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With many players on both sides playing for pride and future employment, the Browns will start a little-known third-year quarterback against a Steelers team wanting to avoid its first losing season in nine years.
Rookie quarterbacks don't typically fare well against Dick LeBeau's defense. How do passers who have been on the practice squad for the last two years do?
Browns rookie Brandon Weeden may be the first quarterback to have beaten LeBeau's 2004 and beyond version of the Steelers (when the game mattered), but the Browns won't look to duplicate that magic - Pittsburgh turned the ball over eight total times including one on the game's final play as Cleveland shocked Pittsburgh 20-14 in Week 12.
Weeden and his back-up, Colt McCoy, have been ruled out, giving former undrafted free agent Thad Lewis his first career start.
Lewis, who excelled at Duke under head coach David Cutcliffe (a quarterback guru who coached both Peyton and Eli Manning in college), was signed off the Browns' practice squad this week heading into the game.
Almost ironically, it's a very similar situation to the first rookie to have beaten LeBeau's defense - Baltimore's Troy Smith. The Steelers benched many of their starters for a Week 17 clash against Baltimore in 2007 as their first round home playoff game against Jacksonville was already set. Ravens' rookie Troy Smith led the Ravens to a 27-17 victory against the Steelers' back-ups. Now, with a slew of Browns players out this game (including rookie running back Trent Richardson), Cleveland will put up a shell of its 5-10 team against a Steelers team looking to finish the game on a high note (Pittsburgh Steelers Tickets).
Weeden was the exception to the Browns' past experiences against the Steelers, and Lewis will look to be, if nothing else, not like the Browns' version of Bruce Gradkowski.
He started in Pittsburgh's 31-0 rout of Cleveland in Week 17 in 2008, completing five of 16 passes for 18 yards and a long of four with one interception.
His passer rating for that game was 1.0.
It could be the last game for several Steelers players, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Outside linebacker James Harrison could be playing for a new team, as he confirmed he still wants to play, but carrying a cap number in excess of $10 million, it's unlikely he will return to Pittsburgh next season.
Wide receiver Mike Wallace will miss the first game of his NFL career Sunday, as he has been ruled out with a hamstring injury. Odds are very low even an attempt to retain Wallace - who's playing under a restricted free agent tender - will return next season. He will join a deep crop of receivers in this year's free agent market that includes Chiefs' WR Dwayne Bowe and likely, Packers WR Greg Jennings.
Although it seems amazingly convenient for Wallace to miss this game - he's played in every game of his NFL career, and he held out from all offseason activities in wake of not having a long-term contract - the Steelers have said all week they're playing to win this game. It appears they will land somewhere between the 13th and 19th pick in the 2013 Draft. Injuries aside, logic would indicate the Browns would be playing this to win as well, considering their new ownership group will likely make sweeping changes this offseason, including the removal of head coach Pat Shurmur and his staff. They'll likely be coaching for employment next season, and likely being without connection or history with the new coaching staff, nearly every player on the roster would be at some level of risk of not returning.
The Steelers' motivation would be avoiding its first losing season since 2003. While that losing season (6-10, including a Week 17 loss to Baltimore) netted them the 11th overall pick and the ability to select quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, considering the team is mired in a transitional period and very few positions are secure for next season on a team at the top of the cap and divided nearly straight down the middle between young and old.