COMMENTARY | Looking at the NFL standings this morning, I couldn't help but smile.
With a 2-0 record this preseason, the Cleveland Browns are tied with the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals atop the AFC North. As sweet of a sight as that is, seeing the Pittsburgh Steelers all alone in the divisional cellar with an 0-2 record is the icing on the cake for any Browns fan.
Sure, it's just after two weeks of exhibition games, but there are three very good reasons why the Browns could leapfrog the Steelers on the AFC North totem pole in 2013:
Pittsburgh Made Zero Effort to Improve in the Offseason
For a team with such a winning legacy, Pittsburgh's 8-8 record in 2012 could not have gone over well with Steelers fans used to yearly trips to the playoffs. No big deal, though, because Pittsburgh would fill in the problem spots on its roster with capable talent during the offseason, and the reloaded Steelers would bring a winning team back to the Steel City in 2013.
Well, that's not quite what happened.
If the Steelers plan on finishing above .500 this season, they are going to have to do it with the same crew that couldn't reach in the playoffs last fall, because the only Pittsburgh transactions this offseason that involved name players all saw said players leaving town. Wide receiver Mike Wallace and linebacker James Harrison will be plying their trade for the Miami Dolphins and Bengals, respectively, in 2013. Pittsburgh, for now, seems to be happy with the status quo, even if that means missing the playoffs for a second straight season.
The Steelers' Running Game Is a Mess
Long known as a team that would wear opponents down with a punishing ground game, Pittsburgh has slowly but surely moved away from that concept in recent years, instead relying more on an efficient passing game led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Even though the Steelers ran the football less, their ground game was still effective.
That all came to an end last season.
Pittsburgh's rushing attack was rancid in 2012. The 96.1 rushing yards the Steelers averaged per game tells just part of the story in a year where Pittsburgh scored just eight touchdowns on the ground. The truly damning evidence of a running game in decline is the meager 3.7 yards per carry the Steelers averaged in 2012, bad enough to finish 28th in the NFL. Pittsburgh's offense could be in big trouble if this number doesn't improve in 2013.
Pittsburgh Turns The Ball Over Way Too Much
As bizarre as has been seeing the Steelers morph into a passing team with no semblance of an effective ground game, their inability to hang on to the football the past two years is even more head-scratching. Since 2011, the Steelers have turned the ball over 58 times in 32 games, yet have still managed to go 20-12 during that span. By contrast, the Browns have only turned it over 45 times the past two seasons, and all they have is a 9-23 mark to show for it.
Pittsburgh's generosity with the football reared it's ugly head in a big way in a 20-14 loss to the Browns last November 25. The Browns forced eight Steelers turnovers in that game, and the only reason the final score was within a touchdown was due to Cleveland's lackluster offensive effort that day.
The fact is that Pittsburgh is playing with fire if it keeps giving the football away to its opponents, and 2013 could be the year that it burns the team big time, leaving the door open for the Browns to move past it in the AFC North standings.
Shaun Heidrick is a Yahoo! Contributor who has followed the Cleveland Browns for 25 years.
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