd-ranked run defense (154.5 yards allowed per game). It was the second time this season Mendenhall has eclipsed the 100-yard rushing plateau. He needs 110 yards on the ground against the Browns to finish with at least 1,000 rushing yards for the third consecutive season.
“He’s really good,” Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron said. “He’s got great balance, great speed down the field, low center of gravity, hard to knock off his feet. They have a very good scheme. It’ll be a tough one, but it’s a great challenge for us, a great rivalry game.”
In the Browns’ first 12 games this season, they allowed an opposing player to rush for more than 100 yards eight times. In their past three games, Mendenhall (18 carries for 76 yards), Beanie Wells of the Arizona Cardinals (15 carries for 51 yards) and Ray Rice of the Ravens (23 carries for 87 yards) have been the leading rushers for the teams they have faced.
The Browns have the league’s 30th-ranked run defense (146.5 yards allowed per game). They allowed Houston Texans running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate to rush for 124 and 112 yards, respectively, in the same game Nov. 6. They also let Rice rush for a career-high 204 yards on Dec. 4. Despite those major letdowns, they have shown some progress as of late.
“I’ve seen an improvement, and I think that’s what you’re looking for,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. “A couple games early in the year, they took it to us pretty well. One that still comes to mind is the Houston game. I think we’ve solidified some things in there.
“I think our coaches have done a good job of emphasizing it and our players, the guys that are in there, have done a better job of executing it. We still can get a lot better, for sure.”
Jauron’s players know they’ll receive another opportunity today to prove themselves against Mendenhall. They had a goal-line stand against him on Dec. 8. Strongside linebacker Chris Gocong’s involvement in four consecutive tackles helped keep the 5-foot-10, 225-pound Mendenhall out of the end zone.
“Obviously, we had a few games that got out of hand on us,” Browns weakside linebacker Kaluka Maiava said. “It kind of was embarrassing, and we came back to work and fix the little things. We try to keep these top running backs that we face every week under 100 yards. We’re not here to get embarrassed. We’re here to stop the run and win games. We’re facing another good backfield this week, so we’re trying to do the same thing again and come out with a win.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://browns.ohio.com. Follow the Browns on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ABJ_Browns and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.