By: Vic Carucci, Senior Editor
It would have made perfect sense if they were so preoccupied with the thought of having allowed Baltimore’s Ray Rice to rush for 204 yards four days earlier that they wouldn’t be totally focused on stopping Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall.
Mendenhall certainly had the ability to do a great deal of damage on the ground against a Browns defense that had consistently struggled in that area since the start of the season.
But the Browns didn’t allow him to dominate. They held him to a reasonable 76 yards, with a long carry of 15. And that was on a night when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger spent half the game barely able to walk, let alone run, with a severe high ankle sprain suffered late in the first half.
The Steelers still ended up winning, 14-3, but the Browns’ defense was able to gain at least a small sense of retribution.
The performance became even more impressive in the two weeks that followed, because Mendenhall’s yards-per-carry average increased from just under four yards to an even four. He ran for 116 yards — including a 52-yarder that helped set up the first touchdown of the game — and averaged a whopping 6.4 yards per carry in a 27-0 victory against the Rams last Saturday. That was Mendenhall’s first 100-yard game since the sixth week of the season.
The Browns’ run defense remained stout the two weeks following the Pittsburgh game, keeping Beanie Wells in check at Arizona and doing the same against Rice in the rematch at Baltimore. The Browns are going to try and make it four solid run-stopping efforts in a row when they face the Steelers in the season-finale on New Year’s Day at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
“You have to play good team defense to stop the run,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. “And I think our coaches have emphasized it.”
There’s reason to believe the Browns just might receive a lift from their second encounter with rice. Cleveland’s defense is likely to be asked to come up big against the run Sunday, because the Steelers aren’t expected to be their typically aggressive selves through the air. Even with Roethlisberger, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Steelers back away from a pass-oriented game plan. Exposing a quarterback who is recovering from a serious injury and whose mobility, which has never been great, could be compromised to more excessive punishment isn’t the best idea.
Look for the Steelers to give the Browns a heavy dose of Mendenhall. Look for them to use the same basic game plan that they utilized against St. Louis, when Charlie Batch started at quarterback. The Steelers kept the ball on the ground, rushing 28 times for 169 yards and three touchdowns.
The idea back then, as it is likely to be on Sunday, is to have Roethlisberger and/or Batch mostly manage the game and avoid mistakes. It’ll be up to the Browns’ defense to change that plan.
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