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.
- Ben Roethlisberger saw action in one preseason game this year, completing 11-of-18 passes for 114 yards and 1 touchdown. Is it too much wishful thinking to believe that at some point, being 36 years old and in his 15th season will catch up to him? His record against Cleveland is too embarrassing (for our sake) to keep bringing up. Until the decline becomes evident on gameday, he will continue getting the advantage over Cleveland quarterbacks.
- Tyrod Taylor will make his debut as the Browns’ starter, with rookie Baker Mayfield as the backup. I’d be comfortable if either guy had to play, but Taylor offers a greater sense of cohesiveness right now because he took all of the offseason reps, and historically does not turn the ball over. Over the past 3 years, Taylor threw a total of 16 interceptions. He doesn’t lose many fumbles either, and he’s working with the most talented group of receivers he’s ever had. He’s usually good for about 35 yards rushing per game, but also takes a lot of sacks.
- Even our Steelers affiliate was shocked when Le’Veon Bell didn’t show up to practice this week, basically ruling himself out for Week 1’s game. That leaves James Conner as the team’s lead back, with Stevan Ridley as the backup. A 3rd round pick a year ago, he ran 32 times for 144 yards (4.5 YPC) without any action as a receiver. In the preseason this year, he totaled 19 carries for 100 yards (5.3 YPC). In the third preseason game, he also had 6 catches for 52 yards, proving he could be a threat in that area. Fans are really high on Conner’s potential, but how will his first game in a rainstorm affect him?
- If the preseason was any indication, the Browns are going to ride Carlos Hyde heavy this season, with rookie Nick Chubb getting some opportunities too. Hyde had a really good preseason, running 17 times for 108 yards (6.4 YPC). I’m really curious what Todd Haley has in store for Duke Johnson as a receiver. That is one element that Cleveland kept under wraps all preseason, but I expect him to be a huge component on offense, even as a slot receiver at times.
Wide Receiver / Tight End
- Both of these teams are in really good shape with their top two receivers, but due to the rain and high winds, it’s hard to predict how much they’ll be neutralized by that. Antonio Brown is the best receiver in the NFL and always seems to come up big in the clutch. Think back to last year — Pittsburgh could have been dead and buried in Week 1, but Brown bailed them out twice with two miraculous catches.
- Considering all the receptions that Brown and Le’Veon Bell had last year, rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 58 catches for 917 yards and 7 touchdowns are all-the-more impressive. New this year is receiver James Washington, who was drafted in the second round. Tight end Jesse James had 3 touchdowns all of last season, 2 of which came against the Browns in Week 1.
- Despite the Steelers’ strengths at receiver, the Browns are collectively poised to match up for an even ranking against them. Jarvis Landry and Josh Gordon should see the most reps at receiver, even if rookie Antonio Callaway receives the “start.” This is Gordon’s first Week 1 game since 2012. Do you realize how ridiculous that sounds? 6 years later, and he is finally playing in another opening day. Neither he nor Landry lack talent or motivation. David Njoku and Seth DeValve also provide more threatening receiving options at tight end than the Steelers have.
- The Steelers’ starting offensive line includes LT Alejandro Villanueva, LG Ramon Foster, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG David DeCastro, and RT Marcus Gilbert. This is the third consecutive season this line has played together, but they are a young group who fare well. DeCastro is the best at his craft, while Pouncey and Gilbert are solid options. An injury to Gilbert last year is what actually paved the way for Chris Hubbard (now on the Browns) to get some starts. Overall, the group excels at pass blocking compared to run blocking.
- I like the Browns’ overall potential and will try to buy in to the Desmond Harrison hype as much as I can at left tackle, but there is no way I can give the line too much credibility until they prove it. This will be the first game these five have ever played together, with the differences being both edges (Harrison at left tackle and Hubbard at right tackle). The interior has worked together, but Kevin Zeitler missed most of camp and Joel Bitonio spent all preseason at left tackle instead of left guard. Fingers crossed that the last-minute change doesn’t result in too much failed communication.
