Matchup: Browns @ SteelersWednesday, December 07, 2011
Thursday Night Football
Cleveland @ Pittsburgh
The Steelers' offensive staff owes the Ravens a Christmas card because this might be the easiest game plan they'll put together all season. The Browns will be at less than full strength four days removed from a 290-yard bulldozing by Baltimore's rushing attack, the byproduct of a whopping 55:23 run-to-pass ratio. "We got slaughtered," Browns DT Scott Paxson accepted afterwards. "They kicked our butt up front." Added MLB D'Qwell Jackson, "They embarrassed us." Over its last six games, Cleveland's defense has been steamrolled for 1,044 yards and seven touchdowns on 195 rushing attempts (5.35 YPC) by opposing tailbacks. Rashard Mendenhall has averaged under 15 carries during his last six games, but the timing is right for Pittsburgh to unleash its feature back. NFL teams have made it a habit of attacking the Browns with the run all year. Only the Colts have faced more rushing attempts against. ... Heath Miller has reverted to a block-first role since a temporary midseason hot run. He hasn't scored a touchdown since Week 7 and his yardage totals have dropped in five straight games. Miller isn't a fantasy option versus Cleveland.
Cleveland's No. 1 pass defense ranking is inflated by the fact that the Browns have been thrown on the second fewest times in football. The secondary and pass rush aren't imposing, but it still seems likely that the Steelers will follow the fool-proof, beaten path and run the ball down the Browns' throat. Fantasy owners should view Ben Roethlisberger a low-upside QB1 on Thursday night. In a home game facing Cleveland's 28th-ranked scoring offense, Pittsburgh should grab an early lead and pound the Browns into submission. Expect limited pass attempts. ... With Miller help-blocking Browns LE Jabaal Sheard and Jerricho Cotchery rotating with Hines Ward, there should still be enough completions to keep Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown afloat. Here is Big Ben's target distribution since Brown was promoted to a full-time player in Week 7: Brown 41, Wallace 41, Miller 29, Emmanuel Sanders 21, Ward 15, Cotchery 13, Mendenhall 13. Wallace and Brown have similar fantasy values, but Wallace gets the slight edge because he possesses superior big-play ability. ... If you're curious about receiver-cornerback matchups, Wallace is likely to see more snaps against Browns top CB Joe Haden than Brown. Brown plays the majority of his snaps at split end, aligning to the left side of the offensive formation. Last week, at least, Haden spent most of the game covering the opposing RWR, or flanker. Wallace is the Steelers' flanker.
The Steelers rank first in total defense, second against the pass, and seventh versus the run, so you will struggle to find any fantasy options on Cleveland's side. Possessing the least impressive physical tools among NFL starting quarterbacks, Colt McCoy has been held under 220 yards in 10-of-12 games. According to Pro Football Focus, 224 of McCoy's 274 completions (81.8%) have occurred within nine yards of the line of scrimmage. McCoy is holding the offense hostage, and it won't change until Cleveland takes the position more seriously -- ideally by drafting a franchise quarterback next April. ... High target totals are deceptive for Greg Little because he's just barely averaging over 10 yards per reception and has one touchdown all season. Little is the anti-Jordy Nelson. He's No. 19 in the league in targets but isn't even a top-50 fantasy receiver. He's also likely to see quite a bit of Steelers borderline shutdown corner Ike Taylor's coverage in this game.
Mohamed Massaquoi, Ben Watson, Evan Moore, Jordan Norwood, and Josh Cribbs are never good sleepers because Cleveland's offense can't support one fantasy pass catcher, let alone two. Cribbs played 18 snaps of offense in Week 13 and was not targeted. Moore scored a garbage-time touchdown against the Ravens, "cutting" the deficit to 24-10 in the fourth quarter. ... The Steelers got NT Casey Hampton back from a shoulder injury in Week 8 and have been shutting down ground attacks ever since. Whereas Pittsburgh's defense allowed 780 yards and five TDs on opponents' first 167 carries of the season (4.67 YPC), the numbers have fallen to 383 yards on 121 attempts (3.16 YPC) and one touchdown in five games with a healthy Hampton back in the lineup. The Browns are leaving Peyton Hillis' (hip) availability up to a game-time decision, but it doesn't matter in standard fantasy leagues. Hillis will be a poor option if he's active, and Montario Hardesty wouldn't be worth using in any scenario after playing behind Chris Ogbonnaya last week.
Score Prediction: Steelers 27, Browns 6
Gregg Rosenthal takes a look at the key players to start or sit on Thursday night.