Can it be real? Is NFL football finally back?
In what has been an inordinately long offseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers will finally play a meaningful football game this coming Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. It is apropos that the Steelers start the season in the same manner they ended 2013: with a division matchup against the Browns.
The Steelers beat the Browns 20-7 to finish the regular season, their playoff hopes clinging by a thread. Unfortunately, the Steelers came up just a bit short of the playoffs, finishing 8-8 for the second straight year.
However, things are a-changin’, right?
The Steelers have dedicated considerable resources to making this team younger and faster on both sides of the football. Of course, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger under center, you can be assured that the passing offense is still in good hands.
But what can the Steelers expect from the Browns? How can they counter it? Read on as we break it down a little.
When the Steelers Are on Offense
The no-huddle offense is going to carry this team in the upcoming season. It is time to embrace the change and understand it is a good thing. There is still plenty of uncertainty about if or when the running game will get back on track, but that won’t be an issue against the Browns.
Cleveland employs an attacking 3-4 defense and has exceptional coverage players in the secondary. Pittsburgh cannot expect to just walk out there and start throwing the ball all over the field.
That’s not to say the Steelers should come out and force the run, but they have to keep the Browns defense honest so it can’t just tee off on Roethlisberger.
This opening-weekend matchup will be a great test for all these new faces in the passing game. You can expect that Browns cornerback Joe Haden will be charged with locking down Steelers star wide receiver Antonio Brown.
This means the responsibility of the passing offense is going to fall on the rest of the talent on this roster.
Look for guys like tight end Heath Miller and rookie running back Dri Archer to get lost in the mix defensively. These are the guys who will keep the chains moving and provide Pittsburgh with that spark in the passing game.
Going back to the run game, all is not lost. The talent is there with Le’Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount and the aforementioned Archer. The problem is the Steelers’ offensive line is still very much a work in progress as far as run-blocking goes.
I'd look for some quick runs and counters to keep the Browns off balance, along with some jet sweeps and end-arounds to speedsters like Archer and wide receiver Markus Wheaton to keep the Browns defense from keying on any one area.
Another interesting aspect will be the red zone. Once the Steelers get down inside the 20-yard line, where will they look? Miller is always a dependable target, but he was largely ineffective in 2013 (1 TD).
Without Jerricho Cotchery on the roster, Miller might be the new red-zone target for Roethlisberger. There is hope that rookie Martavis Bryant will be that guy down the road, but for now, he is shelved with a shoulder injury.
When the Steelers Are on Defense
The discussion for the Cleveland Browns throughout the offseason has been about the starting quarterback. After using a first-round pick on Johnny Manziel, the quarterback competition began between him and incumbent Brian Hoyer.
Ultimately, it was the veteran Hoyer who won the starting job, but it is more a matter of time until Manziel takes over.
For the time being, the Steelers need to focus on what Hoyer brings, with maybe a bit of Manziel sprinkled in for good measure. That means play pressure and force Hoyer to make throws to a very mediocre group of wide receivers.
The reality is, with wide receiver Josh Gordon gone for the season due to suspension, the success of this team is going to fall on the run game.
The Browns have a strong offensive line, and the front office brought in Ben Tate, along with rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell, to give the Browns a run game that can overpower defenses.
This run-first attitude will be paired with a conservative passing attack that will focus on quick, short reads and plenty of targets for tight end Jordan Cameron. Cleveland is going to want to slow the game down, keep the football away from the Pittsburgh offense and get points every time it has the football.
How do the Steelers counter what looks like a rather methodical game plan? With fundamentally sound football by the defensive line and linebackers.
Cleveland will almost certainly come out in three-WR sets to force Pittsburgh into its nickel defense—if it isn’t already on the field—so the question becomes, can those defensive linemen hold up when Cleveland runs right at them?
When Cleveland does take to the air, look for the Steelers to come after him right up the gut.
Those A-gap blitzes by inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier should serve to throw off Hoyer's timing and force plenty of errant throws.
Offensive X-Factor: Le’Veon Bell, RB
The player to watch for the Steelers this weekend is Bell. Whether it is by land or air, the second-year running back is going to figure heavily into the outcome of this game plan.
Bell averaged nearly 20 touches per game in 2013, and according to ESPN’s Scott Brown, Tomlin plans to stick with that formula.
This is a bold prediction. Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy had 366 touches in 2013, which worked out to 22.8 touches per game. Can Tomlin seriously think he is going work Bell this hard? Perhaps not for the whole season, but against Cleveland, Bell is going to have to generate yards in spite of what could be some tough sledding.
It is going to be up to Bell to keep the Browns defense honest with the run and as Roethlisberger’s third or fourth option in the passing game.
Defensive X-Factor: Ryan Shazier, LB
According to Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Steelers will have nine new starters in 2014 who didn't start the team's opener in 2013:
There will be 9 new starters 2014 Opening Day compared to 2013 -- Beachum, Miller, Wheaton, Bell, Heyward, Thomas, Jones, Shazier, Mitchell.— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) September 4, 2014
None of those starters is going to be more vital to this team’s success against the Browns than rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier.
If you want to point to the one area of this defense that was grossly deficient in 2013, it was big plays. Whether it was sacks, interceptions, tackles for loss or just big stops on third down, Pittsburgh was constantly searching for “that guy.”
The Steelers believe they have that guy in Shazier. Defensive coordinator has the confidence in Shazier to start him as a rookie and utilize him in a variety of ways.
Don’t be shocked if Shazier racks up double-digit tackles and at least a sack and/or interception.
The Steelers came out of the gate ice-cold in 2013. They cannot repeat the 0-4 start that stopped last season before it ever got started. Every player on this team who suffered through that will remember just how bad it was.
Pittsburgh swept the Browns in 2013, and the streak will continue here. Cleveland is a team in a state of constant transition and far too undermanned on offense to keep up with the Steelers' no-huddle attack.
The Steelers come out firing and win this one 31-14.
Unless specified, all stats courtesy of NFL.com.