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Browns-Steelers Preview: Inactives; 5 things to watch; 3 key numbers; the prediction

PITTSBURGH — Defensive back Damarious Randall and center JC Tretter continue to gut it out and fight through their injuries for the Browns (2-4-1).

Both are active for this afternoon’s game against the Steelers (3-2-1) at Heinz Field. They had been listed as questionable on the injury report.

Randall, who’s expected to play cornerback for the second straight week after playing mostly free safety for the first six games, was limited in practice during the week with ankle and groin injuries. He didn’t practice Wednesday or Thursday but returned Friday.

He also played through a sore heel earlier in the season. He has 45 tackles, two interceptions, six passes defensed and a fumble recovery in his first year with the Browns.

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Tretter suffered a high ankle sprain Oct. 14 against the Chargers but stayed in the game and played every snap again last week in the overtime loss at Tampa Bay.

Receiver Rashard Higgins (knee) is inactive for the third straight week. Middle linebacker Joe Schobert (hamstring) and cornerback E.J. Gaines (concussion) will miss their second straight.

Receiver Da’Mari Scott (shoulder) was downgraded to out Saturday.

The healthy inactives are: third quarterback Drew Stanton, tight end Pharaoh Brown and defensive tackle Carl Davis.

Brown was promoted from the practice squad during the week.

For the Steelers, starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert (knee) is inactive. Matt Feiler is expected to start in his place.

NICKEL PACKAGE

(Five points of interest in Sunday’s game)

GIVE IT AWAY NOW

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has never lost to the Browns in Pittsburgh, going 10-0 as the starter. But he had never tied the Browns before the opener, so anything’s possible.

Especially if Roethlisberger is careless with the ball. He threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles in the opener, and the forecast is calling for rain again. With the Browns struggling on offense, they need the defense to continue stockpiling the takeaways. The Browns lead the league with 20, after four more last week, and a plus-10 turnover margin. The Browns got six takeaways in the opener.

“You shouldn’t need that many, but if it takes that, then that’s what we have to do,” defensive back Briean Boddy-Calhoun said. “It’s going to be extremely hard because he’s a veteran quarterback. He’s going to know exactly what he needs to do to get better to prevent that from happening.”

“Six turnovers is a lot, but I think it’s doable,” defensive end Myles Garrett said. “Just have to keep on getting after him.”

Roethlisberger has found his Hall of Fame form. He’s thrown 11 touchdowns and three interceptions since the opener, and for the year has completed 65.1 percent for 2,033 yards, 12 touchdowns, six interceptions and a 94.6 rating. He’s dominated the Browns throughout his career with a 21-2-1 record, and the 459 completions, 6,088 yards and 38 touchdowns are the most against Cleveland in NFL history. This year’s edition of the Browns defense counters by allowing an opponent passer rating of only 75.0.

TOILING FOR BELL

All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell continues to stay away in a contract dispute, but the Steelers are doing just fine without him. James Conner made his first start in the opener and rushed 31 times for 135 yards and two touchdowns, adding five catches for 57 yards. He’s gotten better since.

Conner has a 4.4-yard average per carry, is tied for the NFL lead with three 100-yard games, ranks seventh with 453 yards rushing and ninth with 710 yards from scrimmage. He has back-to-back two-touchdown games, and his seven scores are second in the league and tied for the most in franchise history through six games.

“James got more patient. He’s gotten better as a runner,” Garrett said.

“He is playing more confident,” linebacker Christian Kirksey said. “Earlier in the year, it was the whole ‘Is Le’Veon coming back? Is Le’Veon not?’ Now he has taken on that full starter role.”

The Cleveland run defense has had major issues against strong running teams, including getting gashed for 246 yards by the Chargers two weeks ago. It ranks 28th in the league, allowing 134.7 yards a game.

“We just want to make sure that we gang tackle — 11 men to the ball. Just get him on the ground,” Kirksey said. “Last time that we played them we were not as disciplined as we are now with gap responsibility.”

