The regular season is finally upon us whether the Cleveland Browns are ready or not. A preseason that started with so much optimism has quickly turned into the beginning of a regular season riddled with question marks. There would be no more fitting way to answer some of those than on the road in Pittsburgh Week 1.
The Steelers have absolutely dominated this "rivalry" as the Browns have won just five of the last 31 matchups. The Browns were swept by Pittsburgh last season. The first of those losses buried the Browns at a point when they thought they were still in the divisional race.
"I researched the history and I talked to the players about it,” head coach Mike Pettine told the media on Wednesday. "It’s not pretty. I will be honest with you. I put it up on the slide to kind of talk our young guys through it. And I put rivalry, and then I put a question mark. It’s brutal when you truly look at it."
So can the Browns renew a rivalry which has been on life support since the Browns returned in 1999? Talking to players in the locker room they seem to think so. But then again that is what every locker room has said every year since I started covering this team.
Someone has to put some actions behind their words sooner or later. Let’s see if it can start here in 2014.
The Competitive Edge
This one isn’t even close. Ben Roethlisberger is healthy and looking to have another huge season. He threw for the ninth most passing yards last year and should be able to at least duplicate those numbers in 2014.
On the other side you have Brian Hoyer who will be the opening-game starter for the first time in his career. He has a serious deficiency at wide receiver and struggled throughout the preseason. Yikes.
The Browns are trotting out a completely new backfield that features a ton more talent than in the past. Ben Tate, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell are as talented as any trio in the league. Even with question marks at running back for Pittsburgh because of Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount’s recent run-ins with the law, they should still have a formidable rushing attack. They will play and the Steelers will be a handful for the Browns defense.
Not that Antonio Brown, Heath Miller and Markus Wheaton are the best receiving corps in the league, but they are better than what the Browns are running out there.
Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins and the rest of the receivers are unproven in the league, or unproven coming off injury. It will be interesting to see how they perform in the season opener.
I still give the edge at tight end to Cleveland because Jordan Cameron is just that talented. His numbers tailed off slightly at the end of 2013, but he has the capability to be a top-three tight end every season. With offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s history of successful tight ends, it should be another good year for Cameron.
If you were to rate these two lines purely on talent it would probably lean toward the Browns. Unfortunately, the talent did not translate onto the field in the preseason. The line struggled and still has plenty to prove. Pittsburgh on the other hand, has new faces but the result never seems to change. Even when they struggle Roethlisberger makes up for their mistakes with his play extending ability.
The Browns continue to have one of the deepest, most talented lines in the NFL. It will be very interesting to see how Pettine’s defensive scheme utilizes their talent. They have the bodies and size up front to really create some havoc on the Steelers. They will need to do so if the Browns want any hope of winning on Sunday.
The Steelers are running out an extremely young linebacking corps, or least it is by their standards. Ryan Shazier, the rookie from Ohio State, will get the start and second-year linebacker Jarvis Jones will as well.
Last year was as weak as we have seen the Steelers at this position in a decade. The Browns, who seem to have more talent, still have to prove they can produce. Barkevious Mingo, Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard have to post much better numbers than they did last season.
Even though eighth overall pick Justin Gilbert did not win the starting cornerback job opposite Joe Haden out of the preseason, I still think the Browns have a decidedly better secondary. The age of Pittsburgh has to begin to show at some point, and I think this is the year.
TaShaun Gipson is also underrated at the free safety position and helps make up for mistakes in front of him.
Travis Benjamin is back healthy, and that means the Browns have a weapon the Steelers do not. Benjamin is explosive and a proven commodity in the return game when healthy. Luckily he is healthy, because they need all the help with field position they can get on Sunday.
Browns Offense vs. Steelers Defense
If the Browns offense has success this week, it will be a surprise to everyone. They looked like one of the most disjointed attacks in the league during the preseason. Actually, the word “attack” probably should not be used to describe what they did this preseason.
If they want to turn that around, however, it starts on the ground. The Steelers will be preparing for a heavy dose of Ben Tate and Terrance West. If the Browns can control the clock and keep the ball for extended periods of time, then they have a shot.
As far as Brian Hoyer goes, this is a tough place to open the season. In just his fifth start in the NFL he has to go up against one of the most complicated defensive schemes in the league.
Oh yeah, and it will be on the road. The Browns better hope that running game works out.
Browns Defense vs. Steelers Offense
This should be a very interesting matchup of two strengths. The Steelers will have their full complement of weapons, and the Browns will have their full complement of defenders. As much as people view the Steelers as a hard-nosed run-oriented franchise, that is just not the case. In the past few years they have been very pass-happy.
Ben Roethlisberger poses the most unique threat in the NFL at quarterback because he has the arm to beat you in the pocket and the size to shed tacklers in the backfield. Despite health concerns the last few years, he still has quite a bit of mobility.
The Browns will need to stifle the Le'veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount duo so the play action pass is not a factor for the Steelers. Once they have any effectiveness on the ground, they kill teams over the top.
The special teams tilts towards the Browns because of Travis Benjamin’s return abilities. The Browns need him to be a factor in this game and change field possession when the offense sputters. If he can break open a big return or two, the Browns can hang around with the Steelers. This is the great equalizer.
What they’re Saying
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin on the Browns losing Josh Gordon for the season: “I imagine that there’s an adjustment, but usually one man’s misfortune is an opportunity for another able prepared man.”
Browns linebacker Jabaal Sheard on the Steelers dominating the rivalry: “I think it’s time for us to take that role of the bully.”
Browns’ Wednesday Injury Report
Did not participate: DT Desmond Bryant (wrist), G Paul McQuistan (ankle)
Desmond Bryant spoke with us in the locker room today and said he hopes to be back soon, but there is still no timetable. He had a bandage on his wrist and said he could play if it was protected, but him not practicing today makes him a long shot.
Limited: DE John Hughes (hamstring)
John Hughes is a big part of the depth and production of the defensive line. If he is able to go, it is a big boost for the front line. Even if he cannot play on Sunday, however, the Browns should still be fine with guys like Billy Winn picking up the slack.
Full Participation: CB Pierre Desir (knee), CB Joe Haden (foot), LB Eric Martin (concussion), CB Buster Skrine (thumb), LS Christian Yount (shoulder)
Everyone on this list should play. The best part about this list is Joe Haden and Buster Skrine practiced and looked ready to go for Sunday.
Skrine will still have to play with a cast on his arm, but the Browns sorely need him after Justin Gilbert showed he is not ready for heavy playing time on the outside just yet.
This Week’s Game Stats and Facts
Head Coach Mike Pettine makes his official Browns debut when Cleveland kicks off the 2014 season in Pittsburgh. Pettine was named the 15th full-time head coach in Cleveland Browns history on Jan. 23, 2014.
Barkevious Mingo led the Browns with two sacks during the preseason. The 2013 first-round pick finished third among NFL rookies with five sacks last season.
Heinz Field is the only stadium that Browns linebacker Karlos Dansby has not played in the NFL, as he stated in the locker room on Wednesday.
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is a native of London, Ohio, and played football at Ohio State before being drafted by the Browns in 1959.
All quotes and observations obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Game stats and facts are courtesy of the Browns communications department.