I know it’s bad form — and worse, tempting fate — to disparage the opponent before the game. As much as I hate the Ravens I would never proclaim in the days leading up to their friendly get-togethers that the Steelers will handily whip their asses. Mostly because I’m setting myself up for a schadenfreude-tastic backlash if Baltimore wins, which given the similarities between the two teams, is about a 50-50 proposition.
But the same holds for just about every other game on the schedule, no matter how much the Steelers might appear to be favorites. After all, last year they somehow managed to lose to the Chiefs, Raiders and Browns — three of the league’s worst outfits led respectively by late-rounds afterthoughts Matt Cassel and Bruce Gradkowski, and first-rounder-who-shoulda-gone-undrafted Brady Quinn.
And while I’m not outright clowning the Browns as they head to Pittsburgh this weekend, I have a very hard time envisioning a situation in which they leave Heinz Field with a victory. Can it happen? Sure. The most obvious example is the 2002 Texans-Steelers game. Some sobering stats from quite possibly the weirdest Sunday ever:
HOU PIT First downs 3 24 Rush-yards-TDs 26-37-0 31-128-0 Comp-Att-Yd-TD-INT 3-10-33-0-0 31-58-326-0-2 Sacked-yards 4-23 6-32 Net pass yards 10 294 Total yards 47 422 Fumbles-lost 3-1 3-3 Turnovers 1 5 Penalties-yards 1-18 8-57
Ten total passing yards. Forty-seven total yards. Three first downs. And the Texans won by 18 points.
The 2010 Browns are a much better team than the ’02 Texans, although this year’s version of the Steelers is a lot better than the ’02 version.
So, yeah, anything can happen this weekend. But it’s not a stretch to suggest that Cleveland’s offense could be in for a very long afternoon Sunday. With Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace both nursing high-ankle sprains, it sounds like rookie Colt McCoy will get his very first NFL start.
I’ll admit to not watching one second of the Browns during preseason, but word on the street is that McCoy looked so god awful that there was talk that he might get cut. I’m not putting much stock in preseason performances (especially for a rookie) since a lot of Steelers fans got their panties in a bunch over Big Ben struggling through the ’05 preseason. Things worked out pretty well for him in the ensuing 22 weeks.
Four meaningless games aside, the reality is that McCoy (or maybe just-acquired Brett Ratliff) is going to face the toughest challenge of his football life this weekend. And if David Carr can stand around while the Steelers implode, there’s a chance — however small — that McCoy could do the same. I just don’t know how it happens.
Of course, that’s probably what I was muttering after the Texans debaclement, but this is different. First, Tim Lewis ain’t the Steelers defensive coordinator. Second, Troy Polamalu is playing. Third, and perhaps most important: Ben Roethlisberger returns. And then there’s history. Via Football Outsiders:
How have rookie quarterbacks fared on the road against such strong defenses? …Since 1993, 41 quarterbacks have gone on the road to play a pass defense with a DVOA of -15% or lower. [The Steelers currently have the league's second-best defense. Against the pass, they rank fourth in the league, with a -17.2% DVOA.]
Those quarterbacks’ average line: 14-of-29 (49.2 percent) for 160 yards, with 0.7 touchdowns, 1.4 interceptions, and 2.7 sacks. Their teams went a collective 7-35, and in the seven wins, their defenses allowed an average of just 14.3 points per game.”
If nothing else, it points to how good (and lucky) the Steelers have been at stockpiling quality quarterbacks. Pretty sure Charlie Batch starts over a healthy Delhomme and Wallace in Cleveland. In Pittsburgh he’s a fourth-stringer who only made the team because of a late-preseason injury.
Earlier this week, McCoy said about what you would expect on the prospects of facing the Steelers.
McCoy’s last action was in the preseason when he finished 13-of-13 for 131 yards against the Bears, primarily against third and fourth string players.
“Obviously, that was good anytime you complete all your passes, that is good,” McCoy said. “I don’t want to talk about the past. I have a lot of confident going into Pittsburgh. They have tremendous players. They’re all good and I have all the respect in the world for those guys.”
Eric Mangini says that the offense won’t be scaled down for McCoy, though I’m not sure it much matters. The Browns just traded away their most explosive running back, Jerome Harrison. And their workhorse, Peyton Hillis, has a thigh bruise that has limited him in recent weeks. Couple that with a suspect offensive line and a lot of question marks at receiver and Cleveland’s best hope might to pray for an insane defensive effort to go along with a crapload of Pittsburgh turnovers.
Finally, some advice for Colt courtesy of Big Ben: “Coming to Heinz Field is going to be a big challenge for him. I think he’s going to get a taste really quick of what the AFC North and the Pittsburgh and Cleveland rivalry is all about. … It’s always tough when you go on the road. The thing I would say to him is be patient and let the game come to him.”
I think Charlie Frye tried the “be patient and let the game come to him” approach. Didn’t work out so well.