#STEELERS PREGAME STRETCH: A path to prosperity?

Pittsburgh surged in the AFC standings without playing; Can they win to stay there?

WEEK 8

CLEVELAND BROWNS (2-4-1) VS. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (3-2-1)

CBS, SUNDAY, 1 P.M., HEINZ FIELD 68,400

Last week in a nutshell

Headline: RESTING EASY / The Steelers playoff position improved dramatically during the bye week, as the Browns, Ravens and Bengals all lost, improbably moving Pittsburgh into sole possession of first place in AFC North.

This week’s announcers: Ian Eagle (again), Dan Fouts (again) and Evan Washburn (again). While all of these 1 p.m. starts this season are great for your life schedule, they are not ideal for diversity in announcing. This is the third time we’ll get this crew in the seventh Steelers game. Not good, Bob. Fouts, especially, has been more off than on this year, often clueless about the rules in the flow of the game (sort of like the officials! ). Information courtesy www.the506.com.

Weather – or not: Cloudy, showers, cool, 50. After heavy rains Friday night and Saturday morning, Pitt-Duke will play Saturday afternoon before this game. Field should be in pristine condition. Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: Carl Cheffers. Cheffers is just a year removed from doing his first Super Bowl, the infamous Patriots-Falcons game. His crew this year is averaging 14 assessed penalties for 109 yards per game against the league averages of 13 and 114. With a week off, the Steelers are now tied for the top in most penalties in the league (58) with Cleveland and Kansas City, both of who have played one more game. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com (it takes three, count ’em, three web sites to provide you with the best each week in officiating background information).

The last time: The Steelers were up 21-7 and in prime position to secure an opening week victory without Le’Veon Bell when James Conner, who’d been brilliant to that point in Bell’s absence, fumbled deep in his own territory to set in motion an improbable series of events that culminated in a wacky 21-21 tie at Cleveland in this season’s opening game. Among those improbable events was a horrendous blown calls by officials on a Steelers punt that hit a Browns player and was recovered by Pittsburgh for what should have been the game-clinching possession. Come to think of that, horrendous officiating is actually fairly probable in today’s NFL.

The line: Pittsburgh -8/50.5. Smarts say: Yikes. It appears a week off has allowed bettors to forget about all of Pittsburgh’s problems (or maybe it’s a statement on Hue Jackson’s play calling). This line actually started at -7 and climbed as high as -9 on some boards. The over/under finally comes down a little for a Pittsburgh game after a stretch of mid-50 o/u. Putting the line and o/u together and you get something like 29-21 Steelers. Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 2nd passing, 27th rushing, 5th scoring (28.5 ppg), 2nd sacks allowed (9)

CLE defense, 26th passing, 25th rushing, 18th scoring (25.3 ppg), 8th sacks (19)

When the Browns have the ball:

CLE offense, 23rd passing, 23rd rushing, 23rd scoring (21.6 ppg), 32nd sacks allowed (31)

PIT defense, 27th passing, 21st rushing, 23rd scoring (25.7 ppg), 2nd sacks (22)

Giveaway/Takeaway: CLE +10 (1st in league); PIT -2 (23rd in league)

Strength of schedule (games played so far): CLE .500; PIT .564

So…: “Run the ball and stop the run” was a maxim for victory for years in the NFL, but the Steelers have been moving toward a new mantra for a few years now: Protect the quarterback and sack the quarterback. They are just a few sacks away from leading the league in both categories. Also of interest, the Browns lead the league in turnover differential at +10 with the Seahawks and Bears just below them at +7, yet the three teams combined records are just under .500. Information courtesy www.nfl.comand www.espn.com.

On the spot:

Pittsburgh: James Conner

Why: We could be looking at an entirely different Steelers team and season had Conner held onto that football back in Cleveland on September 8 and you can bet he realizes that. Now that he’s emerging as more consistent force in the Steelers offense and winning over the confidence of all his teammates, Conner will be on the spot to produce in this one in Bell-like fashion, as a rusher and receiver.

Cleveland: Todd Haley

Why: Haley, Hue Jackson and the Cleveland fans and media are still finding their comfort zone with each other and patience is not in much supply there. After last week’s overtime loss to Tampa Bay, Jackson indicated he was going to get more involved in the offense to “get things going.” That likely won’t sit well with Haley, who’s also dealing with the matter of facing his old team where the parting was not much sweet sorrow.

Key matchups:

Browns OLB Myles Garrett vs. Steelers LT Alejandro Villanueva. Why: Garrett was hell on wheels in the first game with the Steelers with two sacks, two forced fumbles and six tackles. That can’t happen again. Villanueva has been rock solid since that opener when even he agreed he was terrible. He needs to be a wall and not a sieve Sunday for Pittsburgh to win.

Quick hits:

+ It’s not glamorous and you won’t hear it mentioned on any of the national shows, but the biggest factor in the Steelers mini turnaround and probably the biggest factor in whether they get back into contending status long term is the play of their offensive line.

+ The Steelers will be wearing their 1978 throwback jerseys for this game, so here’s some throwback facts about that year’s team that help highlight how the game has changed. Pittsburgh averaged 22.3 points per game offensively and that was FIFTH in all of football. Of course, the vaunted Steel Curtain was on the other side, allowing just 12.2 points per game (PER GAME), capped by two of the most dominating playoff wins you’ll ever see, 33-10 over the Broncos and 34-5 over the Oilers (who had league MVP Earl Campbell in the backfield). Terry Bradshaw completed just 56 percent of his passes and averaged 186 yards passing game, failing to top 3,000 yards for the season. Oh, the Steelers won 17 games that year, including Super Bowl XII, 35-31 over the Dallas Cowboys. The over/under in that game was 37.0.

+ You know we’re a big believer in past behavior being the best predictor of future outcomes and we feel pretty strongly if you look at the past behavior involved in the Le’Veon Bell/Steelers standoff, there’s a good chance Bell does not play a down this year. From Pittsburgh’s point of view, they feel like they’ve made the best offer they can to keep Bell long term (which was rejected) and are playing within the limits laid down by the collective bargaining agreement. That’s important because the Steelers likely feel that any compromise that provides a better outcome for the player than the agreement allows could be seen as an incentive for future holdouts. So, if the CBA says a team doesn’t have to pay a player who’s given a two-week roster exemption, they are not going to pay that player and are resistant to compromise on that. We’re not sure what to glean from the actions of Bell and his agent because, frankly, some of those actions seem to be contradictory or simply don’t make sense, but one thing that is clear is that money on the table this year is not a driving factor for Bell in negotiations. And money this year is really all the Steelers are willing to offer (at the rate of the number of games remaining minus two games of the roster exemption. Is that enough? We shall see very soon.

+ We said last week that we’d like to see James Washington catch a football or two and, of course, he didn’t. Now, we know there’s a lot that goes into the passing game that we, as fans, don’t know about, but it sure does not look like Ben Roethlisberger is trying very hard to get Washington the ball and maybe a little confidence.

The pick: If you have paid attention in the Kevin Colbert/Mike Tomlin era (and we know you have), then you know nothing is easy with these Steelers, right? Nothing. So, after vaulting from third place to first place in the division during their bye week, the only possible outcome when they return to the field with a chance to take complete control of the division over the next two weeks is a loss to the Browns at home, right? Right … Cleveland 24-21.

Last week: We were happily wrong about the outcome in Cincinnati (although we did discuss how the Bengals might make the mistake of focusing on revenge instead of winning) and that leaves us happily at 1-4-1 straight up and 1-5 against the spread. There’s a lot of money to be made betting the opposite of our pick, it appears.

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