The Browns are no different than any other team.
Right now there is a sense of optimism in every corner of every locker room across the NFL. And after all the attention; all the hype; all the debate; all the roster cuts -- we're finally going to play a game that truly matters. Come Sunday, what's happened in the past, is in the past. It's time to play football and the Cleveland Browns' season debut against division rival Pittsburgh Steelers figures to be a daunting measuring stick not just for the players but for the coaches as well.
As a team with "new everything", here are the "5 keys" that I view as most important if the Browns want to win the season opener:
- Control the line of scrimmage on offense. We need to open lanes in the run game but also allow Hoyer to find a rhythm in the passing game. No matter what identity Mike Pettine and Kyle Shanahan want to establish, or whatever changes they're willing to make in the midst of a game, everything starts in the trenches. Until we force them to stop, the Steelers will most likely stack the box and challenge us to beat them with the pass. That being said, I expect our game plan between run and pass to be fairly balanced so winning both battles is going to be critical.
- Get off the field on third down / sack Big Ben. Easier said than done. If you watched the Seattle game on Thursday night you saw a defense where each personnel group played together flawlessly -- and it was a ton of fun to watch. Now, I certainly don't expect that to happen over night for this Browns team, but we need to do better as a unit to get off the field on 3rd downs. That includes better coverage and then not just pressuring the QB, but finishing that play with a sack. As you might expect, the more you sack Ben Roethlisberger the worse he performs and the less he wins. If O'Neil and Pettine's play calling in Buffalo is any indication, I expect us to bring pressure from all over the field with this goal in mind. I think we have the talent to get Big Ben on the turf, but given his elusive abilities I am cautiously optimistic.
- Limit / create turnovers. If we can limit momentum killing penalties and protect the ball both on the ground / through the air then we'll have a better chance to control the tempo. Establishing tempo while on the road would be huge for us because if we want we can then eat up the clock, tire out their defense and frustrate their offense -- not to mention frustrate their fans and their annoying yellow snot rags. The icing would be if our defense can create a turnover or two.
- Red Zone Offense. This falls on both new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's play calling / game plan and the team (namely Brian Hoyer) executing it. Run it. Pass it. Just score touchdowns. I like our backs quite a bit but I think too much doom and gloom has been made up about our wide receiver group. I am in the camp that thinks we don't NEED to have a super star given the identity this team wants to establish. But, I will certainly say that it would be tremendous to have Josh Gordon back and in form like he was vs. the Steelers last year. While I expect us to use the weapons we have in Cameron, Austin and Hawkins, it will be interesting to see if and how much we target the new big WR, LaRon Byrd and the shifty rookie WR, Taylor Gabriel.
- Our coaches need to prove that they are "for real". While it was encouraging to hear Pettine, O'Neil and Shanahan talk about their willingness to change things up if needed, this game is going to be a battle for the coaches. Sunday marks the first step in their journey towards proving they are capable of "staying ahead of the curve" and adjusting strategies / packages to exploit weaknesses in their opponent. More importantly, Sunday is their first chance to show us that they can win a game in the AFC North. Again, I don't expect miracles overnight and I know everything takes time to build, but in order for us to win on the road the coaches must have a physically and mentally prepared football team equipped with an adaptable, winning game plan.