There was one pretty foolproof way to limit the Pittsburgh Steelers success on offense last season: apply unrelenting pressure to Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers posted a 3-6 record in 2013 when their quarterback was sacked three times or more.
The team who dropped Big Ben to the floor the most? The Buffalo Bills sacked Roethlisberger four times and of course the unit was led by Mike Pettine.
Roethlisberger says a staple of Pettine's scheme is the constant rotation on the defensive line and with various blitzing linebackers, from all angles. And the quarterback used the term "double-barrel" several times, indicating how Cleveland will overload certain gaps in the offensive line to muddle up a quarterback's thinking.
"Confusion is one of the big keys," said Roethlisberger about the Browns' scheme change on defense. "That's what we've been keying in on so far, trying to deal with their fronts and their different blitzes."
In Roethlisberger's mind, the addition of Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner might impact the Browns win total just as much as the play calling will on defense. Dansby has the ability to blanket tight end Heath Miller, while also being used as a disruptive element to the Browns blitzing plans. And Whitner literally makes the center of the field a danger zone for opposing players.
"[They are] veteran players that have been on big time teams, that have made big time plays, that have been doing it a high-level for a long time," said Roethlisberger. "I think they bring a veteran leadership to a defense that primarily is younger. That really helps kind of add another cog to that wheel."
A strategy the Browns might employ in sacking Roethlisberger is attacking Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert. The fourth-year pro gave up 11 total sacks in 2013, third worst in the entire NFL. Even though Cleveland is fond of rotating their outside linebackers on various sides, the Browns coaching staff should go into the game with an idea of whether Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo or Jabaal Sheard presents the toughest challenge for Gilbert.
You can strategize all you want for the Steeler and Roethlisberger (9-0 career record at home vs. the Browns) but you can't plan on what will happen if he does escape pressure. Pettine says the Steelers are the best team in the league at playing "streetball." Roethlisberger, using his physical frame, pushes aside blitzing defenders, while his receivers zip around the field looking for open space.
"We always tell our guys, the play doesn't begin until he makes the first guy miss," said Pettine. "He has the uncanny ability and it's a reason he's one of the elite quarterbacks. Physically, guys have a hard time bringing him down. How many throws has he made with guys just hanging on him?"
If the Browns can come blazing out of the gates on defense, and disrupt Roethlisberger's rhythm, they'll be setting themselves up for a possible upset win at Heinz Field.