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Tomlin Report - Cleveland Rocks

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The Steelers put the finishing touches on the 2010 regular season this Sunday in Cleveland. Although they have already earned a playoff berth, the game looms large. A win earns the Steelers a much-needed bye as the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. A loss could mean they tumble to the bottom of the seedings.

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-4) at Cleveland Browns (5-10)

Cleveland Browns Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio; Sunday, January 2 – 1:00 PM on CBS

LAST WEEK

Browns: Lost to the Ravens 20-10 in Cleveland


· Cleveland’s own defensive effort was overshadowed by the dominance of the Ravens defense.

· The Browns chipped into Baltimore territory on their first drive, which ended when Ravens CB Lardarius Webb picked off a deep pass attempt by rookie QB Colt McCoy.

· After the defense forced a three-and-out, Cleveland reached into its bag of tricks on offense and came up with a touchdown. On first down, backup QB Seneca Wallace stepped into the action, handed off to RB Peyton Hillis, who then pitched it back to WR Mohammed Massaqoui. Massaqoui tossed the ball downfield to fellow-receiver Brian Robiskie, who made a play on the underthrown ball to give Cleveland a 7-0 lead.

· On the ensuing drive, Baltimore pounded away at the Browns run defense en route to the redzone, but the team was forced to settle for a 27-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff.

· One play later, the Ravens got the ball back thanks to a fumble by Massaquoi. Three plays after that, Baltimore took a 10-7 lead on a touchdown pass from QB Joe Flacco to WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

· On the following drive, McCoy got his first taste of Baltimore’s Ed Reed. Reed picked off a pass, setting up a 40-yard field goal by Cundiff

· McCoy would bounce back on the next drive, pushing Cleveland into the redzone. Unfortunately, time was running out on the Browns and they settled for a 30-yard field goal by Phil Dawson, taking a 13-10 deficit into the half.

· Cleveland again reached into its back of tricks to open the half, but this time they came up empty. Phil Dawson’s onsides kick attempt failed to travel 10 yards, giving Baltimore the ball with a short field.

· The Ravens would take advantage of that field positon three plays later on a 22-yard touchdown pass from Flacco to WR Derrick Mason.

· Neither offense managed to move into scoring position until the Browns did so with five minutes left in the game. Unfortunately for Colt McCoy, Ed Reed decided to turn in an encore performance, intercepting a pass allowing Baltimore to run all but 14 seconds off the clock. With little time to work with, Cleveland came up short.

· Cleveland’s pass defense looked sharp, limiting Flacco to 102 yards through the air and intercepting him once.

· Offensively, RB Peyton Hillis struggled, netting only 35 yards on 12 carries.

Steelers: Beat the Panthers 27-3 in Pittsburgh

· Pittsburgh flexed its defensive muscle, controlling the Panthers to grab a win and stay in the pole position of the AFC North race.

· After a solid, but non-scoring drive by Carolina, Pittsburgh opened up the scoring with a 26-yard field goal by Shaun Suisham.

· Early in the second quarter, CB Bryant McFadden came up with an interception of rookie QB Jimmy Clausen, giving Pittsburgh the ball with good starting field position.

· Three plays later, QB Ben Roethlisberger hit WR Mike Wallace for a short pass that the speedy wideout turned into a 43-yard touchdown and a 10-0 lead. Wallace led all receivers with four catches for 104 yards.

· Pittsburgh’s defense held Carolina in-check for the remainder of the quarter and the offense added to its lead with a one-yard plunge by Rashard Mendenhall shortly after the two-minute warning.

· Kicker Shaun Suisham would get two more cracks at a score before halftime thanks to some mistakes by Carolina. He hit a 29-yarder to put the Steelers up 20-0, but missed on a 41-yarder just before halftime.

· The Steelers drove into the redzone on their opening possession of the second half, but failed to convert a fourth-and-one at the five-yard line.

· However, the Panthers could not move the ball out of the shadow of their own endzone, giving Pittsburgh great starting field position on their next drive, which ended with a one-yard rushing touchdown by Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben finished 22-of-32 for 320 yards, one passing touchdown, and one rushing touchdown.

· Carolina managed to break the shutout with a 27-yard field goal by John Kasay in the fourth quarter, which ended the scoring 27-3 in favor of Pittsburgh.

· Pittsburgh’s defense allowed just 119 total yards on the day.

· James Farrior, James Harrison, Ziggy Hood, and Brett Keisel all notched sacks in the win.

· SS Ryan Mundy, who started in place of Troy Polamalu, led the team with eight total tackles.

