SS Troy Polamalu vs. QB Thad Lewis
Lewis will start under center for the Browns, replacing injured Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy. He was signed off the Browns’ practice squad Dec. 24, and has been preparing to start through the week. Outside of that, he has no experience in the NFL, certainly not as a starter. He had an outstanding career at Duke, playing for David Cutcliffe, the QB guru who mentored Peyton and Eli Manning in college.
None of that is likely to impress Polamalu, who’s coming off the best game of his injury-plagued 2012 season. He was explosive in his movements, and anticipated plays like he did when he was one of the best defensive players in the NFL. Inexperienced quarterbacks struggle when Polamalu is on the field, because, as Lewis himself said this week, he’s the guy who breaks the rules. Expect Polamalu to line up all over the field and look to make a play or two, knowing Cleveland’s offense is playing without RB Trent Richardson, its best player.
ROLB James Harrison vs. LT Joe Thomas
It’s been a marquee match-up since 2007, Thomas’s rookie year and Harrison’s first year as a starter. It’s a longshot, but this could be Harrison’s final game in a Steelers uniform, so he’s playing just as much for his legacy in Pittsburgh as he is for potential free-agent suitors if he’s released after this year.
Thomas is still one of the game’s best pass protectors, and even in yet another meager offensive season for Cleveland, Thomas has shined. Harrison got the better of him in their first meeting, a 20-14 Browns win, and Harrison has looked stronger with each passing game. Pressuring the inexperienced Lewis will cause problems for a Browns offensive unit that isn’t expected to produce much on that side of the ball.
WR Antonio Brown vs. CB Joe Haden
Brown got the better of Haden on a sideline hook route last year, leading to Brown’s longest career catch (79 yards) in the Steelers’ 14-3 win in Week 14. Brown hadn’t had a big play like that until last week, when he scored from 60 yards out against Cincinnati. The absence of Mike Wallace in this game could mean a few more and deeper routes for Brown, who’s been kept primarily as a between-the-numbers receiver this year.
Haden, like Thomas, is one of the few bright spots on a beleaguered Browns team. While inconsistent, the Browns’ defense has shown flashes of high-level ability this year, especially in their secondary, and Haden’s all-around skills are a big part of that. His open-field tackling ability and run support along with his coverage ability anywhere on the field makes him one of the best all-around cornerbacks in the game. Expect him to spend time on Brown and Emmanuel Sanders – Wallace’s replacement – in this game.
LB Lawrence Timmons vs. RB Montario Hardesty
The Steelers have a very strong possibility of becoming the first team since the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles to lead the NFL in passing and rushing yards against. The lack of Browns’ starting players in the lineup Sunday is a big reason for that, but Cleveland’s Hardesty is an intriguing talent. He has good size and quick feet, suggesting he could make an impact.
Timmons has been one of the better linebackers in the AFC this season. He played perhaps his best game this year against Cincinnati, as the Steelers stuffed the Bengals’ running game for 14 yards on 16 carries. Starting a third-string quarterback, the Browns will need to work to establish the run to help set up a more complex passing attack. Or simply to prevent their young quarterback from throwing multiple interceptions.