BIG BEN BIG CHALLENGE
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has played the Browns 17 times. He’s won 16. Until Roethlisberger retires or leaves Pittsburgh, he will be the No. 1 storyline when the turnpike rivals meet. Whether he throws for 400 yards or makes the one key play in the critical moment, he is the reason behind the Steelers’ recent mastery of the Browns.
“As always, it starts with Ben Roethlisberger and his ability to create plays and a very tough guy to get down and to affect,” coach Rob Chudzinski said of preparing for Pittsburgh.
Roethlisberger is 94-47 in the regular season, 53-18 at home and 8-0 vs. the Browns at home. He’s thrown a touchdown in 28 straight regular-season games and set a team record with 356 completions this season. He will start 16 games for only the second time in his 10-year career.
The Browns’ best chance at stopping the Steelers is to sack Roethlisberger, but it won’t be easy. The Browns’ pass rush was non-existent last week vs. the Jets and has come up small in big moments all year. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s offensive line is playing its best, allowing one sack or fewer in five of the last six games. It would be a good time for rookie outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo or veteran Paul Kruger to make a statement for 2014.
LEAD THE LEAGUE
Josh Gordon’s season has been the definition of a breakout. He can put a giant exclamation point on it by becoming the first Browns player to lead the league in yards receiving. He enters with a franchise-record 1,564, 72 yards ahead of Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, who was listed as questionable on the injury report. Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown is third with a franchise-record 1,412, 152 behind Gordon.
Gordon also tops the NFL with 120.3 yards per game and 19.6 per catch and could be the first player since St. Louis’ Torry Holt in 2000 to lead the league in both categories. He has 80 catches and could set a franchise season record with 10 more.
“When a guy’s playing like that, shutting him down is a naïve discussion,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “You want to work to minimize his impact on the outcome of the game. That’s what we’re going to try to do. Obviously plenty of people have tried to stop him, that’s probably a fruitless endeavor. We will work to minimize his impact on the game.”
Gordon’s coming off one of his worst games of the season, as he dropped two passes against the Jets, including one in the end zone. He’s motivated to bounce back and finish the season strong, and has a good chance against a Steelers secondary that allowed him 14 catches and 237 yards when they met in November.
“I want to do the best that I can do and I never want to let anyone down and miss a play. I always want to make a play and be a guy that can be relied on,” he said.
LIMPING TO THE FINISH
Ahtyba Rubin is the only starter left on the defensive line. Starting guards John Greco and Shawn Lauvao were listed as questionable, and Lauvao didn’t practice all week. No. 1 cornerback Joe Haden’s a gametime decision. Tight end Jordan Cameron was awaiting clearance from an independent neurologist.
The Browns are beat up heading into the finale and it will compromise their ability to upset the Steelers.
“Well, the next guy has to step up,” Chudzinski said. “We’ll expect whoever gets the opportunity to answer the bell.”
Nose tackle Phil Taylor (concussion) and end John Hughes (knee) joined end Desmond Bryant (irregular heartbeat) on the sideline, further weakening a run defense that’s been gashed the last two weeks. The offensive line will likely get back Greco (knee) after two weeks, but he would shift from left to right guard if Lauvao (thigh) can’t go. That would force seventh-round pick Garrett Gilkey into his first NFL start at left guard. The Steelers don’t have their ferocious pass rush of the past, but it’s still tricky enough to fool a rookie.
The biggest loss would be Haden, just voted into his first Pro Bowl. Brown has 101 catches and is Pittsburgh’s biggest offensive threat outside of Roethlisberger. It would be asking too much of Buster Skrine and Leon McFadden to try to stop him.
Hits by the Browns last week on Jets QB Geno Smith in a 24-13 loss.
Record of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin inside the AFC North.
Points scored by Cleveland’s opponents in the fourth quarter. The Browns have countered with 69.