One of the surest bets during the last decade has been Ben Roethlisberger beating the Cleveland Browns.
He's 18-1 against Cleveland, the team that passed on him with the No. 6 pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, and also the one closest to Roethlisberger's hometown of Lima, Ohio. In those 19 career games against the Browns, Ben has a passer rating of 97.7, compared to just 84.7 and 80.9 against Cincinnati and Baltimore, respectively.
But this year's squad isn't the same Browns team. A big part of that is the heady and steady play of quarterback Brian Hoyer. With six touchdown passes to just one interception, he leads one of the most efficient offenses in the league, and one that just made the greatest road comeback for a win in NFL history. The Browns were down 25 points in the second half to the Tennessee Titans, just a few weeks after leading a 24-point comeback against the Steelers on the road.
"Hoyer is playing great, just like I and coach (Mike) Tomlin told you guys he was a good player," Roethlisberger told the Cleveland media this week, as quoted by Plain-Dealer reporter Mary Kay Cabot. "He's showing it. This is not going to be easy for us."
Hoyer spent a few weeks with the Steelers in 2012 after Pittsburgh lost its top-two quarterbacks, Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich. The team is intimately familiar with him, but not to the extent of his current status as one of the league's better passers based on Cleveland's first four games.
Watch Markus Wheaton shred the Browns in Week 1.
What they do know, or at least should have picked up by now, is that Hoyer is dangerous. Like a Browns team that comprises more than 40 percent undrafted players, he knows how to fight against the odds. In an era in which comeback wins and late-game heroics are more often a measure of the greatness of an NFL quarterback, Hoyer shines in that spotlight even if he's not matching that level of performance early in games.
Typically, defensive coordinators, and particularly Steelers DC Dick LeBeau, heap praise on the opposition, but it was Steelers' offensive coordinator Todd Haley who made the most flattering statement about Hoyer.
"We really got kind of excited about Brian while he was here," said Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley. "He is a really smart guy. He was well prepared. He brought a lot to the meetings and out on the field. He has real good football intellect as far as the feel and what was going on. I'm not real surprised by what he's done. He was driven and he wanted to prove that he was pretty good. I'm happy to see that, but hopefully not Sunday."
Unfortunately for Roethlisberger, LeBeau and Haley, Hoyer will be on the field, and they're going to have to collectively out-smart and out-gun a quarterback who simply isn't making mistakes right now.
To do that, one must match smart play with smart play. Roethlisberger certainly is up to the task but, like he said, this won't be easy.