Previewing Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 1 Matchup with Browns

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVSeptember 7, 2017

Previewing Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 1 Matchup with Browns

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    After months of anticipation and preparation, the Pittsburgh Steelers open their 2017 season on Sunday with an AFC North battle against storied rivals the Cleveland Browns.

    The game has a 1:00pm ET kickoff and takes place on the Browns' home turf, FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. The game will be televised locally and in select national markets on CBS.

    Here is everything you need to know about the Steelers' first matchup of the season, including players to watch, fantasy football tips and a prediction about who will be the victors and pick up win No. 1.

Injury Report

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    The Steelers and Browns released their first injury report of the week on Wednesday, and while it is no indication of who will or won't play on Sunday, it does at least provide clues as to the health of both squads as the season commences.

    For the Steelers, only one player was listed: Reserve offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins was designated as limited in practice with a knee ailment. No one was designated as did not participate in the session.

    Most notably, starting safety Mike Mitchell was not on the list. Mitchell had missed all four of the Steelers' preseason games while nursing a hamstring injury. He could well be on his way to making his on-field debut this week.

    For the Browns, the list was longer. Defensive tackle Caleb Brantley (finger), receiver Kenny Britt (knee), offensive lineman Marcus Martin (toe) and tight end Randall Telfer (knee) were all full participants on Wednesday.

    Starting guard Joel Bitonio (knee), defensive end Nate Orchard (groin), defensive tackle Danny Shelton (knee), fullback Danny Vitale (ankle) and rookie defensive end and No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett were limited on the day. Starting left tackle Joe Thomas did not participate with the reason listed as a knee, but Wednesdays are also typical days off for the veteran.

    The Thomas injury should not excite the Steelers, as he has never missed a game. But one injury that could change the complexion on Sunday's game is the one suffered by Garrett, which occurred in Wednesday's practice. According to Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot, Garrett is in danger of missing the season opener and perhaps more games depending on the results of an MRI.

    UPDATE: Garrett has since been confirmed to have suffered a high ankle sprain and his status for Week 1 is officially out based on Friday's injury report. Shelton is listed as questionable for Sunday's game, while all the rest of the injured Browns were full participants in Friday's practice and are expected to play.

    For the Steelers, Hawkins has been downgraded to out for Sunday, while linebacker Bud Dupree was limited in practice on Friday with a shoulder injury. He is listed as questionable for Week 1, but he has also vowed he will be on the field against Cleveland. 

Matchup to Watch

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    T.J. Watt versus Joe Thomas

    There are certainly many compelling storylines when the Steelers visit the Browns this Sunday. Longtime Browns cornerback Joe Haden is now wearing black and gold after the Steelers picked him up a day after his release from Cleveland at the end of August. And receiver Sammie Coates, drafted by the Steelers in the fourth round in 2015, was just traded to the Browns on September 2.

    But the most intriguing matchup to watch in Sunday's game is a meeting between a young buck and an old veteran, when rookie right outside linebacker T.J. Watt will get his true "welcome to the NFL moment" when asking to take on veteran Browns left tackle Thomas.

    Watt, now a starter based on Pittsburgh's Week 1 depth chart, has drawn praise from players and coaches alike during his first summer learning the professional game and played well during the preseason, with 11 tackles (six solo) and two sacks. He also had one quarterback hit and four hurries, according to Pro Football Focus, and he certainly got his fair share of work, playing 126 snaps.

    But that pales in comparison to the number of snaps played by Thomas, the man tasked with keeping Watt's pass-rush and for-loss tackling at bay. Watt may have been a fast learner during his first offseason, but he may get a masterclass on just how much work it takes to outwork, outsmart and outmaneuver a tackle of Thomas' caliber.

X-Factors

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    Steelers: CB Joe Haden

    When the Steelers signed cornerback Haden a day after he was released by the Browns and subsequently traded away 2016 starter Ross Cockrell to the New York Giants, it was clear that Pittsburgh viewed Haden as the right man to serve atop the depth chart alongside Artie Burns.

    But the veteran Haden, heading into his eighth season in the league, is a major question mark. Though his skill set better matches the Steelers' turn to a more man-coverage based philosophy in the secondary, it is unknown if he is still able to execute it.

    A year ago, Haden had only 11 passes defensed, or about half of what he typically recorded at the peak of his abilities. The same can be said for his tackle total of 48, though he did have three interceptions. But his struggle to keep pace with top receivers was evident, and Pro Football Focus ranked him a disappointing 88th among all corners in 2016 with an overall grade of 46.

    But Haden also played the entirety of the year with two torn groin muscles, which have since been surgically repaired in the offseason.

    Perhaps his improved health will bring with it improved play. But it could also turn out that his injuries over the years—including missing most of 2015 with a concussion and hip problems that have dogged him since 2013—have him on the back end of his career. Given the state of Pittsburgh's secondary, the Steelers are hoping the former is the case.

          

    Browns: QB DeShone Kizer

    The Steelers have a long history of making games miserable for opposing rookie quarterbacks. Since 2007, the Steelers have faced teams with rookie starting quarterbacks 27 times, and those rookie-led teams won only five of those contests.

