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Browns vs. Steelers: NFL Week 1 Preview and Prediction

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Can a Cleveland team that only allowed one touchdown in the preseason shut down Pittsburgh’s offense?

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

This week, the Cleveland Browns take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1 of the NFL regular season. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.


Position-by-Position Evaluation


Quarterback

  • Ben Roethlisberger is still going strong for the Steelers, despite his not-very-believable flirt with contemplating retirement at the end of last season. At 35 years old, Roethlisberger is still a prolific passer, throwing for 29 touchdowns to 13 interceptions a year ago. He has a ridiculous 21-2 record against Cleveland.
  • Big Ben isn’t a threat to run any more; last year, he had 16 rushes for just 14 yards on the season. He's taken more-than-enough hits in his career and has withstood many of them, but the lack of sacks he took in 2016 is a telling sign of the positive direction their offensive line is headed in. He only played in one preseason game, completing 6-of-9 passes for 73 yards.
  • Hue Jackson made the decision to roll with DeShone Kizer as his starting quarterback, and it didn’t take a film guru to understand why. The team cycled through all three contending quarterbacks — Cody Kessler, Brock Osweiler, and Kizer — and the fact is that Kizer was the only one who offered some intrigue. Kessler limits the offense as a short-range passer, and Osweiler was not efficient during his two preseason starts. What’s funny is that the fourth guy, Kevin Hogan, is now the backup for Week 1 after many had written him off as a likely roster cut.
  • Kizer will be the second rookie quarterback in Browns history to start right away, with the other being Brandon Weeden. I’d like to think that Kizer won’t be that disastrous, but you just don’t know when it comes to rookies. We thought Carson Wentz would struggle in his first game against Cleveland last year, but he didn’t. Kizer showed a good deep ball this preseason, and in the third preseason game, Jackson had him exclusively throw the ball intermediate or long. We’ll see a much more balanced attack this week, including some quick hitters to tight ends, to help Kizer get into a rhythm.

Running Back

  • Le’Veon Bell irked fans and probably coaches by skipping all of camp and preseason, simply “because he could.” It’s something that a select group of players could get away with, and in Bell’s case it’s because he’s the best running back in the NFL. I’m sure he didn’t just sit on his couch doing nothing during his time off, so there’s no doubt in my mind that he could step in and deliver a 30-carry performance in Week 1 if he had to.
  • The Steelers feature new backups this year -- local draft pick James Conner, and then Terrell Watson, who was in camp with the Browns last year. Connor had 24 carries for 124 yards (5.2 YPC) this preseason, while Watson had 37 carries for 173 yards (4.7 YPC). Both backs are pretty massive, with Conner at 6-1, 233 lbs. and Watson at 6-1, 240 lbs. I’d expect Pittsburgh to use both Conner and Watson to both keep Bell fresh and try to bowl over Cleveland defenders.
  • Cleveland’s running game produced very well last year in the yards per carry department, and that was despite issues all across the offensive line throughout the year at each position but left tackle. Chemistry will be a big factor for the Browns’ running game early on, but the thing I liked seeing this preseason were a minimal amount of plays in which Isaiah Crowell was being hit in the backfield.
  • Crowell will be the team’s lead running back this season, and I think the team will utilize both he and Duke Johnson on the field at the same time for a fair amount of plays. Johnson should still be in line to see significant reps as the slot receiver, leaving Matthew Dayes to be what you’d think of as the actual “backup” running back. Johnson is in a class of his own as far as running back receptions and yardage over the past two years, but Crowell has shown to be an above average receiver as well. Overall, Cleveland has two well-versed running backs, but Pittsburgh still gets the slight edge because Bell has the superior game-changing playmaking ability.

