Play to watch: Browns won't abandon option against Steelers despite Manziel injury

KANSAS CITY, MO - DECEMBER 27: Gary Barnidge #82 of the Cleveland Browns is tackled by Ron Parker #38 of the Kansas City Chiefs  at Arrowhead Stadium during the fourth quarter of the game on December 27, 2015 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MO - DECEMBER 27: Gary Barnidge #82 of the Cleveland Browns is tackled by Ron Parker #38 of the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium during the fourth quarter of the game on December 27, 2015 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)
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Ralph N. Paulk
| Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016, 9:57 p.m.

The Steelers spent part of the week preparing to face Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel. They were impressed with his performance against Kansas City.

It wasn't lost on the Steelers that Manziel rushed for a game-high 108 yards. They remember he passed for 372 yards in a 30-9 Steelers win six weeks ago.

Then, on Thursday Manziel was ruled out with a concussion.

The Browns insist their plan won't change much with Austin Davis orchestrating the offense. But let's face it; the Browns go-to play — the Z-rollout option pass — isn't likely to have the same bite without Manziel putting pressure on the linebackers and secondary to respect his surprisingly strong arm and mercurial feet.

Davis doesn't have Manziel's foot speed and likely will spend more time in the pocket.

For the Browns to dash the Steelers' playoff hopes, they need to run the ball better than they did earlier this season. It's the only way Davis can set up the roll-out pass via which he will try to get the ball to his key targets — tight end Gary Barnidge and wide receiver Travis Benjamin.

“(The threat of a run will) suck linebackers up if they can run, and it'll catch safeties if we aren't staying disciplined,” Steelers safety Mike Mitchell said. “If you stop the run, it allows everyone to play more disciplined.

“The majority of the time you want the quarterback to beat you from the pocket. (Baltimore quarterback Ryan) Mallett did a good job of dealing with pressure, but we didn't bring a lot of pressure.

“You have to be smart with pressure. We can't run in there all crazy. It has to be controlled pressure.”

The Steelers figured they would have to temper their enthusiasm when blitzing Manziel. But they probably will turn up the heat on Davis in an effort to limit him to his first couple of reads as he rolls out.

Davis' primary target will be Barnidge. Barnidge, whose nine touchdown receptions tied a club record for tight ends set by Ozzie Newsome, has a team-high 71 receptions for 977 yards.

Barnidge draws plenty of attention from linebackers. The Steelers rather would have a safety — particularly in the three-safety nickel package — take on the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Barnidge. He has proven a difficult assignment for linebackers and undersized cornerbacks.

If the Steelers are too preoccupied with Barnidge, Benjamin becomes a threat over the top.

“When (the quarterback) goes one way, you see Barnidge,” Mitchell said. “But (Benjamin) is definitely behind (Barnidge). You can't sleep on that play, because it sticks out in the film room.

“It's kind of like backyard football at that point. If the play breaks down, you always see 11 ... running downfield, and 82 is wheeling and trying to come back downhill to get the ball. ... As soon as the play breaks down, one guy goes deep and the other comes back.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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