DOUBLE TROUBLE

Pittsburgh’s passing attack isn’t just Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown. In his second season out of USC, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster has become nearly as scary a threat as his legendary teammate. Smith-Schuster leads the Steelers with 42 catches for 561 yards, adding two touchdowns. He has four 100-yard games, including 119 on five catches against the Browns in the opener.

“He’s a big target, he has really great hands and he can run,” Boddy-Calhoun said. “I think the more catches he gets, the more confident he gets and I just think as that happens the ball is just getting smaller and smaller and becoming easier and easier for him to catch.”

By no means does Smith-Schuster’s emergence mean Brown can be ignored. He’s still arguably the best wideout in the league, and the defense’s preoccupation with him has cleared the way for Smith-Schuster to exploit single coverage. Brown has 40 catches for 478 yards with six touchdowns, including one in four straight games to tie a career best. He had nine catches for 93 yards and a touchdown in the opener despite solid coverage from rookie cornerback Denzel Ward.

“They’re a pretty good duo. They’re one of the best in the league,” said defensive back Damarious Randall, who will likely see time at corner after spending most of the year at free safety. “I’m a big fan of both of them. I love the way they play the game, toughness, grit, fight that they have each and every play. Just kinda looking forward to playing against them.”

THEY MEET AGAIN

Garrett talked about sacking Roethlisberger as soon as he was drafted in 2017, and his enthusiasm showed in their long-awaited first meeting this year with two sacks and a forced fumble. Garrett has built on the strong start with seven sacks in seven games, tied for fourth in the league. He had two sacks again last week vs. Tampa Bay, and would tie the NFL record with four multiple-sack games in the first half of the season if he can get Roethlisberger twice. It won’t be easy, as Roethlisberger has been sacked only nine times this year.

Garrett isn’t intimated by Pro Bowl left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who’s 6-foot-9, 320 pounds.

“It’s easier to get under his chin,” Garrett said. “He’s got about 3 or 4 inches of height on me, so I don’t have to bend down too much for him. So easier for me.”

Garrett has 14 sacks in his first 18 games, a franchise record. He joins Houston’s J.J. Watt and Denver’s Von Miller as the only players in the league with seven sacks and three forced fumbles. He’s still waiting on what he calls a takeover game.

“You saw that Aaron Donald game?” he said, referring to the four-sack effort of the Rams superstar last week. “That’s a highlight game. That’s a videogame type game.”

THEIR TURN

Running backs Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson have had time to adjust to the trade of starter Carlos Hyde and will be counted on to contribute even more this week. The Hyde trade Oct. 19, two days before the overtime loss to Tampa Bay, shocked the locker room, but Chubb handled his new starting role well, rushing 18 times for 80 yards and a touchdown.

“He just has great contact balance and body lean,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “It makes him tough to tackle. His piles always seemingly fall forward. He is just a very good, mature runner.”

Johnson’s frustration continues to grow with a lack of touches on offense. He rushed once for a loss of 4 and caught four passes for 23 yards against the Bucs and has just 38 touches for 294 yards on the year. But coordinator Todd Haley used him a bit as a receiver last week and had him on the field with Chubb at times. It feels as though it’s just a matter of time before Johnson gets going.

“Before the season is out, you are going to hear from them both,” coach Hue Jackson said. “They both are going to have to contribute to our football team and our offensive football team being good.”

The Steelers won’t make it easy for either back. They have the 11th-ranked rushing defense, allowing 98.7 yards a game.


NUMBERS GAME

8

Starting quarterbacks for the Browns in the last eight games at Pittsburgh, including Baker Mayfield on Sunday. His predecessors: DeShone Kizer, Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel, Brian Hoyer, Jason Campbell, Thad Lewis and Colt McCoy.

8

First-quarter points scored by the Browns through seven games, including two on a safety by the defense last week

49

Points scored against Pittsburgh in the first quarter through six games


THE PICK

The Browns scratch and claw and fight for the upset, but the Steelers have too much firepower. Steelers 28, Browns 24.

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.

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