When the 5-4 Pittsburgh Steelers host the 2-7 Cleveland Browns on Sunday, go ahead and throw out the records. These two ancient rivals despise one another and anything is bound to happen. Pittsburgh is in line for the top Wildcard spot and a win would go a long way to securing that spot. Cleveland is looking to get something going. But against their AFC North rivals, they are hungry to win. Both teams have top players on the injury list, so "next man up" is crucial.
Ponder these matchups as being key in the outcome of this battle.
Key Matchup #1
QB Landry Jones vs QB Johnny Manziel
Analysis: Who is starting at quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers? Who is starting at quarterback for the Cleveland Browns? The answer is still as murky as the Monongahela in March. Even though Ben Roethlisberger is out of his walking boot and lobbying to play, at this point it doesn't seem likely that Big Ben will get his wish granted. For the Browns, Josh McCown is unlikely to start due to an injury to his ribs. The report out of Cleveland states that Manziel is taking first-team reps, but that McCown has been stepping it up in practice. If either of the QB1s take the field on Sunday, it won't be a complete shock.
With the arsenal of weapons surrounding him, Jones has the advantage here. He has established a good rapport with both of the gamebreakers that he has at his disposal. In relief against Arizona and his start in Kansas City, Jones hooked up with Bryant for three scores. In his relief appearance against Oakland, the Landry-Antonio connection was paramount in the late win.
Jones did not look good in his only start against KC, but he was playing with a LT (Al Villanueva) who was making his first start also. Both have gained great experience since then and Jones has a talented workhorse in Deangelo Williams to rely on.
Manziel has barely seen any action against the Steelers and is playing behind a line that may have him scampering for his life. Johnny Football has completed 43 of 83 for a percentage of 51.8 and has accumulated 561 yards on the season. He is currently ranked 41st among quarterbacks on the year. With an average of 112 yards passing-per-game, Manziel will be the least formidable passing threat that the Steelers have seen all year. McCown, with 11 touchdowns and four picks, has a 65% completion rate. He would pose much more of a challenge to Pittsburgh's defensive backfield.
Key Matchup #2
WR Antonio Brown vs CB Pierre Desir
Analysis: After last week's team record-breaking performance, what is Antonio going to do this week against a weakend Browns secondary? AB collected 17 balls last week against Oakland for 284 yards. With 1,002 yards on the season, Brown is once again the top-ranked WR in the NFL.
The Browns respect Brown's ability for a smaller receiver and are bound determined to stop him. Roethlisberger's projected absence will hamper #84 a tad, but expect Landry Jones to go to AB early and often.
Cleveland is without Joe Haden, their lockdown corner. In his place is likely the second-year player, Pierre Desir. Desir has no interceptions and five pass defenses on the year, but has great, leaping ability and attacks the ball in the air well. Desir could very well get multiple picks in this game.
Veteran Tramon Williams may draw Brown on some plays also. Look for Desir and Williams to get help from S Tashaun Gipson in this game.
Key Matchup # 3
RB Deangelo Williams vs the Cleveland Front Seven
Analysis: The Browns rank dead last in the entire league against the running game. They have been giving up an average of 147.6 yards-per-game and have allowed four runs of 40+ yards. Williams ran for 170 last week and has had two 40+ runs the previous two weeks.
Expect Cleveland to stack the box against DeAngelo Williams on Sunday, however that tactic allows Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant run free and wild. Pick your poison.
Key Matchup #4
RDE Cameron Heyward and OLB Jarvis Jones vs LT Joe Thomas
Analysis: The Browns have had trouble protecting the quarterback all season, allowing their signal caller to get pummeled behind the line-of-scrimmage 30 times. Thomas, the eight-time Pro-Bowler, is the undisputed anchor of the offensive line, but the ninth-year player may be showing some wear-and-tear and can be penetrated. With LG Joel Bitonio out with injury, Thomas will have to help out rookie Cam Erving, who is starting for the first time.
Heyward is the leader of the Steeler defense and has been outstanding this season. Cam has three sacks on the year, but seems to be involved in most plays.
Jones will see increased playing time with James Harrison out. #SacManJones has 1.5 QB takedowns and has been applying the most pressure of his career.
With 22 sacks on the season, the Steelers are tied for ninth in that category. This could spell trouble for the Cleveland QB if Thomas and the line can't lock it down.
Key Matchup #5
C Cody Wallace vs NT Danny Shelton
Analysis: Shelton has had an excellent freshman campaign for the Browns. Shelton is a violent pass rusher that can bull-rush his way deep in the pocket. So far, the rookie from Washington has 24 tackles and has been a disruption to the opposition. He is projected to be the gold standard at his position in the very, near future.
Wallace has been solid in place of Maurkice Pouncey, but is the most susceptible to losing a battle then anyone else on the Steeler offensive line. Wallace will have his hands full with Shelton on Sunday. This will not only be a key to the success of Landry Jones, but to that of DeAngelo Williams as well.
Other Key Matchups:
CB William Gay vs WR Travis Benjamin
ILB Lawrence Timmons vs TE Gary Barnidge
KR/PR Jacoby Jones vs Cleveland Special Teams