The AFC North has boiled down to a battle of who’ll blink first between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. Once again, these two sit atop the division as we head into the final quarter of the season. Baltimore controls their own destiny thanks to a pair of head-to-head victories over their primary AFC North rival. The Steelers need at least one Ravens loss if they are to take the division, while avoiding any slip-ups of their own.
The role of the spoiler is all the Browns have left this season but they are definitely a team on the up, despite their record. As was seen last week, they have enough talent defensively to keep them in games longer than in the past but a limited offense continues to hold them back.
It would be a major upset if the Browns picked-up the win on Thursday night and a huge boon to the confidence of the franchise right now. The NFL is about winning individual battles which in turn helps the entire team. These matchups will be key in determining who comes away with the win.
Pittsburgh’s Wide Receivers vs. Cleveland’s Cornerbacks
If you don’t know about Mike Wallace (+8.0) by now, where exactly have you been all year? He has emerged as one of the best all-around wide receivers in the league with enough speed to stretch any defense, as witnessed by his 16.8 yards per catch, though he hasn’t managed to stretch the field so much in the last few games with a yards per catch average of just 9.9. In part that has been because of the sudden emergence of the speedy Antonio Brown (+9.5) who has had a catch of 19 or more yards in each of the last six games and one of 15 or more in every game this year. With teams focusing more on Wallace, Brown has quietly put together a Pro Bowl caliber season.
They’ll be up against one of the best cornerbacks in the league in Joe Haden (+7.2). Haden bounced back from a poor showing in Cincinnati with a much better performance at home against the Ravens which included two pass break-ups in the end zone. On the year, Haden is allowing a completion percentage of a mere 47.8% and while he has yet to pick off a pass, he has broken up 14 while giving up just two touchdowns. Opposite Haden, Sheldon Brown (-5.2) hasn’t got his hands on as many passes, with one interception and three pass breakups. He has allowed just 51.9% of the passes thrown into his coverage to be caught though. If there is one concern, particularly with the two receivers he’ll see the most of this week, it’s that Brown can be beaten deep. He’s giving up an average of 14.1 yards per catch.
Pittsburgh’s Pass Rush vs. Cleveland’s Offensive Line
LaMarr Woodley (+6.9) lasted just one quarter in his comeback from injury against Cincinnati last week, taking his 10 sacks, 2 hits and 11 pressures back to the injury list and giving Jason Worilds (+2.6) another shot in the starting line-up. He may not have put up the sack numbers that Woodley has but he has still provided an adequate pass rush with 12 total pressures on 98 pass rushes. The real star of the Pittsburgh pass rush is still James Harrison (+21.0), who was back to his best against the Bengals on Sunday with three sacks and a pressure.
Trying to stop them this week will be Joe Thomas (+12.0) and Tony Pashos (+1.8). Thomas is back to his best after a subpar start to the year, allowing just two sacks and four pressures in the last eight games. The real surprise of the Cleveland offensive line however has been Pashos’ play as a pass blocker, which he has never really excelled at previously in his career. Allowing just four sacks and 12 pressures since his first start in Week 4, Pashos has combined with Thomas to form one of the best pass blocking sets of offensive tackles in the league.
A Tale of Two Quarterbacks
One of the major differences between these two teams is that Pittsburgh has a franchise quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger (+36.9) available. He not only wins games for them with the way he can extend the play but he also doesn’t put the Steelers in a position to lose, with just one negatively-graded game all year. The most telling stat about the Pittsburgh QB is how he reacts under pressure, his completion percentage is still admirable at 57.1% with more touchdowns (5) than interceptions thrown (2).
Compare that to Colt McCoy (+14.9), who has completed just 45.5% of his passes under pressure while throwing just two touchdowns to three interceptions. When the offensive line can keep pressure off of him it’s a different story, as he has thrown twice as many touchdowns (12) as interceptions (6), making it even more important that the Browns keep him upright on Sunday.