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One For the Thumb #1 (REPLAY): R.I.P BIG LANCE
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After breaking down film of both teams, Scouts Inc. offers 10 things to watch in the Week 17 Steelers-Browns matchup.
1. Pittsburgh needs to be methodical on offense: The Steelers are banged up along the offensive line and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is questionable, while the Browns are giving up 147 yards per game on the ground. Pittsburgh was able to run for 147 yards and control the tempo in a Week 14 meeting with Cleveland, so look for offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to pound the ball on early downs. Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman will carry the load between the tackles, with Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace attacking the perimeter with motion sweeps, end-arounds and reverses.
2. Protect Big Ben in the pocket: The Steelers need a win to keep their hopes of an AFC North title alive, but they also need to keep their Pro Bowl quarterback healthy heading into the postseason. Roethlisberger did not play in Week 16 and is questionable for this game, but if he does play his mobility will be limited. The Browns have only 30 sacks on the season but will likely be more aggressive if Roethlisberger is playing. the Steelers have been marginal in pass protection, so look for Arians to tighten his line splits and use more screens, option routes and shallow crossers to keep Roethlisberger upright.
3. Stop the run first: The Browns build their offense around a physical ground attack led by two powerful running backs, Peyton Hillis and Chris Ogbonnaya. Although Pittsburgh can be physical defending the run, it still gives up 4 yards per carry. With Cleveland struggling in the passing game, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will focus on making the Browns one-dimensional. Look for more zone run blitzes and tighter alignments from the Steelers' front seven, with combination zone coverages behind, in this week’'s matchup.
4. Win on special teams: The Steelers are clearly the better team in this matchup, but they are hurting a bit and their earlier meeting with the Browns was close until very late in the game. In order to finish the season on a high note in Cleveland, the Browns need a great effort in the kicking game. Cleveland has one of the most explosive returners in the league in Joshua Cribbs, so Steelers coach Mike Tomlin must have his club laser focused on special teams in order to maintain field position.
5. Matchup to watch: Steelers WR Antonio Brown vs. Cleveland's CBs: Brown has become the biggest threat in the Steelers' air attack during the second half of the season. He had five catches for 151 yards and a touchdown in the earlier meeting with Cleveland, and his deceptive speed and improved route running have made him a great complement to Wallace. Browns corners Sheldon Brown and Joe Haden are outstanding athletes with excellent coverage skills, which should make for an intense battle when the Steelers put the ball in the air.
6. Establish an effective ground attack: Cleveland's running game has fallen off in 2011, while the Steelers have limited opponents to just over 100 yards per game on the ground. However, Pittsburgh could be exploited by an expanded offensive approach. Look for Browns coach Pat Shurmur to be creative with formations, spread sets and more to get Hillis on track early in the contest.
7. Allow time in the passing game: The Steelers put a ton of pressure on QB Colt McCoy in Week 14, including three sacks, and the Pittsburgh duo of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley (18 combined sacks) is likely to be reunited this week and ready to apply pressure off the edges. The Browns have been inconsistent in pass protection, so expect Shurmur to utilize an extra blocker (fullback or tight end) on the edge, as well as rollouts and bootlegs to give his quarterback time to deliver the ball downfield.
8. Get your playmakers the ball early and often: The Browns can start building momentum for next season with a big performance in this game. Getting Hillis more touches is a clear way to do that, but other offensive players -- Cribbs, Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi and Ben Watson -- have shown the ability to pick up chunks of yards. Look for Shurmur to be more creative with jailbreak screens, motion sweeps, reverses and deep seam routes to get the ball to his playmakers and stretch this feisty Steelers defense.
9. Take more chances to derail the Steelers' offense: The Browns have had a dismal season and have not won a game within the division, so they need to take some chances against a banged-up Pittsburgh offense. Cleveland has some talented players on defense who could give the Steelers problems with an aggressive game plan, so look for defensive coordinator Dick Jauron to open his play book and apply pressure with seven- and eight-man blitz packages, as well as eight-man fronts and zone run stunts in this rivalry game.
10. Matchup to watch: Browns OT Joe Thomas vs. Steelers OLB James Harrison:Thomas has been a bright spot for a marginal team with his excellent combination of size, strength and athleticism for the position. Harrison is a powerfully built athlete with great quickness and a variety of counter moves coming off the edge. Harrison was suspended for a helmet-to-helmet hit on McCoy in Week 14 and he’'ll want to make a statement (legally) in the season finale.