Thursday, December 07, 2006

Why Beating Pittsburgh Matters

I was on my way to work earlier in the week and saw a guy in a Steelers jacket wandering down Broadway in the City of Cleveland. Twenty years ago, I'd have thought he was either a bad ass or just a really brave guy. Now, I just note that his coat is a different style from the other Steelers jackets I've seen some people wearing around downtown lately.

I know several people from Northeast Ohio who are going to tonight's game. They're Steelers season ticket holders. When I drive down my street during football season, I see houses with Steelers flags flying proudly right next to Ohio State flags. A guy I play hockey with has started to wear a Troy Polamalu jersey over his pads. I don't know how it is in Cuyahoga County, but you can't walk into a sporting goods store in Summit County without being overwhelmed by the selection of Steelers merchandise. The Stow-Hudson Giant Eagle had black and yellow cupcakes on special last playoff season (Perfect for Playoff Parties!). Even Terry Pluto, who used to write books about the glories of the Cleveland Browns, told us all that we should root for the Steelers during last year's Super Bowl.

The bottom line is that for a town that's supposed to bleed brown and orange, there's sure a lot of yellow and black wandering around. I guess this is what a generation of incompetence, deceit and even outright treachery on the part of the Cleveland Browns' ownership has produced. The fans who went to war with the NFL to get their team back are now alienated, indifferent, and in some cases drifting away. How far they've drifted is embodied in the fact that Hines Ward calls Cleveland Stadium the Steelers' "home away from home."

It's up to the current group of Browns to take the first step in putting a stop to this. If they need to know why beating Pittsburgh matters, all they have to do is take a look around and see how popular their once hated rival has become in their own backyard.

As for the game itself, I simply can't figure this team out (that's hardly news to you if you've been reading my horrible predictions week in and week out). The Browns are coming off a big win, which probably means we should expect a big letdown that will be blamed on a combination of a short week and a backup QB being thrown into the teeth of the Pittsburgh blitz.

On the other hand, I think that this group of players wants to beat Pittsburgh so bad they can taste it, and I haven't thought that about a Browns team in quite some time. The Steelers weren't a juggernaut three weeks ago, and tonight it looks like they'll be without both starting safeties and both starting wide receivers. Yes, that means that the Browns won't have to contend with either Troy Polamalu or Hines Ward, both of whom have absolutely killed them over the years.

The Browns defense has actually done a decent job against the rush in recent games, and held Willie Parker to under 50 yards the last time the two teams met. To me, the keys to tonight's game are keeping Parker hemmed in, getting pressure on Roethlisberger, and keeping pressure off Derek Anderson and his Sideshow Bob sized feet. Pittsburgh's going to blitz, but without Polamalu in the lineup, they've got to be at least a little more worried than usual about the risk of giving up a big play, so Anderson may get more of a chance to throw than most people think. It would also be nice to discover that last week's running game wasn't a complete mirage, especially since it's supposed to snow tonight.

Tonight the Browns have a chance to take a big step on the long road to respectability. Was the Kansas City game the start of something for this team, or was it just the proverbial dead cat bounce? Can this team put together two solid performances in a row?

I want to think they can make this game interesting, but I don't think they're going to win it. The glass is still half empty. Steelers 21, Browns 14.

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