The Browns’ chance to play the role of a spoiler in their season finale on the road Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers was, well, spoiled this past weekend.
The Steelers were eliminated from making the playoffs when they fell 13-10 to the Cincinnati Bengals. It was the Steelers’ fifth loss in their past six games and their third consecutive defeat at home.
So now the Browns (5-10) and Steelers (7-8) will play a relatively meaningless end-of-the season AFC North game with only a couple of statistical marks and a chance to finish the year on a positive note at stake. After prevailing against the Steelers 20-14 on Nov. 25, the Browns are seeking their first season sweep against the Steelers since 1988.
“Yeah, it would be a big deal,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said.
The Steelers, meanwhile, will attempt to avoid their first losing season since 2003. Steelers third-string quarterback Charlie Batch started against the Browns earlier this season because Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder/ribs) and Byron Leftwich (ribs) were sidelined with injuries. Roethlisberger will play this time, aiming to bounce back after throwing interceptions during crunch time in consecutive weeks that led to losses against the Bengals and the Dallas Cowboys. He’s 14-1 against the Browns.
On the other hand, the Browns might be without rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden (sprained right shoulder) and rookie running back Trent Richardson (left ankle), both of whom were hurt Sunday in the second half of the Browns’ second defeat in a row, a 34-12 loss to the Denver Broncos. If that’s the case, backup quarterback Colt McCoy will start at Heinz Field, the site of linebacker James Harrison’s devastating helmet-to-face mask hit that gave McCoy a season-ending concussion on Dec. 8, 2011.
And it also will probably be Shurmur’s final game with the Browns. With the new regime of owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner expected to make changes after another disappointing season, it seems likely the Browns will part with Shurmur and General Manager Tom Heckert.
So if Shurmur’s farewell is on the horizon, will he be able to resuscitate a storied rivalry by beating the Steelers again on his way out? The Browns have lost 16 of their past 18 meetings with the Steelers.
Alan Robinson covers the Steelers for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He discussed them in the following question-and-answer session:
Q: Without a playoff berth on the line, how do you expect the Steelers to approach the finale?
A: “They don’t want to have a losing season. They haven’t had a losing season since 2003. They’ve only had three of them in the last 20 years. So that may not be much to play for, but it’s something to play for, and they certainly don’t want to get swept by the Browns in the season series, either. Larry Foote, the linebacker, was talking about that. He said there was a lot of trash talking by some Browns players at the end of that game in Cleveland. He said that kind of stuck with him and may be on his mind on Sunday. The Steelers aren’t used to playing games that aren’t meaningful, but I think they’ll have some kind of incentive because nobody wants to have the stigma of having a losing record because it happens so infrequently around here.”
Q: What are the main reasons for the Steelers’ failure to make the playoffs for the second time in four seasons?
A: “They’ve had 16 major injuries this year. That’s where they’ve lost a starter for multiple games. It’s taken almost everybody out of the lineup. It’s taken Roethlisberger out. It’s taken [safety Troy] Polamalu out. It’s taken James Harrison out. Now it’s taken [tight end] Heath Miller out. They’ve had three right tackles. They’ve had multiple guards. They just had to constantly re-juggle the offensive line. … There’s only so many major injuries I think any team can absorb, and I think that’s probably the major reason why this team has fallen off. And also, they’ve lost close games. They’ve lost five games by three points.”
Q: To what do you attribute Roethlisberger’s recent struggles?
A: Roethlisberger has just not been able to close out games. He was out for three and a half games with that shoulder and the rib [injury], and he just hasn’t been the same player since he came back. His stats are way down. He’s got four interceptions in the three games since he came back, all of them costly. He only had four in the first nine games. He just has not looked like the same player. Whether there are chemistry issues with [offensive coordinator] Todd Haley, I don’t know. We may not know that till the end of the season. Whether the layoff has just caused so much rust that he’s not the same player, he’s not making the same throws he did earlier in the season and he just doesn’t seem to be playing with the confidence he played with earlier in the season.”
Q: Harrison placed blame on the coaches after the loss to the Bengals. Do you think his comments accurately reflect the attitude of the locker room?
A: “I think it probably reflects the views of multiple players. You’ll never find a defensive player in that locker room who will criticize [defensive coordinator] Dick LeBeau. … So clearly, to me, that had to be aimed at the offense. So who’s he pointing the finger at? It seems pretty obvious. You’re seeing some play calling here that you just probably haven’t seen before. They’ve had some curious play calls, especially the last couple of weeks.”
Q: What will be the most important key to the game for the Steelers when they host the Browns?
A: “Showing up. You can argue the real Steelers haven’t shown up for quite a while now. They need to play like the game really means something to them. It’s easy to talk going into the week of a meaningless game that it does mean something to you and you do have something to play for. But they had a pretty critical game here against the [San Diego] Chargers three weeks ago, and the energy level was just terrible. They felt like all they had to do was just show up and win that game, and they responded with probably the worst performance they’ve had under [coach Mike] Tomlin. And you can question the commitment they had going into that Browns game in Cleveland. They’ve had games like that this year where they just don’t seem to be into it mentally or physically, and that’s kind of uncommon for the Steelers. So they need to show up and be the Steelers for one week because it’s the last chance they’re going to have to do it until next September.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at https://ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ. and on Facebook www.facebook.com.browns.abj.