The Steelers, unless they plan on scuttling the rest of their season, should claim their 12th win in a row over the Clowns on Sunday. Like with the Lions the week before, as much as we all will humbly say we will take a W in any form, this is a game where they want one of those cupcake game slaughters you get in the early weeks of the college season.
There's a decidedly mixed feeling among Steelers fans going in. The team is getting Troy Polamalu back on the field, but have lost Aaron Smith for the season. This was supposed to be a return to the defensive form of 2008, but the sad truth is that that unit will not be showing up at any time in 2009. The 2009 edition might show flashes of that dominance and have it for specific stretches of certain games, but the same sustained performance won't be duplicated.
That doesn't necessarily mean the team is doomed. Whereas without Smith on the line, the defense will take a step back (sorry, the four-headed rotation of Eason, Kirschke, Sunny Harris and Ziggy Hood can't entirely replace him) so long it doesn't become a glaring weakness like it did toward the end of 2007, the team can still thrive. Though the offense was timely last year, for the most part it was plainly average to below average. It's decidedly better this year, especially with Rashard Mendenhall's emergence, the O-line's improved play and Big Ben having a stellar year. Should those factors continue to play out, the Steelers can contend with a good offense and a merely very good as opposed to a worldbeating defense.
That said, that defense still has to yet to reach its potential with its remaining parts. The performance on third down against the Lions last week was embarrassing and some of that falls on Dick LeBeau. Several of Detroit's conversions came on screen passes that should have been expected from a team starting its backup QB with its top receiver out of the game. LaMarr Woodley showed signs of life in the pass rush in the final defensive stand last week. That has to continue. Should Troy's return help with negating opposing tight ends and slots receivers and Smith's fill-ins at left end provide stable play, a lot of the problems on the defensive side quickly vanish.
The Browns will likely test the left side of the Steelers line often, especially when they can't have a ton of confidence in their passing attack. Jamal Lewis ran 31 times for 117 yards against Buffalo last week. I wouldn't expect similar output, but unless they fall behind huge early, Mangini will probably be content to give him an amount of touches comparable to that.
Meanwhile, the distribution of the Steelers carries will be of great interest. I can't predict how it will shake out, but I can't see how FWP would get more than a third of them unless he manages to break some huge plays in whatever chances he gets. With Mendenhall being underused late last week despite a lead an average per carry of over five yards, the Steelers would be mistaken in going away from him unless a sizable advantage gives them that luxury.
So here's to some momentum building and continued Cleveland irrelevancy.