Wide Receiver / Tight End

  • It’s one thing to have possibly the best running back in the game, but Pittsburgh also has the best receiver in Antonio Brown. Although Cleveland faced Odell Beckham Jr. this preseason and sent him to the sidelines, the Browns’ cornerbacks weren’t really tested by a receiver this preseason, let alone a guy with the talent of Brown. At least Cleveland will get a fresh cornerback to go against him this year. Despite what Brown says below, Haden was never able to get the best of him and it got tiring.
  • Complementing Brown is Martavis Bryant. Back in 2015, Bryant had a big game against Cleveland, showing off his speed in a 6-catch, 178-yard, 1-touchdown game. But he was suspended all of 2016 for violating the substance abuse policy, and just recently found out that he’ll get to play Week 1. He’s a bit of a wildcard — his potential is a worrisome, but he hasn’t played a game in over a year. Pittsburgh’s other receiver who will see reps is Eli Rogers.
  • Tight ends aren't a big part of Pittsburgh's offense from a receiving perspective. Jesse James was a starter last year and totaled 39 catches for 338 yards and 3 touchdowns. Pittsburgh picked up Vance McDonald from the 49ers this week. He never broke out in San Francisco, but has threatening speed, including a 75-yard catch last season.
  • Cleveland has one receiver they can have faith in heading into the regular season, and that would be Corey Coleman. After a mediocre rookie season, Coleman was nothing short of excellent this preseason, displaying good route running and above average hands. It’ll be interesting to see if he goes up against Joe Haden in the first game.
  • We need to take a really deep breath and have faith that Kenny Britt will end up being OK after a poor preseason, highlighted by a poor job dragging his foot on a would-be touchdown, and then alligator arming a would-be first down in the red zone. He is the only experienced receiver on the club, though, and is coming off of the best season of his career. Cleveland needs his stability.
  • Everything after Coleman and Britt is up-in-the-air. Ricardo Louis is supposed to be the third receiver, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Sammie Coates is quickly thrown into the mix to align his speed with Kizer’s deep ball. Kasen Williams could also be a factor for some one-on-one patterns on the outside.
  • Making up for Cleveland’s questions as receiver was supposed to be the tight end position, but it’s a very fluid position heading into the regular season. I thought Randall Telfer was an early-preseason placeholder atop the depth chart until David Njoku earned his stripes, but now I believe we will see an even split between Telfer, Njoku, and Seth DeValve to begin the regular season. I believe DeValve is the guy most ready to contribute on gameday.

Offensive Line

  • The Steelers’ starting offensive line includes LT Alejandro Villanueva, LG Ramon Foster, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG David DeCastro, and RT Marcus Gilbert. I’d love to have given the Browns the edge for one of the offensive positions, but I can’t ignore how good Pittsburgh’s line has gotten.
  • From 2006 to 2014, Roethlisberger was sacked 46, 47, 46, 50, 32, 40, 30, 42, and 33 times. In 2016, he was sacked a total of 17 times in 14 games, a significant improvement. Add in the Steelers’ run game success with Bell, and these two teams are among the best in the NFL when it comes to offensive lines.
  • This will be the first game we get to see LT Joe Thomas, LG Joel Bitonio, C J.C. Tretter, RG Kevin Zeitler, and RT Shon Coleman all play together as a starting unit, as Bitonio was on just the right recovery timeline to be ready for Week 1. Zeitler didn’t have the best preseason for Cleveland, but his long track record of regular season success leaves me confident.
  • Coleman saw a big workload in the preseason and was still a little below average in my opinion. Ultimately, this is another Cleveland line with a lot of individual talent, but that won’t mean a whole lot if they have some of the same communication issues the one from two years ago (with Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz) faced.

