(The following stats can all be found on NFL.com and pro-football-reference.com)
In perhaps an odd turn of events, the Cleveland Browns come into Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers with the better defense. The Browns rank higher than the Steelers in Total Defense (4th) Passing Yards per Game (4th) and Rushing Yards per Game (8th), according to NFL.com.
In contrast, the Steelers rank 14th in Total Defense, eighth in Passing Yards per Game and a poignant 26th in Rushing Yards per Game.
It’s hard to say this: The Browns are the top-10 defense in this matchup. How could this be?
Obviously personnel is a huge factor, but perhaps this goes a little bit deeper. Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton considers Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau his mentor (Tom Reed, cleveland.com). Being an assistant for the Steelers (secondary coach) from 2004-2010, Horton had plenty of time to study LeBeau’s top-10 defenses.
And now he’s running his own, well-oiled Steelers doppelganger.
Let’s take a look at how the Steelers will match up against Cleveland’s new facsimile.
Antonio Brown vs. Joe Haden
Steelers’ wide receiver Antonio Brown is having undoubtedly the best season of his career. His 74 receptions rank him first in the NFL and his 952-receiving yards rank him fifth. Few teams have been able to slow Brown’s productivity, even when the Steelers offense looked sometimes-stagnant during their 0-4 start.
Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden might be the brick-wall that Brown has so far avoided.
Haden is generally matched up against the opposing team’s best receiver. In games so far this season against a “marquee” receiver, Haden has performed admirably.
Steelers fans will remember Lions receiver Calvin Johnson running all over the field, gaining 179 yards on six catches and two touchdowns, against them last week. When Johnson played Haden in Week 6, Johnson only amounted 25 yards on three catches and no scores.
Moreover, in two-matchups this year, Bengals receiver A.J. Green amounted nine catches for 58 yards and no scores—including just two catches for seven yards last week.
Expect Brown to be a non-factor against the blossoming Haden—who, in his fourth-year, looks like one of the league’s best corners.
Pittsburgh’s offensive line vs. Cleveland’s defense
This could be bad. The Steelers offensive line ranks 30th in Sacks Allowed (37). The Browns defense ranks tied for ninth (31.0).
And they’re doing it the “Steeler Way.”
Horton implements many of the same blitzes and schemes that had made Dick LeBeau so venerable—the middle linebacker cross blitz, zone blitzes and disguises. It may help that the Steelers offensive line practices against these same defenses, but the way they have looked all season, let’s not expect much. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will have to dance and avoid the rush—as only he can do—to give the Steelers offense a chance.
One thing the Steelers might do to counter the pass rush is what they did to the Lions last week, with Roethlisberger orchestrating the hurry up offensive. But with Brown locked up with Haden, other Steelers players will have to step up, like:
Le’Veon Bell vs. Cleveland’s eighth ranked rushing-defense
This might be where the Steelers can exploit the Browns’ defense.
If there is one weakness to Cleveland’s defense it’s their rushing defense. Still ranked in the top-10 statistically, the Browns have surrendered some rushing yards to some of the league’s best rushers. Against Minnesota and Adrian Peterson the Browns yielded 134 yards on the ground. Against Buffalo’s dual-headed attack they let up 155 yards.
It’s promising, but the Steelers come into the game with the league’s 30th ranked rushing offense. If the Steelers commit wholeheartedly to the run, and keep the Browns off-balance in the hurry up, it could work.
Regardless, it will be a rough day for the Steelers offense. With a little determination and a strong performance from their own defense, the Steelers could just pull it off.
(Quinton Clapper believes stats are a persuasive mistress. Follow him on twitter: @quintonclapper.)