2011 Preview By The Numbers: Steelers against the Cleveland Browns


I’m not one to kick a man when he is down, so I will save the “Mistake by the Lake” comments for another time.

Recent History

The history of this rivalry goes back to the 1950s, when the Browns were a dominating team and the Steelers, umm, weren’t.

Recently, however, the Steelers have had the best of this matchup. Pittsburgh is 21-4 against Cleveland since the Browns’ return to the NFL in 1999. You may recall that the original team left Cleveland after the 1995 season to become the Ravens. The Steelers have only lost once to the Browns in their last 16 meetings. That loss, in 2009, was the last of a late-season five-game losing streak that all but ended the Steelers’ chances of defending their sixth Super Bowl win. The Black and Gold made it interesting by winning their last three games, but having lost to all three of their division rivals, as well as the horrible Raiders and Chiefs (strangely, by identical scores) during the streak was the beginning of the end.

Putting that frigid December night more than a year ago in Cleveland aside, it is safe to say the Steelers own the Browns right now.

That having been said, you cannot underestimate team president Mike Holmgren’s dedication to turning the Browns from pathetic to competitive. If his history is anything to judge by, Holmgren will not stop there. He has a knack for turning teams around, which is not good news for citizens of The Nation.

Cleveland’s offense vs. Pittsburgh’s defense

It would seem the Browns have found a quarterback to keep in Colt McCoy. The kid managed to play in eight games in 2010 and threw for more than 1500 yards. He played in both games against the Steelers and I have little doubt it was less than fun for him.

In two games against the Steelers, he threw for 490 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw eight picks and was sacked nine times in those two games.

What do you expect from a rookie against an intimidating, aggressive and complex defense like the Steelers run?

The Browns do have a couple very good players on offense, though, such as WR Josh Cribbs. Cribbs was key in the win over the Steelers in 2009 as he racked up 200 all-purpose yards including 87 rushing yards out of the “wildcat” formation. He is a special-teams nightmare for most teams, more so for the Steelers who seem to sometimes forget that kick and punt coverage are part of the game. Of course, recent rules changes might nullify his impact on games.

RB Peyton Hillis could become a poor-man’s Jerome Bettis with his size and tough running style. The Steel Curtain contained him to fewer than 60 yards for two games, but he did crack off 144 yards at Baltimore in week 3 last year. (A fact that made me laugh and laugh. If there is one thing Ravens fans hate it is someone running on their defense. It doesn’t happen often, so I have to savor it when it does)

TE Benjamin Watson was the Browns’ big free agent signing of last year and he played very well for them. He had 763 yards for the year, 155 of which were against the Steelers. One of his three TDs on the year was in the first game of the series in the ‘Burgh.

Overall, the Browns were just this side of terrible on offense last year even with their handful of playmakers. They ranked 20th in rushing and 29th in passing. It’s ironic that they were so low in passing given that they were trailing in most games they played, but when your choices at quarterback are a rookie, or guys who got traded from Seattle (Seneca Wallace) and released from Carolina (Jake Delhomme), you can’t expect too much.

Obviously, the Steelers defense was more than a match for the Browns last year as they held the Browns to 19 points for the two games and dominated in most statistical categories.

Cleveland’s Defense vs. Pittsburgh’s Offense

Cleveland’s defense is not good. It’s just that simple. They also are not as bad as you might think.

Admittedly, they were pretty bad against the run, allowing 129.4 yards per game on the ground for 2010, which was 27th in the league.

Rashard Mendenhall ran for 120 yards and three touchdowns in two games behind a beat up O-line. The Steelers averaged 120.2 yards per game on the ground for the season, so it seems clear that the Browns made stopping the run a priority against the Black and Gold.

Against the pass, the Browns were not bad. They ranked 18th in the league, which puts them ahead of a couple notable defenses in Chicago (20th) and Baltimore (21st).

Roethlisberger pretty much had his way with the Browns, though, as did the Steelers receiving corps. Ben racked up 537 yards passing with five TDs and one pick. Mike Wallace had 195 yards and two TDs on six, count ‘em, six catches for the two games against the Browns. That’s merely 32.5 yards per catch for the man who finished the year 5th in the league in receiving yards. In fact, of the 17 men who received more than 1000 in 2010, only Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson had more yards per catch than Wallace for the year (Wallace 21.0 yards per catch; Jackson 22.5). Defensive backs must feel like they are trying to cover a gazelle when they see Wallace lined up across from them.

Antwaan Randle El even threw a touchdown to Hines Ward in the second game.

Of course, the Browns had a lot of bad luck as to when they played the Steelers. The first game was week six, which was the first game of the year for Ben Roethlisberger who was coming back from his suspension. There was no way he was going to lose that game.

The second game was week 17, when the Steelers had motivation to win and secure a first-round bye in the playoffs. The second game final score was 41-9, and it wasn’t that close as the Browns got a garbage time TD in the fourth quarter.

Location, Location, Location

The Browns have not beaten the Steelers in The Steel City since October, 2003. I can’t imagine that trend will change any time soon. The Browns may not be the pushover game they once were, but they are certainly not a real threat to go into Heinz Field and pull off an upset like that.

In fact, if you start with that game in 2003 (which the Browns actually won quite handily, 33-13), the combined score for Steelers-Browns in our house is 266-136 (in eight games) in the Steelers’ favor. That’s an average score of 33-17.

It’s ever-so-slightly less lopsided when the game takes place in Cleveland. In the last eight games, the combined score is 193-71 (24-9 average score per game).

Given the field conditions at Heinz Field (which, according to the players is one of the worst), it’s interesting that 17 more points per game are scored there.

The Steelers have issued some severe beatings to the Browns recently. There was a 41-0 drubbing in Cleveland in 2005; a 34-7 rout in Cleveland in 2007; a 31-0 shutout in Heinz Field in 2008; and the last game they played in Pittsburgh.

You have to wonder if it starts getting into the heads of the players when they are consistently getting their asses handed to them. I know it would bother me.

Either way, unless the Browns can come up with some way of cloning their namesake, Jim Brown, some time soon, it really isn’t going to matter where this matchup is played.

I consider the game in 2009 to be the exception, not the rule.

My Take

This really isn’t much of a rivalry. In order for there to be a real rivalry, both teams must have a legitimate chance of winning the game.

In golf, the Ryder Cup didn’t get important until Europe won it a few times.

When the Red Sox or the Yankees are bad, that rivalry loses its fire.

The same could be said here.

Quite simply, the Browns are not there yet. They seem to be pulling in the pieces of the puzzle, but they haven’t found enough of them to let us see the picture. I would expect them to draft a player for their porous defensive line, or even a pass rushing linebacker.

I expect Colt McCoy’s maturation to come along quickly, and the fact that he will play against two of the best defenses in the NFL twice every year will help him grow up even faster, but his second year is not the time to start calling an upset in this matchup.

Peyton Hillis may be able to provide a spark in the running game and Josh Cribbs is always a threat with the ball in his hands, but for now, look for the domination to continue and for the Steelers to keep the Browns in their place.