    This fact wasn't lost on Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt when he was asked about the prospect of facing Browns passer DeShone Kizer in Sunday's season opener; Tuitt plans to "destroy" the rookie, per PennLive reporter Jacob Klinger.

    But it may be not as easy to rattle Kizer as it has been for most rookie opponents over the last 10 years. For one, managing pressure has proved to be one of his strongest suits on display during the preseason, with Pro Football Focus giving him a passer rating 109.5 when passing under pressure. He also had a passer rating of 114.8 on passes of 20 or more yards.

    With the ability to make proper decisions under pressure and protected by what should be one of the league's top-performing offensive lines, Kizer may be well-insulated from the pass-rush coming his way, whether it be from Tuitt, rookie linebacker Watt or someone else.

    And his prowess throwing deep completions could help him find an area of opportunity against Pittsburgh's questionable secondary. Kizer is not the typical rookie quarterback Pittsburgh's defense has become accustomed to facing.

News and Rumors

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    The work to establish a stronger identity in the defense has continued during the Steelers' Week 1 preparations for Sunday's game against the Browns. Beyond just the signing of Haden, the Steelers are also testing their secondary depth and spending more time practicing with six defensive backs on the field.

    The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Chris Adamski and Joe Rutter wrote on Monday that Mike Hilton has been serving as the first-team slot cornerback this week, and while it's no guarantee the job is his—William Gay is also in the mix—it is a sign that the Steelers may have found a hidden gem. 

    Rookie cornerback Brian Allen also told Adamski and Rutter that much of Monday's practice was spent on perfecting the dime defense, which features six defensive backs. That sixth spot could belong to Gay, with Hilton as the fifth, at least according to Steelers Depot's Alex Kozora. Safeties Robert Golden and J.J. Wilcox could also be that sixth man on some occasions. 

    These shuffles are a result of necessity and roster moves, such as bringing Haden aboard, trading Cockrell, trading for Wilcox, placing rookie cornerback Cameron Sutton on injured reserve and waiving injured backup safety Jordan Dangerfield. But it's also a sign that the Steelers will have less reliance on their linebackers working in coverage this year, instead reserving most of those assignments for their array of cornerbacks and safeties.

Fantasy Spotlight

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    Fantasy Spotlight: WR Martavis Bryant

    Don't let Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant's long absence from football be a source of fear when it comes to making him part of a starting fantasy football lineup this week. Whether as a daily fantasy option or as a roster piece of a full-season league, Bryant has incredible upside against the Browns defense in Week 1.

    Bryant was a proven fantasy performer in the two seasons preceding his 2016 year-long suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. In 2014, his 26 receptions for 549 yards and eight touchdowns earned him 104.1 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues, 136.1 points in DraftKings scoring and 117.1 in FanDuel scoring.

    He had an even better 2015, with 50 catches for 765 yards and six scores translating to anywhere from 120 to 180 fantasy points depending on the format.

    Further, Bryant has had notable success against the Browns defense, albeit in a small, two-game sample size. He has seven catches on 13 targets in those two contests, for 178 yards—or 89 yards per game—and one touchdown.

    And while the current Browns secondary is different from the ones Bryant saw in years past, that doesn't necessarily mean it is better. The addition of receiving weapons like Eli Rogers and JuJu Smith-Schuster to go along with Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell will doubtlessly put Bryant in some choice matchup situations on Sunday.

    There may be some rust to Bryant's game, but the only way to shake it off is to hit the ground running and make him a major part of the offensive plans in the season opener. Bryant looks primed to have the best week, from a fantasy (and perhaps reality) perspective, among Pittsburgh's myriad high-caliber skill players.

Final Prediction

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    The Browns may be a surprisingly improved team in 2017, and though that might not be saying much given that they won just one game a season ago, the on-paper adjustments they have made to their roster (and to the coaching staff, having added Gregg Williams to serve as defensive coordinator) could turn them into a true challenge for the Steelers to overcome on Sunday.

    This could certainly be a low-scoring game, with both Pittsburgh's and Cleveland's front seven capable of controlling the pace of their offensive counterparts. Though it does certainly work in the Steelers' favor that Garrett won't be playing, it still may result in the Steelers offensive line having as tough a time on its hands as the Browns'.

    The key will be Pittsburgh's defense trying to force rookie Browns quarterback Kizer into making the kinds of first-year mistakes as they have done with so many young passers in the past. If they can do so, that takes pressure off of a work-in-progress secondary and opens the door for Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger-led offense to do what it does best—move the chains and score points.

    It's possible, thus, that the Steelers can make their first road game of the year a blowout win. But a defensive standoff is just as possible, to the extent that it becomes the hallmark of the latest iteration of the Steelers-Browns rivalry, much as it was in the Steelers-Ravens rivalry of the recent past.

    Still, Pittsburgh has the talent edge on offense and the experience edge all over the field, which will be the difference-maker and the main reason for a Steelers victory no matter how the score looks at game's end.

    Prediction: 13-10, Steelers