3TFO: Steelers @ Browns, Week 12
Gordon McGuinness offers three key matchups that could determine which of these AFC North rivals stays in the playoff hunt.
3TFO: Steelers @ Browns, Week 12
A few weeks ago the Pittsburgh Steelers looked completely done for this year, after starting the season 0-4. They’ve rebounded since however, going 4-2 over the past six games which sees them just one game off the pace for the final AFC Wild Card spot.
They’re joined there by their AFC North rivals the Cleveland Browns, although after last Sunday’s capitulation against the Cincinnati Bengals optimism won’t be quite as high in Cleveland as it is in Pittsburgh.
Sunday’s contest represents a mini-playoff game, with both teams needing to win to keep pace in the race for that Wild Card spot, and also to keep some pressure on the division-leading Bengals. So with all that in mind, let’s take a look at the key areas to focus on in this AFC North clash.
Steelers Receivers vs Browns Cornerbacks
After losing Mike Wallace via free agency, the Steelers have been able to boast two of our highest 11 graded wide receivers in Antonio Brown (+16.0) and Jerricho Cotchery (+10.7). Cotchery has been a solid, reliable option for Ben Roethlisberger, dropping just one pass from 35 catchable targets, good for a Drop Rate of just 2.86. Brown isn’t far behind in that regard, with just three drops from 77 catchable targets, and he’s also turning in his best season to date. Just 48 yards shy of hitting the 1,000 yard mark, he has forced 10 missed tackles, giving opposing cornerbacks a tough task all year.
Tasked with trying to slow Brown down will likely be Joe Haden (+7.8), given that he has shadowed receivers at points this year, including Torrey Smith in both games against the Ravens, and A.J. Green against the Bengals. He comes into this week off the back of two of his best three performances of the year, allowing just three receptions for 21 yards with three interceptions and a pass breakup in Weeks 9 and 11. Opposite him, Buster Skrine (-3.8) has shown flashes, breaking up 11 passes so far this year which is second among all cornerbacks. But he’s also had his struggles, allowing a reception of 20 yards or more in four of 10 games.
Which Jason Campbell Shows Up?
When the Browns made the switch from Brandon Weeden to Jason Campbell, they were rewarded by two performances that were relatively mistake free, with Campbell throwing five touchdowns and no interceptions. He wasn’t outstanding by any stretch of the imagination, but the improvement over the end of the Weeden era was enough that the Browns were able to stay competitive against the Kansas City Chiefs, and pick up a divisional win over the Baltimore Ravens.
That wasn’t the Jason Campbell who showed up in Cincinnati on Sunday however, with the Browns signal-caller finishing as our second-lowest graded quarterback in Week 11. Completing just 48.2% of his passes and throwing three interceptions, it was a mistake filled performance as the Browns fell apart after leading in the first quarter. They can’t afford another performance like that from him this weekend, as the results will more than likely be the same.
Struggles of the Steelers’ Linebackers
Once the pride of the Steelers organisation, the 2013 edition of their linebacking corps has been a huge disappointment. The only player in the unit with a positive grade through 11 weeks of the season is Lamarr Woodley (+9.6) and, after missing last week, he’s missed practice time again this week, putting his availability in doubt. That would put first round draft pick Jarvis Jones (-3.1) onto the field more, something he hasn’t shown himself to be ready for yet. Jason Worilds (-4.5) hasn’t stepped up the way Pittsburgh would have hoped as they wait for Jones, though he did have his best game of the season a week ago.
The surprise disappointment of the group is inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons (-3.4) who, after being our fourth-highest graded player at the position a year ago, has been up and down, with more of the latter, in 2013. He missed just six tackles a year ago, but has already missed nine this year, while being just 55 yards shy of the total number of yards he allowed in coverage in 2012 too. It’s been worse next to him, with Vince Williams (-6.3) taking over for Larry Foote (-3.1) after Week 1 and struggling. However, if there’s a silver lining to be had here, Williams’ play has improved in recent weeks, and he hasn’t missed a tackle since Week 4.
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Gordon McGuinness | Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst
Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.