The Cleveland Browns are playing out a wasted season. They can't decide on a long-term quarterback, their offensive efficiency is trumped only by their inability to play good defense, and the front office is quite the little disaster these days. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who come into the deep freeze in Cleveland Browns Stadium tonight, have lost their last four games by a total of 15 points -- but those games haven't always been as close as the score has looked. Oakland quarterback Bruce Gradkowski(notes) put up three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter in last Sunday's 27-24 loss, and when the Raiders embarrass your defense, that's bad enough. When you're the Pittsburgh Steelers and your defense gets spackled like that, it's a major problem. This is one defense with Troy Polamalu(notes) and another without, and Mr. Head & Shoulders is out for this game.
The Steelers rode their defense to a Super Bowl win last season, but that defense doesn't resemble the championship model at all. They should have a relative cakewalk on offense and defense against the Browns, but there's one Achilles' heel on the Pittsburgh side that the Browns can easily exploit. The Browns rank first overall in Football Outsiders' special teams rankings, and the pointman there is one Josh Cribbs -- the most electrifying return man since Devin Hester(notes) decided he was a receiver. Cribbs is tied for the NFL lead with San Diego's Darren Sproles(notes) in kickoff returns with 45, and he averages 25.8 yards per return. He's taken one to the house. He ranks fourth in punt return average at 12.6 yards per return, and he's taken a punt return to the end zone this year as well. If he gets a kick return for a touchdown tonight, he'll set the all-time record with seven, and three of his current six are against ... the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That's one problem with this year's Pittsburgh team -- quite frankly, their return defense stinks on ice. They rank 31st in FO's special teams metrics overall, and their kick return efficiency is by far the NFL's worst. The Steelers have given up four kick return touchdowns already this season -- the Jets are second with two, and only 10 teams have given up a kick return TD at all in 2009.
Cribbs is also a good receiver and the Browns' designated quarterback in their option packages, but if the Browns dare to believe that they can pull off an upset here, the guy who's universally thought of as the team's Best Player Not Named Shaun Rogers(notes) must make a major impact in the return game.