Freddie Kitchens was in the mood of the Browns-Steelers rivalry before leaving for Pittsburgh. (Gvart)
Editor’s note: Tony Grossi is an analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland.
Four downs on Browns (5-6) v. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5)
First down: Worm turning.
Even before Ben Roethlisberger went down with a season-ending elbow injury in September, this was supposed to be the year the worm turned in the Browns-Steelers rivalry. The Steelers’ dominance was supposed to end in 2019. So here we are -- the Browns on the verge of a season sweep of the Steelers for the first time since 1988. They won the first meeting in Cleveland, 21-7, on Nov. 14 in a brutal physical beat-down. Two Steelers were knocked out with concussions, and the Browns drew three personal fouls before a melee erupted at the end, resulting in three suspensions and over $800,000 in team and player fines. Now they just have to break a 15-year losing streak in Heinz Field to complete the sweep. “We beat the stuffing out of them last game,” said defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson. “That was a butt-kicking by us. Times are changing. It’s time for a new captain.”
Second down: Duck on the pond.
Roethlisberger’s top backup, Mason Rudolph, became a head case – not entirely because of Myles Garrett bopping him on the head with his own helmet -- and has been replaced by Devlin (Duck) Hodges. The Steelers have defeated the Browns with a backup quarterback in the expansion era, but never a No. 3. Hodges was a FCS record-holder at Samford University, but went undrafted and was nearly headed for Vince McMahon’s XFL until the Steelers called him back after Roethlisberger’s injury. Hodges produced a win in LA on Oct. 13 against the Chargers subbing for Rudolph, who was concussed, and then relieved Rudolph in Cincinnati last week. Hodges got the ball to James Washington in the middle of the field, a handful of Bengals banged into each other, and Washington turned it into a 79-yard touchdown. So now Hodges gets his first start in Heinz Field in the biggest game of the game. “He has not killed us,” was the way Steelers coach Mike Tomlin explained his move to start Hodges ahead of Rudolph. Hodges has managed only one interception in 40 pass attempts even though he is more daring than Rudolph with a ball in his hands. He earned his Duck nickname by winning the Alabama state duck-calling championship and by being an avid duck hunter.
Third down: No excuses.
Besides having to start their No. 3 quarterback, the Steelers will be without starting center Maurkice Pouncey (suspension), No. 1 wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster (knee) and No. 1 back James Conner (shoulder). Even with their regulars, the Steelers are 25th in scoring and have averaged 13 points over their last three games. Their defense has scored three touchdowns.
Fourth down: Home sweet home.
The Steelers thrive on the energy of their home fans. Thirty of their 38 quarterback sacks and 18 of their 28 turnovers have come in their six games at home. The only games the Steelers have not produced a turnover, they have lost on the road to New England and the Browns. At home, they are 4-2. They lost by two points to Seattle and three to Baltimore. While the Steelers’ offense is laden with backups in starting roles, their defense is at full force. The biggest challenge for the Browns falls on their offensive line to know the silent snap count and not commit pre-snap penalties and put the offense in negative situations. Left tackle Greg Robinson did not practice all week because of a concussion. In the likely event Robinson doesn’t play, he could be replaced by guard Justin McCray or by swing tackle Kendall Lamm. McCray was not good in his one start at left tackle against New England. Lamm has not played since injuring a knee in the season opener.
Prediction: Browns, 23-10.
My record: 7-4.