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NFL Preview - Cleveland (1-4) at Pittsburgh (3-1)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Ben Roethlisberger will get a long-awaited opportunity to make the most of a second chance when the disgraced quarterback takes the field for the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday. Cleveland Browns rookie Colt McCoy, on the other hand, will be hoping to make a good first impression in what's shaping up to be his NFL debut.
The two gunslingers loom as the primary storylines when the Steelers and Browns renew their longtime rivalry in a Week 6 showdown at Heinz Field between AFC North combatants currently on the opposite ends of the league spectrum.
It's been a trying past seven months for Roethlisberger, who found himself under investigation for an alleged sexual assault following an incident with a female college student in a Georgia nightclub this past March. Though no charges were ultimately filed as a result of the events, the two-time Super Bowl champion was found to be in violation of the NFL's personal conduct policy and forced to sit out the first four games of this season under suspension. He was reinstated during Pittsburgh's Week 5 bye and immediately re-installed as the team's starting signal-caller.
While Roethlisberger worked on sharpening his skills and repairing his tattered image during the exile, the Steelers hardly missed a beat without their standout triggerman. The team won its first three games of 2010 and nearly entered its break undefeated, with only a late touchdown by the formidable Baltimore Ravens in a narrow 17-14 loss on Oct. 3 preventing a 4-0 start.
Pittsburgh was able to get by using lightly-tested youngster Dennis Dixon and grizzled vet Charlie Batch in Roethlisberger's stead by relying on a suffocating defense and a re-energized rushing attack centered around third- year pro Rashard Mendenhall, who's averaging over 100 yards per game as the featured back.
The Browns have had some quarterback concerns of their own in the early stages of this 2010 campaign. Starter Jake Delhomme suffered a high ankle sprain in the club's season-opening 17-14 setback at Tampa Bay and sat out the next three contests, with athletic understudy Seneca Wallace handling the chores and guiding Cleveland to a three-point win over defending AFC North champ Cincinnati in Week 4. Wallace turned an ankle as well in last Sunday's 20-10 home loss to Atlanta, however, and a still-hobbled Delhomme aggravated his existing injury when coming on in relief.
With neither expected to be healthy enough to go in this week's tilt, it appears the 1-4 Browns will turn to McCoy, the former University of Texas star and 2008 Heisman Trophy runner-up who was Cleveland's third-round choice in this past April's draft. Journeyman Brett Ratliff, cut by the team at the conclusion of the preseason, was signed off New England's practice squad on Monday to presumably serve as Sunday's backup.
McCoy won't be stepping into the easiest of situations. Not only will the undersized 24-year-old have to deal with the hostile conditions of Heinz Field -- a place where the Browns have come away with only one victory in 10 lifetime visits -- but one of the NFL's fiercest defenses as well. Pittsburgh has yielded a scant 12.5 points and 62.5 rushing yards per game thus far -- both league-bests -- and has produced 12 takeaways over its first four outings.
The Steelers lead the all-time regular season series with the Browns, which dates back to 1950, by a 58-56 count. Cleveland snapped a 12-game losing streak in the series with a shocking 13-6 victory in a Thursday night game in Week 14 of last season. The Browns were 1-11 entering that game, which sparked a season-ending, four-game winning streak for Cleveland. The Steelers were 27-14 winners when the teams met at Heinz Field in Week 6 of last season. The Browns are 0-6 in Pittsburgh since last winning there in 2003.
The clubs have also met twice in the postseason, with Pittsburgh winning both times. The Steelers picked up a 29-9 victory in a 1994 AFC Divisional Playoff and won a 36-33 thriller in a 2002 AFC First-Round Playoff.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is 5-1 against the Browns as a head man. The Browns' Eric Mangini is 2-1 against Tomlin and the Steelers, with one of the wins coming while he was at the helm of the Jets in 2007.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
With their two likely available quarterbacks never having attempted a pass in an NFL regular-season game, the Browns figure to lean heavily on power back Peyton Hillis (350 rushing yards, 20 receptions, 5 TD), who delivered back-to- back 100-yard efforts in divisional matchups against Baltimore and Cincinnati earlier this season. Problem is, the 250-pound bruiser is dealing with a quadriceps strain that limited him to 28 yards on 10 carries last week and although initial reports indicate he'll play on Sunday, he could be in line for a reduced load once again. That could mean little-used sophomore James Davis gets an increase in playing time, especially with Wednesday's trade of disappointing second-stringer Jerome Harrison to Philadelphia for fellow back Mike Bell (28 rushing yards), who averaged a meager 1.8 yards per tote with the Eagles. Hillis is also one of the top pass-catching options on a Cleveland offense which lacks a true go-to receiver, with slotman Chansi Stuckey (15 receptions) having been the most reliable member. Since McCoy isn't blessed with a rocket arm and will be encountering a furious Pittsburgh pass rush, count on plenty of check-downs to the running backs and tight end Benjamin Watson (23 receptions, 1 TD), the team's leader in catches.
