This could very well be a dramatically different Steelers team that plays at Cleveland Browns Stadium on New Year’s Day than the one the Browns faced on Dec. 8 at Heinz Field.
And the most dramatic difference could very well be that Charlie Batch, and not Ben Roethlisberger, is the Steelers’ starting quarterback.
The Browns briefly saw the impact of that change behind center after Roethlisberger limped to the dressing room late in the first half of the previous game between the teams with a high ankle sprain. Batch failed to complete the only two passes he attempted.
In the second half, Roethlisberger, despite being severely hobbled, returned to the game to help lead the Steelers to a 14-3 victory.
But after the Steelers lost their next game at San Francisco, with Roethlisberger trying to push his way through on one leg, the Steelers turned to Batch last Saturday to be their starter against St. Louis. And the results were far better than that cameo showing against the Browns.
In his first start since last season, Batch was solid, but far from spectacular. He did a nice job of managing a run-oriented game plan. He avoided pressure and, except for one interception, did a good job of avoiding mistakes. He threw for 208 yards, 46 of which came on a completion to the Steelers’ most dangerous target, Mike Wallace.
With Batch at quarterback, the Steelers aren’t their usual quick-striking selves. They are content to pound the ball on the ground. That formula worked well against the Rams, who have the NFL’s worst rush defense. Reshard Mendenhall ran for 116 yards and a touchdown, and averaged 6.4 yards per carry. The Browns’ run defense isn’t ranked a whole lot higher than the Rams’, although it has had some of its better performances the past three games, beginning with the first encounter with Pittsburgh. That night, Mendenhall gained only 76 yards.
The Browns’ cause might be helped by the fact the interior of the Steelers’ offensive line has been weakened by injuries. First, they lost starting center Maurkice Pouncey. Then, early in the St. Louis game, they lost his replacement, Doug Legursky, who had moved from left guard to replace him. Trai Essex ended up at center, while Chris Kemoeatu took Essex’s place at left guard.
The Steelers survived the shuffling, but it might be harder to do at Cleveland against the likes of tackles Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor, and middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson.
The Browns just might be able to continue the success they’ve had on the ground with Peyton Hillis, who has rushed for 99 and 112 yards in his last two games. The Steelers’ defensive line didn’t do much to contain Rams standout running back Steven Jackson, whose 103-yard outing made him the third back to rush for more than 100 yards against the Steelers this season.
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