For the 6-4 Pittsburgh Steelers, the season is quickly unravelling. Injuries in an OT victory over the Kansas City Chiefs and a close loss to the Baltimore Ravens has forced them to turn to their third-string quarterback, the soon-to-be 38 year-old Charlie Batch.
Not only that, the loss to the Ravens has put Baltimore in pole position to win the division, leaving Pittsburgh to battle it out with the likes of the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals for one of the two wildcard spots. Fortunately for the Steelers, outside of those two teams, there does not appear to be too much competition for the two spots.
But that makes this week’s game against division rivals, the Cleveland Browns (2-8) an essential game, especially with a trip away to Baltimore looming next week. But taking care of business this week is likely to come down to two key factors: on offense, the play of Batch and on defence, the Steelers’ ability to stop Browns’ running back, Trent Richardson.
Richardson is nursing some minor injuries but has fully participated in practice. Last week, in the Browns harrowing overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Richardson was largely kept bottled up, gaining 95 yards on 28 carries for an average of only 3.4 per carry.
Although Cleveland was able to give Dallas some fits with late game heroics through the passing game, their receiver core is inconsistent at best and quarterback Brandon Weedon is still learning the pro game. In order to give themselves any opportunities against a stronger Pittsburgh secondary, the Browns will have to get Richardson running hard, forcing the Steelers to put eight men in the box and setting up play action for Weedon.
It is a remarkably similar story on the other side of the ball. In fact, the whole game could be framed as ‘the oldest rookie and his running back versus the oldest back up and his’. Batch will need help from whichever Pittsburgh running backs are healthy enough to shoulder the load. Currently it looks like all three of the Steelers’ main backs are ready to go. If so, look to see hot hand, Jonathan Dwyer be the first choice and former first round pick, Rashard Mendenhall to also get a number of touches.
Cleveland’s defence is stronger than many people give them credit for. However, its secondary is banged up. For the Steelers to have offensive success, Batch is going to have to throw. The Steelers bolstered their injured receiving corps with former Steelers’ first-round pick, and former felon, Plaxico Burress. It is unlikely Burress will make an immediate impact (or any impact at all for that matter) but the Steelers must have seen something in the receiver, who at 35 is nearly as old as their current starting quarterback.
Special teams is also likely to play a signficant role in the outcome of the game. Last week against the Ravens, the Steelers allowed a punt return for a touchdown for the first time all year. Meanwhile, Cleveland returnman, Josh Cribbs has a history of destroying Pittsburgh's coverage when these two teams play.
Look for the Steelers to eke out a close win in the city by the lake. Cleveland will not roll over but in the end, the more talented roster is likely to come through.
The game will be available on CBS at 1 PM EST for much of the mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes regions, as well as Florida.