While they haven’t made the playoffs this season, the Cleveland Browns have shown signs of getting better as a team in 2012 and, with key playmakers like Trent Richardson on the roster, will be aiming to make a playoff push next season.
It may have been expected for the Browns to miss out on the postseason, but that certainly wasn’t the case for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who took themselves out of playoff contention with a loss against the Cincinnati Bengals last week. With questions about the relationship between Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley, they head into the offseason with more uncertainty than any Steelers team of the past few years.
While this game doesn’t have any playoff implications, it’s still a battle for bragging rights in the AFC North, with the Browns hoping to sweep the Steelers for the first time since 1988. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the key areas to focus on this week.
Browns Offensive Tackles vs. Steelers Pass Rushers
As a unit, the Browns offensive line is one of the best pass-blocking groups in the league, allowing 106 total pressures from 581 passing plays in 2012. That gives them a Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE) Rating of 85.7, with only Cincinnati and Denver bettering them. The best player on their line is obviously left tackle Joe Thomas, who has allowed just 15 total pressures this season. His PBE Rating of 97.9 is the best in the league, not surprising when you realise that he’s allowing less than one pressure every game. Opposite Thomas, Mitchell Schwartz has impressed as a rookie with a PBE Rating of 95.5, allowing five sacks, nine hits and 19 hurries from 581 snaps in 2012.
The Steelers will be disappointed with the play of their outside linebackers this year, with Lamarr Woodley leading the group with a Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP) Rating of 9.2. His four sacks, eight hits and 13 hurries have come from 215 pass rushing snaps. Even more disappointing has been James Harrison, who missed the start of the year through injury. With five sacks, five hits and 15 hurries, he has registered the same amount of pressure as Woodley. Coming on 53 more pass rushing snaps however, he has a PRP rating of just 7.5.
Browns Cornerbacks vs. Steelers Wide Receivers
While he hasn’t quite made the leap into the group of elite cornerbacks in the NFL, Joe Haden has still been impressive in 2012. With 497 yards allowed through the air from 405 snaps in coverage, he has given up an average of 1.23 yards per snap in coverage. Opposite Haden, Sheldon Brown has allowed 655 yards on throws into his coverage, coming from 497 snaps, he has given up 1.32 yards per snap in coverage.
The Steelers receivers, like much of the team, haven’t followed up an impressive 2011 this season. Mike Wallace, who sat out most of the preseason in an attempt to get a new contract, hasn’t done his case for a big money deal much good in his contract year. Dropping 6 of the 70 catchable passes thrown his way, he has a Drop Rate of 8.57, which ranks 16th among receivers. Antonio Brown is fifth among receivers with a drop rate of 5.88, with four drops from 68 catchable passes. Emmanuel Sanders has seen an increase in snaps this season but, averaging 1.49 Yards Per Route Run, hasn’t done much when he’s been on the field.
Josh Gordon – Future Star?
One of the reasons Browns fans will head into the offseason feeling optimistic for 2013 has been the play of rookie receiver Josh Gordon. Drafted with a second-round selection in the supplemental draft, Gordon has impressed this season, averaging 16.7 Yards Per Reception. His play has dipped in the past two weeks, but his big-play ability was on display between Weeks 5 and 13, where he had a reception of 20 or more yards in every game. Furthermore, 21 of his 82 targets have come on passes 20 or more yards downfield, with Gordon pulling in six receptions for 259 yards and four touchdowns. Targeted just 15 times in the slot, he has also been effective on those plays, with 271 of his 766 receiving yards coming from there.
Follow Gordon on Twitter: @PFF_Gordon