April 17, 2014

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Steelers don’t have their top QBs, but their defense is still the Browns’ biggest concern

Headhunting outside linebacker James Harrison admits he’s not himself following knee surgery that cost him the first three games of the season. Freelancing, playmaking strong safety Troy Polamalu has played in only two games and is doubtful for today with a calf injury.

The two best players on the aging Steelers defense haven’t had their usual impact, but the unit that ranked first in 2011 and second in 2010 hasn’t missed a beat. Pittsburgh has the top-ranked overall defense (259.1 yards per game), the No. 1 pass defense (169.3) and the fifth-ranked scoring defense (19.0 points per game).

Welcome to the Rust Belt rivalry, Brandon Weeden.

“The best thing about this defense is that they have good players,” Cleveland’s rookie quarterback said in anticipation of his first game vs. the Steelers. “They’ve got guys that have been in the league for a long time, they’ve got guys that can tackle and they’ve got guys that scheme-wise are really, really good.”

Harrison had a sack, eight tackles, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hit last week in a 13-10 loss to the Ravens that snapped Pittsburgh’s four-game winning streak. He continues to work his way back into form, and will never be taken lightly inside Browns headquarters.

Receivers Joshua Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi and quarterback Colt McCoy have received concussions at the head and forearms of Harrison within the last two seasons.

“I’ve seen him in different clips,” Weeden said. “Hopefully I’m not one of them.

“He’s a big muscle on the side. You have to know where he is at all times. He’s a great player, plays with a lot of energy and he’ll hit you. That sparks a little energy for that defense. He’s been a great player for a long time.”

Rookie running back Trent Richardson said he won’t back down from the bully.

“With James Harrison, he’s one of those type dudes that want to go out for the knockout shot,” he said. “I really don’t pay no attention to it. I’m going to try to do everything I can and make sure that he knows I’m present.”

Weeden will have more to worry about than just Harrison.

The Steelers have held opposing quarterbacks below a 76.0 rating seven times, including six straight games. The list of passers includes Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Robert Griffin III and Andy Dalton.

The Steelers have held opponents under 170 net passing yards five straight games, and lead the league in passing first downs allowed (92). They’re second in completions allowed (169) and sixth in passes of 25 yards (13).

Pittsburgh has posted the numbers without Polamalu in a secondary that, for some reason, has long been considered a weakness despite the Steelers’ success. Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis have been solid at cornerback, and free safety Ryan Clark sets the tone with his smart, physical style.

“You get all these guys that are long, they’re physical, they can run, they’re athletes, so they can make plays on the ball,” Massaquoi said. “And Ryan Clark, I don’t think he gets as much credit as he deserves because he’s one of the better safeties in the league, period.

“You get all those guys playing collectively together and they’re so in tune with the scheme that they’re able to go out there and play free and make plays.”

Pittsburgh has won 16 of 17 in the series but will be without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who’s 14-1 against the Browns. Backup Byron Leftwich is also injured, leaving 37-year-old Charlie Batch to lead the offense. While that certainly improves the Browns’ chances, Weeden must be able to handle the intimidating Steelers defense.

Weeden’s 2,298 yards are the third most ever by an NFL rookie through 10 games. He needs 150 to pass Tim Couch in 1999 for the most by a rookie in team history.

The rest of Weeden’s numbers aren’t as strong. He’s thrown 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and has almost climbed out of the four-interception hole he dug in the opener. His 55.3 completion percentage ranks 31st in the NFL, as does his 70.3 rating.

“He’s making quick decisions, he’s getting rid of the ball, he’s not taking sacks,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He’s doing a very nice job. But he doesn’t need an endorsement from me, I think the video tells that story.”

Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas has played the Steelers 10 times. He’s part of a line that has allowed only eight sacks over the last seven games (second to Denver) and 16 for the season (sixth in the NFL) and believes Weeden can handle the pressure of facing Pittsburgh.

“The big advice is just be calm, be collected, if you make a mistake don’t worry about it, go to the next play,” Thomas said. “That’s how he plays already, he’s not somebody that would dwell on one mistake. His demeanor is already perfect for a big matchup like this.”

The Pittsburgh defense has played its best lately, holding six straight opponents to 20 points or fewer. The Ravens’ only touchdown was on a kick return and Pittsburgh held them to 3-for-14 on third down.

In the last five games, it’s allowed an average of 222.4 net yards, 84.6 rushing, 137.8 passing, 15.0 points and 1.2 points in the fourth quarter.

“The first thing I heard from fans when I got to town was, ‘You beat the Steelers and you don’t buy a steak for a long time.’ I’m going to hold some of those people true to it,” Weeden said. “It’s not only a divisional game but they’re close to Cleveland and it’s a rivalry game. I probably honestly won’t know until after the game what it’s really about.

“It’s probably the biggest game on our schedule. We’ve grown up watching these matchups and I’m looking forward to playing in it for the first time.”

New Browns owner Jimmy Haslam has been part of the rivalry before, but never on the Cleveland side. He’s yet to sell his minority stake in the Steelers but will be 100 percent behind the Browns.

“I told the players all the games count one, but when you’re playing this game there’s obviously more emotion attached to it,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “I don’t want to speak for Jimmy, but I would imagine there’s more emotion involved with this one than some of the others.”

Browns waive white flag promotion

The Browns have called off the promotional giveaway scheduled for today. They were going to hand out inflatable white flags with Browns helmets on them, sponsored by Tickemaster.

“After further and careful consideration, we felt it was in the best interests of everyone involved that we not have a giveaway item at tomorrow’s game,” spokesman Neal Gulkis said in a statement.

“It is something that was intended to be fun for our fans and that they could rally around, and we regret that some didn’t perceive it that way. We want to thank all of our fans for their tremendous support and we look forward to seeing them out in force at the stadium tomorrow.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.

TODAY

• WHO: Cleveland vs. Pittsburgh
• TIME: 1 p.m.
• WHERE: Cleveland Browns Stadium
• TV/RADIO: Channel 19; WMMS 100.7-FM, WTAM 1100-AM