1. The Browns must protect third-string quarterback Thaddeus Lewis . They allowed a season-high six sacks and lost starter Brandon Weeden and backup Colt McCoy to right shoulder injuries in last Sunday’s loss to the Denver Broncos. With Lewis starting his first NFL regular-season game today, the Browns’ offensive line will need to play well against the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the first game against the Steelers, Weeden suffered a mild concussion when he was taken down by linebacker Jason Worilds and hit his head on left tackle Joe Thomas’ left leg.
2. Protecting the quarterback is a tall task for the Browns, but so is trying to establish a running game, especially against the Steelers’ top-ranked defense (272.9 yards per game). The Steelers have limited opponents to an average of just 15.5 points per game at Heinz Field since Dick LeBeau became the team’s defensive coordinator in 2004. This year, the Steelers are first in passing defense (185.4 yards per game) and second in rushing defense (87.5 yards per game).
3. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger isn’t 100 percent recovered from shoulder and rib injuries he suffered in the middle of the season and has been playing hurt behind a struggling and beat-up offense line. Roethlisberger has thrown late interceptions in the past two games that have led to consecutive losses. If Roethlisberger takes care of the ball, he’ll finish the season with the second-fewest interceptions (eight) of his career, although he did miss three games.
4. The Browns’ secondary is on life support after losing another starter in the loss to the Broncos. Safety Usama Young was placed on the injured reserve with a thumb injury that will likely require surgery. Safety T.J. Ward (on IR with an injured knee) and cornerback Sheldon Brown (concussion) are out. Cornerback Dimtri Patterson was cut Dec. 17. Young safeties Eric Hagg and Tashaun Gipson will start.
5. The Browns need to maintain an effective ground game against the Steelers, even without starting running back Trent Richardson, who suffered an ankle injury against the Broncos and is out. Montario Hardesty will make his first start of the season and Brandon Jackson and Chris Ogbonnaya will serve as Hardesty’s backups. Hardesty averages a team-high 4.6 yards per carry but will be facing a rushing defense that held Richardson and Hardesty to a combined 99 yards in Week 12.