Browns shoot for rare sweep of Steelers

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Updated: December 28, 2012

This isn’t exactly what the Pittsburgh Steelers are trained for.

Instead of amassing momentum for a late-season push toward yet another Super
Bowl appearance — they’ve won six overall, and two in this century — the
Steelers are instead heading home to Heinz Field this weekend to face the
Cleveland Browns with nothing to play for beyond pride.

A 13-10 home loss to Cincinnati — its third straight — ended hopes of both a
division title and a postseason berth last week for Pittsburgh, leaving Week
17 as a glorified walk-through for coaches and players accustomed to far more.
In fact, it’s just the second time in six seasons under Mike Tomlin that the
end of the regular-season schedule will mean the end of the line.

The untimely three-game skid was preceded by a 20-14 loss in Cleveland,
meaning the Browns are in position to sweep the season series between the
teams for the first time in 24 years.

It’s a circumstance that doesn’t thrill Tomlin.

“This is an opportunity to play and play to win, to get this sour taste out of
our mouth,” he said. “I am not going to approach it with (any other)
mentality.”

An interception thrown by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger led to Cincinnati’s
decisive points last Sunday, just a week after another INT provided field
position for Dallas to clinch an overtime victory.

Not surprisingly then, at the end of a season in which the Steelers have lost
a majority of their close games, the passer is taking some verbal hits in
addition to physical ones.

“A lot of it just has to do with me not playing well enough down the stretch,”
Roethlisberger said. “Fourth-quarter drives or last-minute throws, I’m just
not making it happen, so my best answer would be that I just didn’t play well
enough.”

He’s completed 63.1 percent of his attempts across 12 starts and has 23
touchdowns compared to only eight interceptions, but exactly half of the picks
— and just six of the TDs — have come in the three games he’s played since
sitting out three weeks with rib and shoulder maladies.

“We can talk about (injuries) in the offseason maybe, but I feel good enough
to play,” he said.

Not on the “I feel good enough” list for this week is tight end Heath Miller,
who’ll miss this weekend and probably more down the road after tearing both
the ACL and MCL in his right knee against the Bengals.

Miller has long been one of Roethlisberger’s primary targets, and both the 19
red-zone throws in his direction and the eight scoring catches he’s made are
among the best in the league at his position.

Cleveland, meanwhile, dropped a 22-point decision at Denver last week to
ensure its 11th season of double-digit losses since the franchise was
reinvented in 1999 after the initial version moved to Baltimore. It’s made the
playoffs just once — in 2007, under Romeo Crennel — since the transition.

Still, a defeat of the Steelers this week would mark a two-win improvement
over the 4-12 finish in coach Pat Shurmur’s initial season on the job. Whether
that would be enough to save him, however, is up for debate in a revamped
front office that’s issued a mandate for turnaround.

Shurmur’s two years at the helm have followed a two-year run by Eric Mangini,
which came after four years under Crennel, four under Butch Davis and two
under Chris Palmer.

No Cleveland coach has lasted five years since Bill Belichick went 36-44 from
1991-95.

“Every year you have a constant rebuilding process, not a good recipe for
success football,” punt returner Josh Cribbs said.

More urgent for the time being is the availability of a healthy quarterback
after starter Brandon Weeden and second-stringer Colt McCoy were injured
against the Broncos.

No. 3 man Thad Lewis, who was called up from the practice squad and has never
taken an NFL snap, worked with the first team in practice this week and would
go if the top two cannot. Free agent Josh Johnson, who threw 177 passes in
three seasons with Tampa Bay, was signed to add emergency depth.

Also on the mend is rookie running back Trent Richardson, who injured his left
ankle against Denver and remains in doubt along with the quarterbacks. He ran
for 85 yards and a TD in the Browns’ defeat of the Steelers last month, in
which Pittsburgh turned the ball over eight times and gained only 242 total
yards.

“The injuries to Brandon and Trent are not as severe as you might have
thought,” Shurmur said. “We’ll see how they come back. If they are healthy and
can go, then of course they’ll play. If they can’t, I have no problem ruling
them out.”

The Steelers hold a narrow 62-57 edge in the all-time series, but they’ve been
dominant to the tune of 21 wins in the last 24 games. Tomlin is 9-2 against
the Browns, while Shurmur is 1-2 against Pittsburgh.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Since the initial game between the teams was largely defined by Pittsburgh’s
destruction via its own hand, it makes sense for coordinator Todd Haley and
the offensive brain trust to keep it simple in the cold-weather rematch.

That could mean dual roles for the bevy of Steelers backs who are both capable
runners and versatile enough to be weapons on short, high-percentage passes.
The Browns have been susceptible to both while allowing 120.5 rush yards and
253.5 pass yards per game.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

In the grand scheme of things, it’d seem like the Browns have more to play for
not the least of which would be a rare season sweep of a hated rival and a
chance to save a popular coach. But without clarity under center and facing a
host foe whose fan base would be particularly perturbed with a below-.500
finish, it seems unlikely Cleveland will repeat its November feat.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Steelers 24, Browns 10