September 21, 2014

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Into the belly of the bully: Browns know they can’t back down against Steelers

BEREA – Whoever said yellow is a cowardly color never ran into Pittsburgh nose tackle Casey Hampton at the line of scrimmage. Or took a late block from receiver Hines Ward. Or went over the middle with safety Troy Polamalu bearing down.
The Steelers, even in those ugly yellow pants, have built a reputation as one of the most physical teams in the league.
“You remember the Steel Curtain days?” Browns defensive lineman Shaun Smith said, referring to Pittsburgh`s glory days of the 1970s. “It`s the colors, I guess. Black and yellow. They`re tough.”
Just about every team talks about being physical, but the Steelers deliver. A study of the statistics shows how often they win the battle at the line of scrimmage.
The Steelers (6-2) are second in the NFL with 150.5 rushing yards per game. They`re fourth against the run, allowing 76.0 yards per game.
“The most violent and most physical teams usually win football games,” coach Mike Tomlin said.
“They try to be the tough guy, the bully,” Smith said. “You just gotta out-tough them. You can`t be intimidated. That`s what they try to do, and teams tend to fold. You gotta fight through for 60 minutes.”
The Browns (5-3) have a three-game winning streak and are gaining credibility, but they don`t have a reputation as a physically dominating team. That stems from their losing history, last-ranked defense (411.8), 27th-ranked rushing defense (135.1) and 17th-ranked rushing offense (110.9).
Center Hank Fraley bristled when it was suggested the Browns weren`t as tough as the Steelers. Ryan Tucker, who`s expected to start at right guard, thinks both teams can knock heads.
“I think we`re physical. That`s my opinion,” he said. “They have some physical guys over there. A lot of teams don`t have the type of guys that they have.”
Running back Jamal Lewis knows all about running into the teeth of the Pittsburgh defense.
“I love it. I don`t care if I come out with 30 yards, as long as we win,” he said. “As long as I do my job, try to tire those guys down and beat `em up a little bit and they beat me up a little bit, I`m good. It`s just that type of ballgame.”
Lewis was 6-6 vs. Pittsburgh as a member of the Ravens with one 100-yard game. He was held to 35 yards on only 11 carries in the opener as the Browns fell into a 24-0 hole.
“It`s kinda hard to run against them,” he said. “You can`t go out there and do anything fancy, you just have to play hard-nosed football.
“You have to hang with it. It`s not going to be 10s and 12s (yard gains), it`s going to be 3s and 4s and hopefully you can pop off a few 6s and 8s. It`s going to be tough sledding.”
Lewis is far from the only back who`s struggled against the Steelers. They`ve allowed just one 100-yard rusher (Edgerrin James) in the past 58 games, and none in the last 33.
The Steelers are just as effective on the other side of the ball, where Willie Parker is second to Minnesota`s Adrian Peterson (1,036) with 768 rushing yards. The Steelers thrive when they can get a lead and pound the ball, going 4-0 when they throw fewer than 25 times.
Parker has faced the Browns five times, averaging 110 yards a game and 5.5 yards a carry. His biggest effort came in December at Heinz Field when he ran for 223 yards on 32 carries. As a team the Steelers rushed for 303. In Week 1, they came back with a season-high 206.
“He`s a fast guy,” defensive end Orpheus Roye said of Parker. “Give him an edge anywhere and he can take it to the house.”
Before Parker`s speed, the Steelers relied on Jerome Bettis` power.
“That`s just like a Ford truck and a Ferrari,” Roye said. “You gotta flatten the tires (on Parker). Just gang tackle and be disciplined.”
The Browns have been better stopping the run the last two weeks, preventing 100-yard rushers for the first time this year. They will get a real test Sunday, and the first key to passing will be answering the Steelers` physicality.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7135 or spetrak@chroniclet.com.