BROWNS VS. STEELERS: MARQUEE MATCHUP
Steelers WR Mike Wallace vs. Browns CB Joe Haden
Any Browns fan worth his Charlie Frye jersey can recite the draft mistakes on command. Tim Couch instead of Donovan McNabb, Gerard Warren over LaDainian Tomlinson, Quincy Morgan rather than Chad Johnson (Ochocinco). It's still early, but Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie instead of Mike Wallace might be next on the list.
The Browns were obviously looking for receivers in the 2009 draft. Coach Eric Mangini took Ohio State's Robiskie with the 36th pick and Georgia's Massaquoi at No. 50 in the second round. Mississippi's Wallace (6-foot, 199 pounds) went to Pittsburgh in the third round at No. 84. Through 31 games, Wallace has more yards (1,908) and touchdowns (15) than Cleveland's pair combined. What's more frustrating is that Wallace has the elite speed the Browns are lacking. He said he once ran a 4.21-second 40-yard dash.
"A guy like Mike Wallace is a home run waiting to happen on any play," Mangini said.
"He's the fastest receiver we've played against," Browns cornerback Joe Haden said. "He was the fastest receiver I played in college, too. I didn't know he was going to be this good. He did good in college, but he didn't do like he's doing right now."
Wallace was the third receiver as a rookie, specializing in big plays. He led the NFL with 19.4 yards per catch, grabbing 39 for 756 yards with six touchdowns. The Steelers saw enough to trade Santonio Holmes and move Wallace into the starting lineup. He's responded with 57 catches for 1,152 yards (sixth in the NFL) and nine receiving touchdowns (tied for eighth). The 20.2-yard average is second in the league and he's become more versatile, catching a variety of routes while maintaining the fear factor of the deep ball.
"Every team looked over me twice and it was on the way for everybody looking over me a third time in the third round," Wallace said. "I take it real personal every time I go out there on the field, just try to make everybody pay for what they looked over on."
The Browns will mix coverages to try to contain Wallace, but Haden will be the guy primarily responsible. He's progressed throughout his rookie season and flourished once he was promoted to the starting lineup. His six interceptions are tied for second in the NFL behind the seven by Philadelphia's Asante Samuel.
"Joe's been a pretty good player since college," Wallace said. "Joe's getting better and better every week. He's showing why they used a top-10 pick on him and why they paid him all that money."
Haden and the Browns will have to live with some short completions to Wallace, but must guard against the bomb. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Wallace have connected for seven touchdowns of at least 40 yards. Wallace has 24 catches of at least 20 yards this year, the most by a Steeler since John Stallworth in 1984. He also has six 100-yard games, the most since Stallworth's seven in 1984.
"If you're in man-to-man and you're chasing him, it's hard to catch up," said Haden, who got his first sack and forced fumble last week against Baltimore. "You just know any down he can take it. This'll be the first receiver I feel is faster than me. I have to stay on top and make him come back to the ball."
(Five points of interest in today's game)
1. NOWHERE TO RUN
The Steelers run defense is one of the best of all time. They've allowed a franchise-best 64.1 yards per game, which ranks behind only the 2000 Ravens (60.6) and the 2006 Vikings (61.6). They were the first team to hold the opponent to 75 or fewer rushing yards in the first eight games.
"It's a commitment," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "Our guys take a lot of pride in defending the run and not allowing people to run the football on us. It's something that's handed down from generations of players to generations of players. It's one of the many unique things that come with being a Steeler."
If the challenge weren't imposing enough, the Browns won't be at full strength. Team MVP Peyton Hillis didn't practice all week with sore ribs and was listed as questionable. He's expected to play, but will likely be limited. So it's up to backup Mike Bell (26 carries, 57 yards with the Browns) and Joshua Cribbs in the Wildcat to take some of the pressure off quarterback Colt McCoy.
Cribbs had a career-high 87 rushing yards in a win over the Steelers last season, but was knocked out of October's matchup with a concussion. He remains slowed by an injured foot, but is feeling better and is due to make a play that changes the game.
2. PHIL'S FAREWELL?
Kickers don't usually make the impact or elicit the emotions that Phil Dawson has during his tenure with the Browns. The only player left from the expansion season of 1999, he embraced the city, the traditions and the rivalries. He also made a lot of kicks.
Dawson's in the final game of his contract and it's uncertain whether he'll return to the Browns. He said he's open to the idea, but has felt betrayed and underappreciated by the organization. He continues to get better as a kicker and needs six points for 100 on the season. He already holds the franchise record with five 100-point seasons.
Dawson's first game-winner came against the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium in 1999. It would be more than fitting if his final one - perhaps today - came against them. Don't be surprised if the Steelers make a strong push to sign Dawson in the offseason.
3. COMING AROUND THE EDGE
Forget the vicious, concussion-causing hits. Steelers linebacker James Harrison is a problem even when he's playing by the rules.
The former NFL defensive player of the year has a team-high 11 sacks and needs another half-sack to reach 50 for his career. His rare combination of speed and power in a compact frame (6-foot, 242 pounds) makes him a handful when he dips his shoulder rushing around the edge. Browns Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas has had success against him in the past, using his size (6-6, 312) to engulf Harrison and defuse the speed.
But Harrison only needs to win on a play or two to alter the game. He has six forced fumbles this year, and could swing the outcome with a strip-sack of McCoy.
4. CENTER STAGE
Browns nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin and Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey should be battling for years to come.
Rubin has come into his own in his third season, first as a full-time starter. He's been Cleveland's most consistent defender, leads NFL linemen with 79 tackles and deserved Pro Bowl consideration.
Pouncey was drafted No. 18 out of Florida in April. He quickly adjusted to the NFL and was voted to the Pro Bowl as the backup to the Jets' Nick Mangold, disappointing Cleveland center Alex Mack. Pouncey has stabilized a line beset with injuries, paving the way for Rashard Mendenhall to rush for 1,237 yards. The Steelers always seem to have a top-flight center, and Pouncey looks like the guy for the next decade.
"I told you guys all along that he's one of the best in the game," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He's going to be the best and the sky's the limit for him. He's always downfield, he's always finishing, he's always trying to start a fight between every player - that's kind of something you want."
5. BIG BEN'S BACK
When the teams met in October, Roethlisberger was making his much anticipated return from a four-game suspension for an offseason incident involving a woman in a bar. Eleven games later, Roethlisberger is back to being one of the league's best quarterbacks. He hasn't been intercepted in 136 passes and has thrown only five this year.
"That's one of the things that I try to pride myself on, not throwing interceptions," he said. "They drive me crazy."
Roethlisberger, 11-1 against the Browns, has been particularly effective in the clutch. His 110.3 fourth-quarter passer rating ranks second in the NFL, as does his 113.9 rating on third down. He threw for 259 yards in the first half last week, so it's not as if he's just dumping the ball short.
The Browns' only victory over Roethlisberger came in December last season when they sacked him eight times. If he squirms loose and makes big plays downfield today, the Browns don't have a chance.