BEREA: The first time the Browns faced the Pittsburgh Steelers this season, they didn’t need to worry about the challenge of facing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Sidelined with shoulder and rib injuries, Roethlisberger missed a three-game stretch that included a 20-14 loss at Cleveland Browns Stadium on Nov. 25.
Roethlisberger is back for today’s season finale.
Third-string quarterback Charlie Batch started the first game for the Steelers. This time, the Browns will use third-string quarterback Thaddeus Lewis against the Steelers. Starter Brandon Weeden and backup Colt McCoy suffered right shoulder injuries in last week’s loss to the Denver Broncos.
It just doesn’t seem fair that today’s game features Lewis, who will be receiving his first NFL playing time in the regular season, against Roethlisberger, a Super Bowl champion who's in his ninth professional season. At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, Lewis, 25, doesn’t stand out as an NFL quarterback. He was taken off the roster once this season and had to be signed last week from the practice squad to direct the Browns’ first-team offense.
The fact that Lewis played at Duke does speak volumes of his intellectual aptitude. But will it be enough to get the better of a savvy veteran in a game that, if won by the Browns (5-10), would give them their first season sweep of the Steelers since 1988? Despite missing time this season, Roethlisberger has thrown for 3,131 yards, 23 touchdowns and a 95.5 quarterback rating.
“Big Ben definitely is one of the top-tier quarterbacks in the league,” said Browns undrafted rookie Tashaun Gipson, who will start at free safety today while Eric Hagg starts at strong safety because of season-ending injuries to T.J. Ward and Usama Young. “I know he’s going to use his veteran craftiness against me. I’m still a rookie at the end of the day, so I definitely know he’s going to try to play mind games with me back there.”
It could help the Browns that they’re catching the 6-5, 240-pound Roethlisberger at less than 100 percent, at least by the looks of his play recently. In the Steelers’ past two games — losses to the Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals — Roethlisberger has thrown interceptions in the clutch, a time when he usually shines.
Those defeats are part of a three-game losing streak for the Steelers (7-8), who have lost five of their past six.
The Steelers have been eliminated from the playoffs and will play a meaningless finale, which they're not accustomed to doing.
But even with Roethlisberger hobbled, Browns coach Pat Shurmur isn’t considering it much of a break.
“I wouldn’t say he’s not on top of his game,” Shurmur said. “I’ve still seen [him] make plays where it looks like the play is dead and he extends it and finds a receiver. … Anytime Ben is out there, you know he can make a big play.
“You know that he can extend plays and ruin the game for you by making a big play when you feel like for the first five or six seconds of that snap you’ve got him defended. That’s what’s always in the back of your head.”
It’s a trait Browns defenders witnessed too often during Roethlisberger’s career.
“Not only can he move, but he’s hard to take down,” defensive end Jabaal Sheard said. “He has a strong arm, so he can sit in the pocket and throw the ball 50 yards. So we have to do our best job getting pressure on him, keep him in that pocket and do a good job of getting as many hits on him as we can.”
Gipson is new to the rivalry and will be facing Roethlisberger for the first time. But he seems well aware of the challenge ahead of him.
“Some of the stuff that I’ve watched and tried to dissect, it’s unreal,” Gipson said. “It’s just a combination of everything: will, strength, just sheer athletic ability. To be that big, he is fairly athletic and he’s definitely got a strong arm. With the speed that they have at wide receiver, it’s definitely going to be a totally new ballgame. No disrespect to Charlie Batch, but it’s definitely going to be a huge, different ballgame.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at email@example.com.