VEGAS FAVORITE: Steelers by 6

BEHIND ENEMY LINES: A Look Around the AFC North


Baltimore (11-4) knocked off the Browns but will need their foes in Cleveland to knock off Pittsburgh in order to win the division. Of course, it’s all moot if they come out flat against the Cincinnati Bengals, who could pose a threat. The team should get a boost on offense this week with the expected return of TE Todd Heap, who was playing at a Pro-Bowl level before an injury knocked him out of the lineup.

In other injury news, the Ravens will be replacing their long snapper as rookie Morgan Cox tore an ACL against Cleveland. The hope is that the new snapper will develop chemisty quickly with kicker Billy Cundiff, who is having an All-Pro year in 2010. Cundiff has made 24 of his 27 field goals this season, but his true value is felt on kickoffs, where he leads the league in distance (68.8) and has registered a stunning 38 touchbacks on the season, which amounts to slightly more than half of his kickoffs.

Cincinnati (4-11) has followed up its abysmal ten-game losing streak with a two-game winning streak. Last week, I said Cincinnati was in position to play spoiler over the final two weeks and they’re one-for-one in that role, knocking off the San Diego Chargers 34-20 to dash their postseason hopes. While they can’t knock rival Baltimore out of the playoffs with the win this week, they can knock them out of contention for the division crown and a first-round bye.

After a mess of a season by Carson Palmer, the light finally turned on as the quarterback shredded the Chargers despite missing his top-two receivers. Regardless of who is throwing passes for the Bengals next season, he’ll have a wealth of young talent to throw to. Third-year wideout Jerome Simpson torched the Chargers to the tune of 124 yards and two touchdowns. Fellow third-year pass-catcher Andre Caldwell added 87 yards and rookie TE Jermaine Gresham picked up 56 yards and a score. In addition, the team has rookie Jordan Shipley, who was quiet against San Diego, but has been solid all season.

THE PATH TO THE PLAYOFFS: AFC Playoff Picture as of 12/28/10

Division Leaders:
New England Patriots 13-2 (clinched AFC East and home-field advantage), Pittsburgh Steelers 11-4 (clinched playoff berth), Kansas City Chiefs 10-5 (clinched AFC West), Indianapolis Colts 9-6

Wild Cards: Baltimore Ravens 11-4 (clinched playoff berth), New York Jets 10-5 (clinched playoff berth)

In the Hunt: Jacksonville Jaguars 8-7

Pittsburgh is already guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. The only question that still needs answering is whether they’ll be gearing up to play on the road a week from now or whether they’ll be riding out the first round before starting off the postseason at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh can claim the second seed in the AFC (and the first-round bye that comes with it) with a win over Cleveland OR a loss by the Ravens against Cincinnati. If Pittsburgh loses and Baltimore wins, Pittsburgh will drop to the fifth seed. If both of those happen AND the Jets win as well, the Steelers will finish out the AFC as its sixth seed.

New England is free to rest it starters and look ahead to the future, as they’ve clinched their division, a first-round bye, and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Kansas City clinched the AFC West with a win coupled with a late-season collapse by the pursuing Chargers. A win or a loss by Indianapolis would guarantee the Chiefs the third seed, but they can go no higher than that.

Indianapolis is still the leader in the AFC South and the playoff spot that comes with winning the division. A win by Indianapolis or a loss by the rival Jags will clinch the South for the Colts. A win coupled with a loss by Kansas City will give Indy the third seed. However, if Indianapolis loses and Jacksonville wins, the Colts will lose the division tiebreaker and will be eliminated from the playoffs.

Baltimore can either finish as the second seed as the AFC North champion or the fifth seed as the AFC’s first wild card. The Ravens can win the division and earn a first-round bye with a win and a Steelers loss against the Browns. A loss or a Steelers win would ensure that Baltimore remains as the fifth seed.

New York has clinched a playoff berth but, thanks to New England, will remain as a wild card team in any scenario. The Jets can move from the sixth seed to the fifth seed with a win, a Ravens win, and a Steelers loss.

Jacksonville will need a win AND a loss by Indianapolis to clinch the AFC South and a playoff berth. If one of those two events fails to occur, they will be eliminated from playoff contention.

MIKE LIKED…

The fact that the Thursday night game meant an extended break for his team, one that extended over Christmas. “It was awesome to have some time off and rest up this time of year and spend the holidays with our families,” offered Tomlin.

STEELERS INJURY UPDATE

CB Bryant McFadden is working through a hip pointer and may miss some practice early in the week. He will likely be PROBABLE for Sunday.

