Last game: Beat Detroit Lions, 37-27, in Pittsburgh.
Coach: Mike Tomlin, 72-42, seventh year.
Series record: Steelers lead, 65-57, counting postseason.
Last meeting: Steelers won, 24-10, Dec. 30, 2012, in Pittsburgh.
League rankings: Offense is 15th overall (30th rushing, seventh passing), defense is 14th (26th rushing, eighth passing) and turnover differential is minus-8.
Offensive overview: Constant injuries to the offensive line have resulted in a greatly diminished running game and placed the entire offensive burden on QB Ben Roethlisberger. If he fails to overcome pass pressure or turns over the ball, the team loses. It’s as simple as that. Coordinator Todd Haley recently has given Roethlisberger more control of things by allowing him to operate without a huddle more frequently. That agrees with Roethlisberger and has helped to open things up. Haley is under fire in his second season because the running game, for which he was hired to revive, has steadily declined. They average 3.4 yards a rush, have only three games with more than 100 yards rushing as a team and have gone 18 consecutive games without an individual 100-yard game – second-longest streak in the NFL to Jacksonville. Given time to throw, Roethlisberger still has a formidable threesome of receivers in Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery to ring up points, as he did last week. But his sloppy ball-handling (six fumbles) and interceptions (15 in the last 14 games) reflect the weight of the team he carries into every game.
Defensive overview: Dick LeBeau’s 10th season as coordinator certainly is not reflective of his time as one of the most impactful NFL assistant coaches of his time. They have been battered with big plays that paint the picture of a unit in need of serious rebuilding. New England ran up 610 yards and 55 points on Nov. 3 – both Steelers’ defensive records. Two rookie additions have been disappointments – outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who was demoted but recently forced back into a starting role in place of LaMarr Woodley, and safety Shamarko Thomas, who has missed several games with an ankle injury. The unit is showing age and wear at the safety positions, the last line of a defense that has been victimized for nine plays of 50-plus yards – most in the NFL. Mirroring the offense’s main problem, the defense has been gashed on the ground. The unit has not been able to replace interior stalwarts Casey Hampton (left unsigned) and inside linebacker Larry Foote (season-ending injury). As a result, the defense has only 18 sacks – hardly typical for LeBeau’s honored time in charge.
Special teams overview: Kicker Shaun Suisham is 22 of 24 on field goals with a long of 48 yards and ranks 30th with 16 touchbacks on kickoffs. Punter Mat McBriar replaced released Zoltan Mesko on Oct. 29. In three games, he has a gross average of 42.6 yards and a net of 37.0. Antonio Brown is fourth with a punt return average of 13.1 yards. Felix Jones ranks 15th with a kick return average of 23.5. Coverage teams have been solid.
Players to watch:
1. QB Ben Roethlisberger: Despite 36 sacks and the mental pressure of carrying his team’s hopes every game, he has taken every snap for the first time in his career. Still capable of winning games with his arm and legs, he is 16-1 against the Browns after winning his last six appearances in a row.
2. WR Antonio Brown: Ben’s new go-to receiver after the defection of Mike Wallace, he leads the NFL with 74 receptions and is tied for fifth in yards (952). He had a 151-yard game against the Browns in 2011, including a career-high 79-yard touchdown catch.
3. CB Ike Taylor: Shadowing opponents’ No. 1 receivers, he has shut down the likes of A.J. Green, Brandon Marshall and Torrey Smith this year to catches and yards below their season averages.
Injury report: LB Lamar Woodley (calf), DE Brett Keisel (foot), OG Ramon Foster (ankle), and SS Shamarko Thomas (ankle) missed the last game. Each could miss Sunday’s game. WR Emmanuel Sanders (foot) left the last game and could be limited.
Small world: Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was born in London, OH, played at Ohio State and was a fifth-round draft pick of the Browns in 1959 … Assistant head coach/defensive line John Mitchell was a coach with the Browns 1991-93 … linebackers coach Keith Butler was with the Browns 1999-02 … quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner was born in Cleveland … wide receivers coach Richard Mann was with the Browns 1985-93 … defensive assistant Jerry Olsavsky is a native of Youngstown and coached at Youngstown State … quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is from Findlay, OH, and played at Miami (Ohio) … quarterback Bruce Gradkowski played at Toledo and for the Browns in 2008 … defensive end Cameron Heyward and offensive lineman Mike Adams played at Ohio State.