LB Lawrence Timmons vs. RB Trent Richardson
Richardson is Cleveland’s offense – for better or worse. He leads the team in rushing and receptions, and if he’s running well the Browns are able to move the ball. If he’s not, they won’t go anywhere. Browns offensive coordinator Brad Childress does a lot of different things to get Richardson the ball in space, and considering the strength of LT Joe Thomas, they’ll look to get him around their left side often in this game.
While Thomas and ROLB James Harrison do battle for that edge, Timmons will need to stay locked on Richardson, not allowing him to break contain. In what’s very likely to be a low-scoring, defensive battle, winning and losing could come down to a few extra first downs on both sides. Richardson is the only skill position player who can make an impact against the Steelers defense.
WR Mike Wallace vs. CB Joe Haden
Haden has missed time this season with injuries and suspension, but play-for-play he’s still one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. He has outstanding cover skills to go along with his long limbs, but his best trait could be his run support. He’s returning from an oblique injury that forced him out of Cleveland’s Week 11 game against Dallas.
Wallace is working through the absences of both QB Ben Roethlisberger and WR Antonio Brown. He drew pass interference on the first play from scrimmage against Baltimore in Week 11, but only has seven catches and 38 yards in his last two games. The good news is he and QB Charlie Batch have connected on at least one 20-plus yard passing play in each of Batch’s last three starts.
TE Heath Miller vs. SS T.J. Ward
Ward, fresh off his $25,000 fine for a hit against the Cowboys, is quickly becoming a part of the younger enforcers in the AFC North. Behind the penalties and fines, though, is a hard-nosed and aggressive defensive player who will help shape a young and improving Browns defense in the future.
Miller will see a lot of him around the box, and if the Steelers wish to get their running game going they’re going to need to give Cleveland some reasons to move Ward out of the box. Miller is the better athlete of the two, and he can beat Ward’s coverage due to his size and quickness. Ward will hang around the strong side, and Miller will need to reach him at the second level in the run game as well.
FB Will Johnson vs. LB D’Qwell Jackson
Jackson has established himself as one of the best all-around middle linebackers in the game. They ask him to defend the run tackle to tackle, and while he doesn’t have the same kind of tackle numbers he had in 2011 (when he led the NFL with 116 solo tackles), he has three sacks and two interceptions.
Johnson wasn’t the only offensive player charged with slowing down Kansas City’s Derrick Johnson (a similar player to Jackson), but Will Johnson will need to get a body on Jackson if the Steelers want to run power from the I formation in this game. Considering the sagging depth at wide receiver, it’s something they may need to do in larger doses than normal. Johnson has played well overall this season, but it’s arguably his toughest assignment this year.