CLEVELAND – The Cleveland Browns aren’t yet waving the white flag, but a loss to the Steelers might force them to reconsider.
The Browns were supposed to hand out white flags to fans before today’s game against the Steelers in an effort to offset the large number of Terrible Towels expected at the stadium from the large Pittsburgh crowd.
The promotion was poorly received in Cleveland because the white flags are a symbol of surrender.
Browns spokesman Neal Gulkis said in a statement late Saturday the team scrapped the idea “in the best interests of everyone. It is something that was intended to be fun for our fans and that they could rally around, and we regret that some didn’t perceive it that way.”
Beating the Steelers (6-4) would be a nice feather in the cap for the Browns (2-8), who haven’t had much to cheer about.
“It’s absolutely a huge game for us,” said Cleveland head coach Pat Shurmur. “From a coaching standpoint, it’s because it’s our next game and also because it’s a division game, and not to mention the fact that it’s the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers, and what the rivalry means. We’ve got to find a way to do a better job of winning more of these games.”
The Browns haven’t done much to make this a rivalry since coming back to the NFL in 1999.
The Steelers have won 23 of 27 meetings between the AFC North teams since 1999, sweeping the Browns nine times, including winning all three games in 2002 when the two met in the playoffs.
The sweep didn’t come easily last year, as Pittsburgh won, 14-3, at home in December then, 13-9, at Cleveland on New Year’s Day.
“We know they always come ready to play us,” said Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley. “It’s a division game, and we always get their best shot.”
Both of those victories last year came with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on the field for the Steelers. Roethlisberger, who suffered a sprained shoulder and separated rib two weeks ago against Kansas City, is out for this game, and so is backup Byron Leftwich.
The Steelers will start 37-year-old third-string quarterback Charlie Batch for just the eighth time since he joined the team in 2002.
“Every time, it’s been under different circumstances where I was starting at the end of the season when the season was already won,” said Batch, who is 5-2 in starts, including a 27-0 win against St. Louis last December. “We won the division, and I had to play. Versus last year, where you had to come in and keep the ship right so we could still try and win the division towards the end of the season. Each year is different, and each year you kind of seize the moment.”
The Steelers will be looking to regain some momentum lost last week in a 13-10 defeat at the hands of Baltimore. That snapped a four-game winning streak, though the defense permitted just 200 total yards and did not allow a touchdown.
The Ravens’ lone touchdown came on a 63-yard punt return by Jacoby Jones. This week, the Steelers face another stiff challenge in Cleveland’s Josh Cribbs, who has three kickoff returns for touchdowns against Pittsburgh, a record for a player against one opponent.
“Cribbs is a dynamic return man,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. “Given our recent performance in that area, we need to be ready to perform there.”
The run defense had better be prepared to perform, too. After limiting Baltimore’s Ray Rice to 40 yards on 20 carries last week, the Steelers face a similar back in Cleveland rookie Trent Richardson. Richardson not only leads Cleveland in rushing with 670 yards, he’s the Browns’ leading receiver with 37 receptions.
“The core of their offense revolves around him,” said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. “So your passing game is going to be play-action. It is formidable because the linebackers have to respect the running threat, and it gives them a little more space to work. That’s where you see them throw that deep ball. We will have to be on our keys, especially in the secondary. We can’t go chasing rainbows or they will be floating something over us.”
One positive for the Steelers is that not only is Richardson a rookie, but so is quarterback Brandon Weeden, albeit one who is 29 years old.
The Steelers are 14-1 against rookie quarterbacks with LeBeau as defensive coordinator.
“Weeden has had the whole training camp, all the coaching sessions and now all this game experience,” said LeBeau. “He is just a young veteran quarterback now. It will come down to who plays the best football.”
Odds and end zones
The Steelers have won 10 of their past 11 games in Cleveland ... Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis leads the AFC with 19 pass defenses. ... Steelers receiver Mike Wallace has 324 yards on 15 catches against the Browns, an average of 21.6 yards per catch. ... Cleveland kicker Phil Dawson has made 25 consecutive field goals, the longest streak in the NFL. ... The Steelers have won 12 consecutive games coming off a loss.