PITTSBURGH — Hines Ward doesn’t see dominating the Cleveland Browns as simply a part of his job, but a civic duty.
“Our fans tend to work better on Monday any time we get a chance to beat up on (them),” the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver said with a laugh.
Or Friday, in this case.
The ever-diplomatic Ward is kidding, of course. True, the streaking Steelers (9-3) have turned the series with their longtime rivals into a decidedly one-sided affair heading into Thursday night’s game at Heinz Field.
Yet ask Ward which of the two dozen games he’s played against the Browns (4-8) stands out, and the 14-year veteran quickly points to Cleveland’s only win in the last 15 meetings, a 13-6 victory two years ago that effectively ended Pittsburgh’s bid for a playoff berth and consecutive Super Bowl titles.
“They have beat us in some cases where we felt like we could just beat them just because we’ve had success over the years,” Ward said.
The Steelers have won seven of their last eight following a 2-2 start and need to keep the pressure on Baltimore in the race for the AFC North title.
Pittsburgh put together perhaps its best performance of the season in a 35-7 beatdown of Cincinnati last week. The defense shut down the upstart Bengals behind James Harrison’s three sacks while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit Mike Wallace for a pair of scores.
It’s proof, the Steelers insist, that they haven’t played their best football yet. Maybe, but their best football might not be required against the Browns, who have looked overwhelmed and overmatched against quality opponents.
Pulling off an upset on national television would do more than give first-year head coach Pat Shurmur the signature victory he so desperately craves, but also provide quarterback Colt McCoy with a much-needed boost.
McCoy is 0-7 against AFC North opponents in his brief career. While the team’s issues go far beyond McCoy’s inexperience, he hasn’t exactly taken a step forward in his second season.
Cleveland is 30th in the league in total offense and McCoy is 30th in the league in yards per attempt as the Browns have struggled to create big plays of any variety. Holding onto the ball has been an issue. According to Shurmur, Cleveland leads the NFL in dropped passes, not exactly the way to instill confidence in a quarterback going through some very public — and very painful — growing pains.
The Baltimore Ravens pummeled McCoy in a 24-10 win last week, knocking him down repeatedly and spraining his right knee. McCoy didn’t miss so much as a snap in practice during the shortened week, but he’ll be facing a defense that’s starting to show signs of its usual December nastiness.
“They’re tough physical guys, they fly around, they’re a veteran group and they play together well,” McCoy said. “They know the twists, they know the blitzes, they know which gaps you’re going to in.”
And they know it no matter who is in on the field.
Linebacker LaMarr Woodley may sit out after aggravating his strained left hamstring in the first half against the Bengals, though the Steelers have hardly missed a beat with Jason Worilds filling in.
“We talk about the standard being the standard, and this is the time of year we have to live up to it,” Worilds said.
The Steelers lived up to it against the Bengals, putting away a team with a ferocity they’ve lacked at times. Pittsburgh rolled up 28 points in the second quarter and scored touchdowns in each of its four trips inside the Cincinnati 20.
It was the kind of cruelly efficient play the Steelers talked about with regularity in the preseason, when wide receiver Mike Wallace half-joked about setting an NFL record for yards receiving and Roethlisberger kept saying this was the most talented group he’s played with since coming to the league in 2004.
“I hope we’re not peaking yet,” Roethlisberger said. “Hopefully, we’re still going upward. It’d be nice to peak somewhere in like, uh, early February.”
To get there Pittsburgh needs to take another step forward. The Steelers have made a habit of letting bad teams stick around late into games. They needed a late field goal to beat still-winless Indianapolis in September, and a last-second defensive stand to stop injury-ravaged Kansas City two weeks ago.
They’d prefer to not keep putting themselves at risk. It happened all too often in 2009, when their hopes of winning back-to-back Super Bowls for a third time ended with a late-season swoon. The Steelers lost five straight to knock them out of playoff contention, the last defeat coming on that miserable, windy day in Cleveland.
“I think we let up a little bit,” Roethlisberger said. “We got overwhelmed with the weather and thinking that it was going to be an easy game.”
It wasn’t. Lately, however, it’s also been the exception when these two teams meet. Pittsburgh swept last year’s games by a combined 50 points. If the first 12 weeks of this season are any indication, the chasm between the clubs hasn’t narrowed. Shurmur knows to make the rivalry great again, it has to.
“We have to find a way to rekindle it by coming down, and playing a game we have a chance to win,” he said. “That is what it takes.”