The Browns want to establish the run, but doing so successfully will be a chore against a Pittsburgh defense that's allowing a league-low 2.6 yards per rush for the year. The Steelers are incredibly stout at the point of attack, where five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton is adept at occupying blockers to allow inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons (48 tackles, 1 sack) and James Farrior (23 tackles) to roam free, while playmaking strong safety Troy Polamalu (19 tackles, 2 INT) is among the best run-stoppers at his position. Timmons is off to an incredible start, highlighted by a 15-tackle display against the Ravens, and is emerging as the star of a excellent four-man linebacking crew that also consists of outside rushers James Harrison (29 tackles, 3 sacks) and LaMarr Woodley (16 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT), both of whom will be in charge of making McCoy's debut an uncomfortable one. The Steelers have given up some yards to opposing quarterbacks, ranking 20th in pass defense (226.8 ypg) at the moment, but have surrendered just two touchdown passes while snaring six interceptions.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Pittsburgh went the conservative route in the games that Roethlisberger missed, attempting the fewest passes in the league during his four-week ban, but expect a far more balanced approach now that the team's main man is back in the huddle. The Steelers certainly have the weapons to be a dangerous vertical offense, as speedy wideout Mike Wallace (9 receptions, 2 TD) is averaging better than 23 yards per grab as the deep threat opposite hard-nosed old pro Hines Ward (12 receptions, 1 TD) and 2009 Pro Bowler Heath Miller (10 receptions) is a trusted target from his tight end spot. Protecting Roethlisberger has been a problem in the past, however, considering the burly quarterback has been sacked at least 46 times in each of the past four seasons, and that will be an area to watch come Sunday. Mendenhall (411 rushing yards, 4 TD, 5 receptions) gets a bit of a reprieve after serving as the offense's bell cow over the season's first month, but a more wide-open game plan shouldn't hinder the workhorse back's effectiveness even if it results in a few less touches. Pittsburgh averaged a healthy 133.5 rushing yards per game during Roethlisberger's absence, good for eighth in the NFL rankings.
The Browns sacked Roethlisberger eight times during their upset win over the Steelers last December and possess the edge rushers to give Roethlisberger an unwelcome return this time around as well. Outside linebacker Marcus Benard (9 tackles) has amassed 3 1/2 sacks from his situational role so far this season, while versatile free-agent pickup Scott Fujita (27 tackles, 2.5 sacks) has notched one in each of the past two games. Strongside starter Matt Roth (26 tackles, 2 sacks) has also shown an affinity for pressuring the passer in addition to being a force against the run, an area where Cleveland struggled in last week's loss to the Falcons, allowing Atlanta's Michael Turner to pile up 140 yards on only 19 carries. The Browns did do a good job bottling up Mendenhall last year, however, holding the talented Steeler to a combined 115 yards in the two 2009 meetings. Wallace's big-play ability will present a challenge to a secondary that's been burned for long touchdown passes in two straight weeks and has received inconsistent showings from cornerbacks Eric Wright (22 tackles, 5 PD) and Sheldon Brown (21 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PD).
Pittsburgh's defense is a must-start every week, and an assignment against an inexperienced quarterback and a Cleveland team with next to no offensive playmakers should have owners salivating over the possibilities. As for Roethlisberger, take a wait-and-see approach unless there are better alternatives, as it's uncertain just how he'll perform coming off such a long layoff. Mendenhall remains a lineup mainstay as the Steelers' unquestioned No. 1 ball-carrier, and Wallace draws a good matchup versus a shaky Browns secondary. As Roethlisberger's preferred target, Ward's value is enhanced in points-per-reception leagues and gets a boost in value with the switch under center. Hillis, who's scored a touchdown in every game this season, is the lone Cleveland player worth having in the fantasy world. However, having to take on the league's best rushing defense at less than 100 percent with a rookie quarterback doesn't bode well for his prospects. Consider Watson as a bye-week substitute at tight end.
This game couldn't have been set up any better for the Steelers, or any worse for the Browns. Cleveland would have been hard-pressed to come away with a victory in Pittsburgh even at full strength, but sending a third-string quarterback with zero in-game experience into intimidating surroundings to face a premier defense that'll be smelling blood after a bye week seems to be an insurmountable task. Though it may take some time for Roethlisberger and the Steelers to jell and the Browns' defense isn't bad, Pittsburgh's smothering stop unit will create plenty of short fields and induce a few costly mistakes out of McCoy to make Big Ben's homecoming a very happy occasion.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 27, Browns 6
10/14 16:07:05 ET