By Alan Robinson
The Steelers (4-6) travel to chilly Cleveland on Sunday for what might be a playoff elimination game Sunday against the Browns (4-6), who haven’t beaten their rival at home in successive seasons since 1992-93.
Ten things to watch for — not including the temperature, which is expected to crest in the low 20s but, with a nasty wind blowing off Lake Erie, will feel like single digits.
1) WILL CLEVELAND BE THE WINDY CITY? It might not be the cold that most influences the outcome, but rather the wind. Current projects by AccuWeather call for a steady breeze in the 13-mph range, with gusts into the 20s. Stiff winds can do strange things to footballs flying in the air. Statistic of note: Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t thrown an interception since 2006 in what is now known as FirstEnergy Stadium. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley said the Steelers will have a big-man package available if the elements force them into a running-heavy game.
2) THE OBVIOUS: STEELERS WR ANTONIO BROWN VS. BROWNS CB JOE HADEN. Haden is playing as consistently well as any AFC North defensive back; Brown is playing as consistently well as any AFC North wide receiver. Haden, for example, held Mike Wallace to once catch for 15 yards and A.J. Green of Cincinnati to two catches for 7 yards last week, and he’s given up only one touchdown all season. But Brown is coming off his second two touchdown-catch effort of the season (seven catches, 147 yards vs. Detroit) and he’s proving to be a handful for any defender because of his ability to gain a step on a defender, then catch the ball when it’s thrown in his vicinity. No NFL receiver has caught more passes on fewer targets.
3) WILL PHIL TAYLOR GET HIS? Taylor, the Browns defensive tackle, was fined $7,975 for a blindside forearm to the head of Steelers lineman Kelvin Beachum last season. That prompted Steelers tackle Marcus Gilbert to say, “I am pretty sure he (Taylor) is going to get his. It was a dirty play and he put it on film. Once it is on film, it is out there.” All three — Taylor, Beachum, Gilbert — will be on the field Sunday.
4) THE RED ZONE. The Steelers aren’t operating as efficiently in the red zone as they did last season, but Jerricho Cotchery has picked that up by making five touchdown catches in his last three games. Cotchery’s effectiveness inside an opponent’s 20 was a key to the wins over the Bills and Lions. And the Browns are 32nd and last in the NFL in red zone defense, allowing 19 touchdowns on their opponents’ 28 visits inside the 20. No matter the weather conditions, the Steelers can’t rely on Shaun Suisham to produce their in-close points.
5) TROY POLAMALU VS. JASON CAMPBELL. At least on paper, this isn’t a favorable matchup for the Browns. Campbell is 0-2 with a QB rating of below 45.0 against the Steelers, and Polamalu has eight career interceptions against Cleveland, the most he has against any opponent. Polamalu’s interception against Oakland on Oct. 27 was his first against any opponent except Cleveland since 2010; his previous four picks were against the Browns.
6) CONTROLLING THE MIDDLE. The Steelers effectively shut down Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley last week. But Haley said the Browns’ Ahtyba Rubin and Taylor are even better operating out of Cleveland’s 3-4 defense. They could be havoc-creators if the Steelers must dial down Roethlisberger’s passing due to the elements.
7) RUN AGROUND. The Browns and Steelers are two of the NFL’s worst rushing offenses, Cleveland is No. 26 and Pittsburgh is No. 30. The Browns don’t have a runner who’s hit the 300-yard mark for the season yet. The Steelers keep waiting for Le’Veon Bell’s breakout game; Sunday could be a good day for it.
8) BEN Vs. THE BROWNS. One of the NFL’s biggest mismatches. Roethlisberger is 15-1 against the Browns, and he delights playing in his home state of Ohio. He dully notes each time he plays against the Browns that they were one of 10 teams that passed him over in the 2004 NFL Draft.
9) THE DEEP BALL. The Browns have permitted only 25 passes of 20 yards or longer; the Steelers seemingly gave up that many against the Patriots alone. Whichever defense can prevent the home-run ball might prove the winner of a game that could effectively end the loser’s playoff hopes.
10) THE HOME-FIELD ADVANTAGE. AFC North teams are 7-0 at home against their division opponents; the Browns will be trying to complete a sweep of the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers. But the Steelers are 11-3 in Cleveland since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999.