PREGAME STRETCH: Steelers at Browns

Can it be a "Tomlin Trap Game" if we're all expecting it?

Pittsburgh Steelers (4-5) at Cleveland Browns (0-10) at First Energy Stadium, capacity 67,431; Sunday at 1 p.m., CBS

Announcers: Kevin Harlan and Rich Gannon. Annoyance factor: Moderate. Harlan reached legend status with his epic “idiot on the field” play-by-play earlier this season during the 49ers-Rams Monday night game (“The guy is drunk and there he goes…”). Gannon’s once-promising career as an analyst has bogged down in a sea of cliches and gibberish. Information courtesy www.the506.com.

Weather – or not?: Cloudy, windy, 39. Winter is coming. Information courtesy www.weather.com.

How they rank: Cleveland offense: 27th passing, 22nd rushing, 30th ppg; Pittsburgh defense: 28th passing, 16th rushing, 14th ppg; Pittsburgh offense: 4th passing, 25th rushing, 15th ppg; Cleveland defense: 27th passing, 31st rushing, 31st ppg; Sacks: Cleveland 25th (16); Pittsburgh 32nd (13); Sacks allowed: Cleveland 31st (30), Pittsburgh 6th (14). Comment: Wow, those are depressing. Between the two teams, they rank in the bottom 10 in the NFL in 10 statistical categories of the 16 listed.

Referee: Brad Allen. Competence factor: Allen and his merry band of pranksters have been the poster boys for everything that’s wrong with NFL officiating, as demonstrated in the Steelers-Eagles game earlier this year. The crew is AVERAGING 17 flags for 141 assessed yards per game. Turrible. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.co and www.profootballreference.com.

The line: Steelers -8. Smarts say: At least the betting public has finally caught on to Mike Tomlin teams’ disturbing penchant for playing poorly as a big road favorite. This line opened at -10 and almost immediately dropped to -8. The over under of 49.5 means something like Steelers, 29-21. Information courtesy www.dannysheridan.com and www.pregame.com.

The last time: You might fondly remember the Steelers pounding the Browns, 28-12, last January, while the Bills were upsetting the Jets, sending Pittsburgh to the AFC Playoffs. Good times. Austin Davis (remember him?) was the Browns quarterback that day and they’ve had three others since.

Key matchup: Steelers WR Antonio Brown vs. Browns CB Joe Haden. Mike Tomlin, who’s been known to try and make every opponent sound like the Patriots, offered hilariously this week that these two have had “big time matchups in the past.” Um, huh?. They’ve been big-time all right, for Brown, as in big-time catches, big-time TDs and big-time burn marks. Brown and Ben Roethlisberger showed some signs last week of shaking off their two-month funk and that will need to continue Sunday for Pittsburgh to avoid another upset loss on the road to an abysmal opponent. In fact, we’ll go as far as saying Brown must outscore Terrelle Pryor for the Steelers to win.

Quick hits:

+ Mike Tomlin is an excellent head football coach with a couple exception, most notably his inept game management skills. That can be learned and fixed in any number of ways. It’s clear Tomlin is too proud or stubborn to it on his own. That there is no mechanism is the Steelers organization to make it happen is an equally large problem. And there’s a huge difference between being a patient, hands-off owner and being an owner who manages performance and requires improvement in areas that are unsatisfactory.

+ So much has gone wrong for the Steelers in the past six weeks, but if you’re looking for a tipping point play where it went bad, Markus Wheaton’s drop of a sure TD on the first drive in Philadelphia would be a good place to start.

+ We made this point in this space last year, but it bears repeating this week as Jarvis Jones returns to the bench (maybe never to be heard from again, in Pittsburgh, at least): That 2013 first round was an abomination all around with Jones probably qualifying as the fourth or fifth biggest bust. Looking at the board in retrospect, the Steelers best choice might have been the one many experts had slotted for them, Xavier Rhodes, then a Florida State cornerback, who’s become a solid, durable corner and improved each year in the league.

+ We’ve made this point before, too: Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert love “run and hit” defenders but the middle of the first round might not be the place to be looking for them. The “sure thing” guys are gone in the top eight or so and you’re often left with “physical tool” players, lacking in other key components (i.e. Jarvis Jones, strength and toughness; Ryan Shazier, durability).

+ Pro Football Focus noted this week that Cody Kessler has highest QB rating in the league against pressure, according to their metrics. Unfortunately, for the Browns, those skills will be of little use against Pittsburgh’s pansy pass rush.

The pick: Hopefully, there’s no one that thinks Pittsburgh can not lose this game because they absolutely can, much like they lost to a terrible, Terrelle Pryor-led team in Oakland in 2013. Browns Head Coach Hue Jackson and defensive coordinator Ray Horton know Pittsburgh’s schemes, personality and tendencies inside out and we’d be shocked if the Browns do not give Pittsburgh all they can handle, if they don’t win outright. We saw last week that no matter how well the Steelers offense plays, the defense can still lose games. We’re guessing that defense will need to make one fourth-quarter play to win this week  …. Steelers 24-23.

Last week: Pittsburgh’s deflating last-second loss to the Cowboys deflated our 2016 stats to 5-4 straight up and 6-3 against the spread.


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