LB LaMarr Woodley has some swelling in his left knee but should be PROBABLE to play against the Browns.

LB Jason Worilds also has some swelling in his knee and is expected to miss some practice, which is an issue for a rookie. Because of that, he is QUESTIONABLE at best for Sunday.

RB Mewelde Moore suffered a knee sprain late in Thursday’s game and is characterized as QUESTIONABLE for this week.

S Troy Polamalu will play if he is healthy. The question is: how healthy is he? He should be somewhere between QUESTIONABLE and DOUBTFUL for this week, but the fact that the team plans to practice him on Friday is encouraging.

BROWNS INJURY UPDATE

Coach Eric Mangini said that RB Peyton Hillis (back) is sore, but should be fine for the Browns' season finale against Pittsburgh, Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports. He is listed as QUESTIONABLE for this weekend.

MAIN STORYLINE FOR SUNDAY

Will the team ask Troy Polamalu to play on Sunday to secure a first-round bye or will he sit in anticipation of the playoffs, bye week or not?

BROWNS TO WATCH

QB Colt McCoy; RB Peyton Hillis; WRs Mohammed Massaquoi, Brian Robiskie, and WR/KR Joshua Cribbs; TE Benjamin Watson; LT Joe Thomas; LG Eric Steinbach; C Alex Mack; NTs Ahtyba Rubin and Shaun Rogers; DE Kenyon Coleman; LBs Matt Roth, David Bowens, and Eric Barton; CB Joe Haden; S T.J. Ward

LOCAL CONNECTIONS

Running backs coach Gary Brown played at Penn State (1987-90)

ACCORDING TO TOMLIN

“I think this break is beneficial to any team. When you have 15 games in your rear view mirror, I’m imagining in professional football anybody would take advantage of a 10-day window, if you will.” – Talking about the benefit of receiving an extended break thanks to the Thursday night game against Carolina.

“It is what it is. Anytime in the National Football League that you are getting on a bus to go play a game, man that is a pretty heated rivalry. Not many bus trips in the National Football League. Just from a proximity standpoint, it’s unique. The history is what it is. Of course, two storied franchises, the fans. I think the close proximity and the history makes it what it is.” – On the rivalry between the Steelers and Browns. Cleveland managed to grab one game in the series last season, breaking a streak of 12-straight wins by Pittsburgh over their rival.

“When you have guys like Mike [Wallace] and Hines [Ward] on the field along with Heath Miller I think it provides opportunities for other eligibles. And in the cases of those two young men, they are taking advantage of those opportunities and maybe getting a little attention of their own.” – On opportunities presenting themselves for the “two young men” -- rookie wideouts Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Sanders, particularly, has come on strong in the second half of the season and is becoming one of Roethlisberger’s favorite targets on third down.

“Situationally, and I always think that has been the case. Hines’ reputation is what it is and it’s well deserved. He’s a big time red-zone threat. You see that people are willing and capable of putting multiple people on him in those instances and of course in some third-down instances. But it’s probably more situationally than anything else.” – When asked if teams have been scheming to take WR Hines Ward out of the gameplan for Pittsburgh.

LOOK FOR…

Pittsburgh to do its usual magic on the ground to stop RB Peyton Hillis, which would force rookie QB Colt McCoy to beat the team through the air.

SPLASH TALK

“This is a downhill, power runner who has a personality and plays to it. He is up over 1,100 yards I think for the season, but equally as important is that this guy has 60 catches. That has to be somewhere in the top three-to-four or so for his position in the NFL. A lot of football goes through Peyton Hillis offensively for the Cleveland Browns, whether he is running it or receiving it.” – On running back Peyton Hillis, who has been a revelation for the Browns after arriving to the team through a trade with the Denver Broncos.

“I think playing against Ed Reed is something that all quarterbacks got to learn how to do. There is no manual for playing against Ed Reed and I am sure it is a lesson well-learned.” – Talking about the performance of QB Colt McCoy against the Ravens, which included two interceptions by Ed Reed. With those two picks, Reed now has six interceptions in nine games this season.

THINGS THAT MAKE YOU GO HMM…

With one game remaining, Ben Roethlisberger has thrown just five interceptions in 367 attempts this year, a career-low 1.36 percent of his throws. His previous career-low was last season, when he was intercepted on 2.37 percent of his throws.

Of course, this year a few other quarterbacks are having stellar seasons protecting the balls. Roetrhlisberger’s interception percentage ranks fourth in the NFL, behind Josh Freeman, Matt Cassel, and Tom Brady, who hasn’t seen one of his passes intercepted in his last 319 attempts, an NFL record.

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