Defensive Line

  • The Steelers run a 3-4 defense. Their starting defensive line includes DE Cameron Heyward, NT Javon Hargrave, and DE Stephon Tuitt. Heyward was named a team captain for the 2017 season and is coming off his first injury-filled season. They like both of their ends, and asked Heyward to re-structure his contract this week so they could work toward an extension for Tuitt. If there is one fault to Tuitt’s game, it’s his number of missed tackles. Hargrave is the team’s best run stuffer.
  • Being without DE Myles Garrett is still a significant letdown for Cleveland, as I get the feeling that he was the guy who inspired confidence in the rest of the defense. It’ll be interesting to see how Cleveland handles his departure. Garrett focused on right defensive end all of camp, so I’d think they’d want to keep Emmanuel Ogbah in position at left defensive end, which means either Carl Nassib, Nate Orchard, or Tyrone Holmes fill in for Garrett. I think it’ll be Orchard, with Nassib and Holmes staying as pass-rushing reserves.
  • DT Danny Shelton’s utilization will be something that is interesting to watch. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jamie Meder and Trevon Coley remain the “starters,” with Shelton still rotating in often as the third or fourth defensive tackle with Larry Ogunjobi. The team also added T.Y. McGill for an additional boost as an interior pass rusher.

Linebacker

  • The Steelers' starting linebackers include OLB Bud Dupree, ILB Ryan Shazier, ILB Vince Williams, and OLB T.J. Watt. The name missing from that list? Veteran James Harrison. He’s not a starter this season, but will still play a big role on defense rotating with Watt, the team’s first-round pick. In terms of production to expect, Watt sounds exactly like Carl Nassib did a year ago: a high motor to keep people excited, but he can still be contained...for now.
  • Dupree is battling a shoulder injury, so there’s a chance he doesn’t play on Sunday (although he thinks he will). If Dupree can’t go, then Anthony Chickillo will get the start.
  • WIth Garrett out, the commanding force of Cleveland’s defense must be Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey, both of whom were given big contract extensions this offseason. I’ll take either of those guys over any of Pittsburgh’s linebackers.
  • The X-factor for Cleveland then becomes middle linebacker Joe Schobert, who I believe has made the single biggest improvement for a rookie from year one to year two. His ability to finish so many plays this preseason was something I never fathomed. Can he keep it up during the regular season? Pittsburgh is even here because their depth at linebacker equals things out.

Secondary

  • The Steelers' two starting cornerbacks are Joe Haden and Artie Burns. Pittsburgh will still have to figure out their nickel situation. William Gay took on that role for the longest time, but Coty Sensabaugh was competing for a starting role prior to the team adding Haden. Burns has intrigued, but we know how much of a liability Haden was the past two years.
  • Pittsburgh’s starting safeties include Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell. Mitchell played very well in 2016, missing just one tackle against the run and showing marked improvement in coverage. Davis was up-and-down as a rookie, but showed some potential. It’d a tandem that should be around the middle of the pack in the NFL.
  • I’m high on Cleveland’s cornerback situation, despite the release of Haden, because I believe in the tenacity that Jamar Taylor, Jason McCourty, and especially Briean Boddy-Calhoun have. I am still concerned about Taylor vs. Antonio Brown, but that has more to do with Brown vs. anybody. The physicality by these corners will be a big part of Gregg Williams’ game plan.
  • I have no idea what to expect in the regular season from Jabrill Peppers. During the preseason, he played the least-expected role of all, which was that of a true free safety. The first half of last season, Cleveland’s defense was so bad because teams torched the safeties down the middle all the time. Peppers and Derrick Kindred are still young, so we don’t know what to expect in that area.

Special Teams

  • Chris Boswell is the Steelers' kicker. He's made 21-of-25 attempts last year, but 0-of-2 on attempts from beyond 50 yards. He was a perfect 36-of-36 on extra points. Cleveland will go with rookie Zane Gonzalez, who should have decent conditions to work with on opening day.
  • Jordan Berry is the Steelers' punter. His average (45.6) ranked around the middle of the NFL, right on par with Britton Colquitt (45.3). The net average differential between the two is just as proportional.
  • Cleveland’s primary return man is SS Jabrill Peppers, and he was great on punt returns this preseason. Pittsburgh’s return situation is still up-in-the-air. They listed rookie WR JuJu Smith-Schuster as their kick returner and WR Antonio Brown as the punt returner, but we may see something else on gameday.

Predictions

Here are predictions from multiple staff members at DBN.


