When the Cleveland Browns face the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on Sunday, they will be looking to spoil the playoff hopes of their AFC North rivals, while also trying to build momentum heading into the offseason.
“Our focus is squarely on the Pittsburgh Steelers and finishing the season the right way,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. “Pittsburgh’s a very good football team. They’re in the playoff mix right now, and they’ve played real well since the bye week and had a big win against Green Bay this past weekend.”
After an 0-4 start, the Steelers have fought their way back into the playoff race. At 7-8, they are in the hunt for the AFC’s final wild-card spot. The Steelers need a victory and losses from the Baltimore Ravens, San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins to get into the postseason.
Chudzinski knows the Browns are in for a particularly big challenge defensively, as Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has passed for 4,082 yards and 27 touchdowns against 12 interceptions despite getting sacked 41 times for 275 lost yards.
Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders have combined to give Roethlisberger a one-two punch at wide receiver. Brown leads the team with 1,412 yards on 101 catches, while Sanders has turned 65 catches into 714 yards and six touchdowns, including a Steelers-best 55-yard score.
Veteran wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery leads the Steelers with nine touchdowns receptions.
“They’re a very versatile offense, explosive,” Chudzinski said. “It’s a big-play offense. They can attack you in a number of different ways with a number of different people. As always, it starts with Ben Roethlisberger and his ability to create plays. He’s a very tough guy to get down and to affect.
“They have outstanding wide receivers. Antonio Brown is having a great season. With Cotchery and Sanders, those three guys can do a lot of different things, and are extremely dangerous once they have the ball in their hands as run-after-the-catch guys.”
In addition to the passing threat Roethlisberger and his wide receivers give to a defense, the Steelers’ record has improved with the development of rookie running back, and Ohio native, Le’Veon Bell.
Bell has turned his 224 carries into 770 yards and seven touchdowns, while adding 393 yards on 44 receptions, fourth-most on the team.
“I believe, he’s was the first 100-yard runner in 23 games or something like that, which is odd to hear from the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton said. “He’s a tough, downhill runner, but I think the added dimension for him is how much -- we’re talking about this empty formation, how quick they throw the ball outside -- he’s become a favorite of Ben flanked out. They just stand up and throw the ball to him. It’s a long handoff. I think he’s molding himself into what would be a Pittsburgh running back.”
The Steelers have generated 31 sacks for 179 lost yards, and eight interceptions, which they have returned for 160 yards. As a team, the Steelers have returned three turnovers for touchdowns this season, including one by veteran free safety Troy Polamalu.
“They’re an attacking-style defense,” Chudzinski said. “Everything starts with Troy Polamalu. He’s still the playmaker that he has been. He made a big play in the Green Bay game, and certainly, all season long, has made those types of plays. You have to account for him.”
Browns offensive coordinator Norv Turner added, “I think the biggest thing is you try to emphasize the things that kept you from playing how you wanted. We had a turnover early on a fumble; we had a seven- or eight-yard gain, and when you’re playing against Troy, he’s going to rip the ball out. He’s going to try to rip the ball out, and we let him do it. We shouldn’t let him do that. Going in, that’s what he’s going to do and you just have to protect it. We have to do a better job there.”
The Browns gave up five sacks for 21 lost yards, and lost four turnovers in their 27-11 loss to the Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium on Nov. 24. Pittsburgh turned those four turnovers into 17 points.
Already down, 13-3, in the third quarter, the Browns were marching into Pittsburgh territory when quarterback
“That’s the one thing about playing Pittsburgh, they give you a lot of different looks on third down, and one play could change a game,” Turner said. “That play certainly changed the game. We were in a game that if we score, it’s a one-score game, and instead, we have the big turnover and give them the ball on the five.”