Less than two years ago near the end of the 2012 season, the Steelers had injuries to both of their top two quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich. Charlie Batch started two games -- including one against the Browns -- but Pittsburgh had signed Brian Hoyer to be their backup for those games. Now, he's the starting quarterback for his hometown Browns.
The Steelers have the definitie advantage here, though. Not only does Roethlisberger have Cleveland's number, but his mobility gives him an asset that Hoyer doesn't have. The experience factor weighs heavily too, as it will for most QB comparisons for Hoyer until he has more starts under his belt. I don't think we'll see a Johnny Manziel package, but you have to like the fact that Pittsburgh is thinking about it.
The Browns are putting a lot of faith in Ben Tate this season in what will be his first career season as the guy for a franchise. That faith is evidenced by the fact that he's surrounded by three running backs and a fullback who are rookies. It's a bold move, given Tate's recent battle with staying healthy, but it could pay off in a big way given his experience in the zone-blocking scheme and how affordable of a contract he has.
The Steelers appear to have a more proven group of running backs. Le'Veon Bell is coming off of a rookie season in which he amassed over 1,200 yards total, and he had to earn his 3.5 yards per carry average behind Pittsburgh's offensive line. This year, they've added LeGarrette Blount as their backup, and he'll be a big-time load to handle. Dri Archer complements both of them as the speedster back. I think the Steelers have a more defined role at this stage for their running backs than Cleveland does for their group.
If I had to pick these categories individually, I'd give the Steelers the advantage at wide receiver because of Antonio Brown and the Browns the advantage at tight end because of Jordan Cameron.
After their top weapons in the receiving game, both teams feature a lot of unknown commodities this week (not including Heath Miller). As I mentioned in my scouting report for the Steelers, with veteran receiver Lance Moore out with an injury, their No. 2 and No. 3 receivers, Markus Wheaton and Justin Brown, have six career catches.
I expect the Browns to utilize their receivers differently than most teams when it comes to reps. I think they'll still want to keep Miles Austin on a pitch count to keep him durable. While Andrew Hawkins appears to be the team's most electric receiver, I think we'll see Travis Benjamin and Taylor Gabriel rotate in as well, just like we saw in the final preseason game against Chicago.
I had very high expectations for the Browns' offensive line last year, and as a whole, they let me down. This year, it's hard to know what to expect. I'm optimistic about what Joel Bitonio will do as the team's left guard, but will the unit understand the zone-blocking scheme well enough? Is the right side of the line "good enough" with John Greco and Mitchell Schwartz?
The Steelers' offensive line hopes to get a boost this year with Maurkice Pouncey back from injury (although he still remains the second-best center in the division). When you look across the Steelers' line, the only player I would take from them is David DeCastro over Greco. Pittsburgh's offensive line had a very rough start to last season, but picked things up to close out the year.
Defensive end Cam Heyward is the best lineman for the Steelers, but it's clear that Pittsburgh knew they had some depth issues this offseason on the line, which is why they drafted two linemen and signed veteran Brett Keisel right at the end of training camp. This is probably the least intimidating defensive unit the Steelers have, and it's one of the reasons their run defense took a hit in 2013.
At outside linebacker, the Browns return with the same trio from a year ago in Barkevious Mingo, Paul Kruger, and Jabaal Sheard, but the difference this year is that Mingo has risen above Sheard on Mike Pettine's depth chart. With two good run defenders on the defensive line out and run defense not being Mingo's strong suit, that could play to Pittsburgh's advantage.
The pass coverage at inside linebacker was improved with the addition of veteran Karlos Dansby. We couldn't get a good feel for Dansby's contributions during the preseason, but he'll become more of a presence when you see him at work for four quarters.
The Steelers' starting four inside linebackers are all grown from first- and second-round draft picks, but as a whole, the unit hasn't lived up to expectations. Jarvis Jones will get a shot to have a better sophomore season at outside linebacker, and on the other side, Jason Worilds led the team with eight sacks a year ago. I talked about my fear that Ryan Shazier could have a big game in his debut, but the rookie isn't enough to put Pittsburgh over the top heading into this game.
The Steelers just signed cornerback Cortez Allen to a 4-year contract extension, so he figured to be the team's No. 1 cornerback after Ike Taylor hangs it up. Honestly, I thought Taylor would have retired by now -- he's more fit to be a depth cornerback now than one a defense relies on. The Steelers got rid of Ryan Clark this offseason and signed Mike Mitchell, who had a breakout year with the Panthers in 2013. Troy Polamalu still seems to have high-impact games against the Browns.
Cleveland's secondary took a big step forward this offseason by extending Joe Haden's contract, signing Donte Whitner, and drafting Justin Gilbert at No. 8 overall. Buster Skrine should still start alongside Haden, but can move to the nickel position for when Gilbert plays. This should be a good first week for the rookie, as he's expected to be lined up on some non-high-profile receivers.
Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham was 5-of-7 this preseason, but both missed attempts came on the road and were from 38 and 46 yards. They are going with a new punter this year in rookie undrafted Australian Brad Wing. Wing averaged 40.2 yards per punt and a net of 37.1 yards per punt this preseason. To compare, Spencer Lanning averaged 41.3 yards per punt and a net of 34.1 yards per punt this preseason.
At kick and punt returner, it sounds like the Steelers are going to give Dri Archer a shot in that role. If Archer struggles or if Pittsburgh is in need of a game-changing play, they will utilize Antonio Brown on punt returns. The Browns will definitely use Travis Benjamin on punt returns, and although he's listed as the guy on kick returns too, I have to wonder if they'll slip Taylor Gabriel in that role instead.
I don't think we can expect either team to look sharp offensively, but that is where the X-factors are supposed to come into play. For Cleveland, the X-factor is the fact that the defense is supposed to take that step toward being elite in 2014. For Pittsburgh, the X-factor is the fact that Ben Roethlisberger seems to find a way to win, more times than not. Something has to give, and I feel like going the optimistic route and saying that it'll be the Steelers who crumble.
Cleveland Browns 20, Pittsburgh Steelers 17
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