Chris Pokorny: “The variable that isn’t measured in the preview is Gregg Williams’ scheme, which was lights out this preseason. On offense, Cleveland should go with a run-heavy approach behind the strength of their offensive line, but it shouldn’t be a crazy disparity. Why? That would do a disservice to the pass blocking ability that the offensive line can offer, affording DeShone Kizer some opportunities to beat a suspect Steelers secondary.

If Myles Garrett was playing, I considered pulling for an opening-day win. While I believe Cleveland has made great progress this offseason, Pittsburgh is still a well-oiled machine. Cleveland is not, and something is going to cost them the game -- either a letdown in run defense, a gap in the secondary, rookie quarterback problems, or dropped passes. Pittsburgh’s one less issue is all it’ll take.” Steelers 24, Browns 17.


Andrea Hangst: “The Browns may lack the experience of the Steelers' squad and the explosiveness of their offense, but that doesn't mean that they cannot hold their own on Sunday. Even without Myles Garrett, the Cleveland has a tough-minded defense that will prove a true test for Ben Roethlisberger and company. Though Roethlisberger has the weapons, expect a lower-scoring game that is won in the trenches, especially when considering how much Pittsburgh's offense struggled on the road last year as well as the youth of their Cleveland counterparts. Pittsburgh gets the edge, thanks to the experience factor more than anything. But they will learn that these new-look Browns are tougher to put away than in years past.” Steelers 13, Browns 10.


Matt Wood: “I liked the Browns chances much better with Garrett but without him I think the Browns will struggle to rush with 4. They keep it close early, Williams hits a fee big plays but no pass rush allows fat Ben to hit some big ones to Brown and Bryant. Bell stays in check for most of the game but has some plays late that 8nflate his numbers. Kizer looks Meh, makes some good throws, makes some poor ones. In the end the Steelers are too much.” Steelers 31, Browns 17.


Josh Finney: “The Browns will try to rely on the run game and misdirection so heavily it will impact their ability to get into a rhythm. The defense will have to be creative and send extra bodies on blitz to get pressure, and we'll get burned because of it. Kizer will look composed, but will have rookie moments that break the Browns back.” Steelers 27, Browns 13.


Mike Hoag: “It's hard to ignore the improvement the Browns have shown since last season during an undefeated preseason. While there are still questions as to the potency of their rookie quarterback-led offense, Gregg Williams has energized a youthful nucleus of defensive talent. Although it appears the future is bright for this group, it's impossible to deny the offensive prowess of the Pittsburgh Steelers. This game should be close, but will likely have a similar result to most recent match-ups in the series.”


rufio: “Our pass defense actually works now, unfortunately, we will can't stop the run. Browns lose by 14. Kizer and the offense look pretty good, though.”


apocrylle: “Steelers secondary doesn't keep up with our speedy receivers and Kizer makes them pay with multiple big plays. Despite the Browns strides on the defensive side of the ball the pass rush is largely too late to slow down Big Ben, who beats Kizer in a shootout.” Steelers 32, Browns 24.


Robo Dawg: “The Browns focus on stopping Le’Veon Bell, and Big Ben makes them pay as the pass rush without Garrett is ineffective. Hue Jackson’s reworked offense under Kizer against a marginal pass defense produces points in response, however it will not be enough to defeat the Steelers.” Steelers 23, Browns 19.


Dan Lalich: “Both teams will look sloppy and struggle to get into an offensive rhythm in the first game of the year, but the browns pull it out thanks to some clutch defensive plays.” Browns 11 Steelers 5.


Who do you think will win, Browns fans? Let us know in the comments section below

Poll

Who do you think will win, Browns or Steelers? Pick the one closest to your prediction.

This poll is closed

  • 11%
    Browns by 7+
    (133 votes)
  • 22%
    Browns by 3
    (268 votes)
  • 10%
    Steelers by 3
    (126 votes)
  • 56%
    Steelers by 7+
    (676 votes)
1203 votes total Vote Now