This Sunday, the Cleveland Browns kick off their regular season on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers. To help preview this week's game, I reached out to Neal Coolong from Behind the Steel Curtain and exchanged five questions with him. Enjoy!
Chris: "The Steelers' backfield seems pretty full this year with Le'Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount, and Dri Archer. However, I saw Tomlin say that Bell will be a 20-25 carry running back for Pittsburgh. If Bell is on the field that often, in what situations should we expect Blount or Archer to be utilized on offense?"
Neal: "I think Tomlin was speaking generally toward getting Bell the 20-25 touches a game he was getting last year. He should, too. It's fairly clear he's the most versatile player on the Steelers' offense. If Bell gets 20 carries and another five receptions, and there are still carries for Blount and Archer, the Steelers offense is doing very well. I think Pittsburgh will have a much stronger offense this year than they have the last few years, and Bell will certainly be a big part of it.
How much will be there for his shotgun buddy Blount? Personally, I think Blount is, from a technical standpoint, a better runner than Bell. Watching both of them this preseason, though, Bell was more decisive and made quality decisions in setting up his run. Perhaps that cuts Blount down a bit. The biggest key here is Tomlin's philosophy of going with the hotter hand. I would imagine Blount will get in the second or third series and get a carry or two. If the offense is moving well, he may stay in there. Bell will definitely be the main guy though. "
Chris: "Markus Wheaton didn't see much action as a third-round pick in 2013, but he's a starter now that Emmanauel Sanders has departed. Has Wheaton had a bad, mediocre, or impressive camp/preseason in 2014?"
Neal: "Are you suggesting his six catches didn't blow you away? Of course they didn't. The good news for Wheaton, though, is Emmanuel Sanders is a fantastically mediocre receiver. He took 112 targets last season and turned it into 740 yards. By comparison, Jerricho Cotchery had 36 fewer targets and only 138 fewer yards last year.
Wheaton didn't really get a whole lot of work during the preseason, but he ran two very nice post-corner routes. One came from Bruce Gradkowski, picking up a first down on third and long and the other was a 26-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger. He's a bit faster and quicker than Sanders is, even if he's a little shorter. He can separate and he can run inside, and I'm not sure if Sanders was particularly impressive in either of those areas.
Still, I think he can get around 740 yards even if it's on fewer catches. I think he did pretty well this preseason, and we'll see if he can translate it to the field Sunday. "
Chris: "Despite what they've invested in it, the Steelers' offensive line always seems to end up being a mess. Should we expect anything different this year?"
Neal: "I'm not sure it ended up being a mess last year. It started out that way, but they ended the season only having allowed seven sacks in their final nine games, and they rushed considerably better over that span as well - finishing the year 6-2 and just missing the playoffs.
Regardless, the one area of confidence Steelers fans can have is in the offensive line. Coach Mike Munchak has them working together, and the addition by the subtraction of Mike Adams from the starting lineup can only help their chances. While it wouldn't take much for the Steelers to improve their running game from last year, I think the production will be quite a bit higher this year, and a good chunk of that will be because of a well-coached and talented offensive line.
Keep in mind, the investments you mentioned haven't been fully realized. Right guard David DeCastro played exactly three games with Maurkice Pouncey. Both of them have served major injuries over the last two years, giving them just the end of the 2012 season together. Having a much more stable interior line will only help the inside zone attack they'll use often this year. "
Chris: "Besides Troy Polamalu, who would you say is the Steelers' best player on defense heading into 2014?"
Neal: "It's an interesting question whether Polamalu will still be the Steelers' best defensive player by the end of this season. I'd say if there's a rival to his crown, it's probably defensive end Cameron Heyward. I say that cautiously after what seemed to me to be an over-anxious preseason, and a re-tooled defensive line. The Steelers didn't have a great pass rush last season, but it was largely non-existent without Heyward in their sub packages. I'd love to tell you about how great Jason Worilds is and how his run of success over the second half of last season is the real indication of the kind of player he is...but I'm not sure that's true. Maybe. He had a big game against Cleveland last year, so it'll be interesting to see if he can back that up. "
Chris: "Would you (and/or Steelers fans) rather face Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel in Week 1?"
Neal: "Good question. I'd rather see the rookie in his first game - Dick LeBeau is 17-2 vs. rookie quarterbacks in his time in Pittsburgh. To be honest, though, my genuine thought is more that I'd rather not see Hoyer. I thought he did some things last year that suggested with some work he can be a pretty good quarterback. I remember talking with DBN readers last year in regards to their draft plans and many weren't into giving Hoyer another shot, and that didn't make all that much sense to me.
Still, you guys watched him more than I did, but I wouldn't be surprised if he has a pretty decent season. As we've heard, though, the Steelers will see both guys at different points. We'll see if that's true or not. A player like Manziel brings a boost to Cleveland's running game, which I think will be a strength this season, and his presence on the field can make them more dynamic in that regard. I didn't think I saw enough from him this preseason to justify a starting position, but I can definitely see why they'd want to bring him in on a package or two.
This should be a very interesting game, I'm looking forward to it."
Thanks again to Neal for taking the time to answer my questions.