When the Browns have the ball: It will be a watered-down version of the offense that has scored more than 20 points just twice in the past nine games. Rookie QB Brandon Weeden and backup Colt McCoy are not expected to play. Third-year QB Thad Lewis, who has alternated between the practice squad and 53-man roster, is expected to start. The Browns will also be without rookie RB Trent Richardson, who injured his ankle. Richardson was the Browns' leading rusher with 950 yards and 11 TDs. He will be replaced by Montario Hardesty, who has played well in spot situations, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. However, the Steelers rush defense has moved up to No. 2 in the league after holding the Bengals to 14 yards on 16 carries. In the past three games, the Steelers have allowed an average of 65 yards per game and 2.7 yards per carry. The Browns have had three offensive linemen play every snap this season, a group that includes Pro Bowl LT Joe Thomas. WR Josh Gordon, one of four rookies who started on offense, has 46 catches and has developed into the team's top deep threat. He averages 16.7 yards per catch and leads the Browns with five TD receptions.
When the Steelers have the ball: The Browns have had problems in the secondary and rank 27th in the league against the pass. Both starting safeties, T.J. Ward and Usama Young, are out and CB Sheldon Brown sustained a concussion last week. Brown has played in 175 consecutive gamesand if he can't play, Buster Skrine will replace him and rookie Trevin Wade will be the nickel back. Tashaun Gibson, an undrafted rookie, and Eric Hagg will start at safety. The best player is CB Joe Haden, who hadan interception in the first meeting. The Browns have allowed an average of 280 yards passing since they played the Steelers. MLB D'Qwell Jackson leads the team with 114 tackles and he also has 3 1/2 sacks. The Steelers will be without Pro Bowl TE Heath Miller (knee), who leads the team in receptions (71) and is tied for the team lead in touchdowns (8).
Browns' special teams ... Return specialist Josh Cribbs is among the league leaders in punt returns (12.2-yard average) and kick returns (27.7). But he does not have a touchdown return and has fumbled three times. Three of his 11 career return touchdowns were against the Steelers. But the Browns are No. 1 in the league in kick coverage, allowing an average of 19.7 yards per return. And K Phil Dawson, who has missed just one FG attempt (28 of 29) , was named to the Pro Bowl at age 37.
The Steelers have won 16 of the past 18 and 22 of the past 25 meetings with the Browns, though the Browns won the first meeting in Cleveland, 20-14, on Nov. 25. The Browns have not swept a season series since 1988. ... The Steelers have lost five of their past six games and have not had a losing season since 2003. ... Browns WR Josh Gordon is second among rookies in TD receptions. ... DE Jabaal Sheard of Pitt has only five sacks, but he received a lot of attention early in the season when DTs Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin were out with injuries. ... QB Thad Lewis is the Browns' 18th different starting QB since the 1999 season.
To win, the Browns must ...
1 Flash Gordon. Their big-play receiver will be facing a secondary that has allowed just two passes of 40 yards or longer this season.
2 Not have Thad be bad. In other words, don't have Lewis post a 1.0 passer rating as Bruce Gradkowski did against the Steelers in 2008.
3 Be alright with tight. The Steelers have not fared well in close games, going 3-5 in games decided by three points or fewer.
To win, the Steelers must ...
1 Get Ben on the mend. Since he returned from injury, Ben Roethlisberger is 0-3, thrown two game-ending interceptions and has a third-down passer rating of 51.9.
2 Forget 'Safety first.' No sense in holding back now -- attack the backup safeties in Browns struggling secondary.
3 Not bumble or fumble. If they don't want to end the season with a four-game losing streak, it might be a good idea to not turn the ball over eight times.
Game: Steelers (7-8) vs. Cleveland Browns (5-10), Heinz Field.
When: 1 p.m.
Radio: WDVE-FM (102.5), WBGG-AM (970) and the Steelers Radio Network.
Favored: Steelers by 10.
First Published December 30, 2012 5:00 AM