- The Steelers run a 3-4 defense. Their starting defensive line includes DE Cameron Heyward, NT Javon Hargrave, and DE Stephon Tuitt. Heyward had a breakout campaign in 2017, registering a career-high 12 sacks en route to his first ever Pro Bowl. Pro Football Focus credited him with 62 pressures last year, and Tuitt on the other side wasn’t too bad either with 40 pressures. Hargrave will be more of a rotational player as Pittsburgh works in different lineups.
- Who is ready to see Myles Garrett? Last year’s first overall pick has been a machine this offseason, completely free of injury. He was so focused last year on getting to take down Ben Roethlisberger, and then an ankle injury leading up to Week 1 prevented him from playing. By Week 17, Roethlisberger was resting. Emmanuel Ogbah will start on the other side, but the team has added four new defensive linemen since final cuts. It’ll be interesting to see if any of them are utilized. On the inside, Larry Ogunjobi receives the big opportunity to show what he can do as a full-time starter (alongside Trevon Coley).
- The Steelers' starting linebackers include OLB Bud Dupree, ILB Jon Bostic, ILB Vince Williams, and OLB T.J. Watt. The glaring element missing, of course, is ILB Ryan Shazier due to the terrible injury he suffered last season. Shazier’s absence leaves a big gap in the middle of the defense, both against the run and in covering running backs and tight ends. Dupree, Williams, and Watt combined for 21 sacks last year.
- Cleveland’s group of linebackers is the highest-paid group on defense, but the most underachieving. The addition of Mychal Kendricks boosted my hopes for the group, but one inside trading story later and he is off the team with plenty of his own problems to worry about. Rookie Genard Avery will now be counted on in sub-packages as a key pass rusher. In general, Jamie Collins needs to play with a fire we haven’t seen for awhile from him.
- The Steelers' two starting cornerbacks are Joe Haden and Artie Burns, with Mike Hilton covering the slot. Pittsburgh’s starting safeties are Sean Davis and Morgan Burnett. It’s an average secondary, but we know from Haden’s final years in Cleveland that he can be beat with speed, and Josh Gordon and Antonio Callaway possess plenty of that.
- Cleveland’s secondary is not necessarily inferior to Pittsburgh’s. I gave the Steelers the edge due to continuity. Cleveland’s group is brand new and we really have zero idea what they will do in the regular season. Can Denzel Ward handle an Antonio Brown for his first game? Is Terrance Mitchell still going to impress like he did during the preseason? What about Damarious Randall in his first game starting at free safety? How will Derrick Kindred and Jabrill Peppers be rotated at strong safety?
- Chris Boswell is the Steelers' kicker. He made 35-of-38 attempts last year, an incredible year. But how reliable will any kicker be with the hind wind conditions expected this Sunday? Zane Gonzalez had a good preseason, but doesn’t get the edge over Boswell.
- Jordan Berry is the Steelers' punter. His average (43.2) ranked at the bottom of the NFL last year, while team captain Britton Colquitt (47.6) was near the top.
- Cleveland will be going with Antonio Callaway as their punt returner, and then both he and Jabrill Peppers will be in on kickoffs. Ryan Switzer will return kickoffs and punts this year for Pittsburgh.
Here are predictions from multiple staff members at DBN.
Chris Pokorny: “I’ve bought into the Browns all offseason, but the weather forecasted for Sunday really puts this game up for grab for both teams. Ball security will be a huge factor, so unforeseen fumbles could change the game either way. As excited as I am about the receiving game, this might not be the contest where Tyrod Taylor can drop back and throw downfield to Landry, Gordon, and Callaway. Here is to hoping Myles Garrett shreds Ben Roethlisberger for real, and a few grinding drives on the ground allow the Browns to start 1-0.” Browns 16, Steelers 14.
Andrea Hangst: “The Browns have amassed quite the collection of talent, and nothing about the past few months seem to point to another winless (or one-win) season. Still, that collection of talent is either young or new to each other, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Things will click for this team, but it’s hard for that to happen over the course of the first game. The season opener is historically not kind to the Browns for numerous reasons, with just one win since 1999. This time, inexperience as a cohesive unit will be the reason for the loss.” Steelers 20, Browns 13.
Matt Wood: “I think the Browns kick ass. I think their defense is legit and their offense is serviceable. That’s good enough against a Steelers team missing its best offensive player and a defense that isn’t one of the best in the NFL. Browns have arrived. ” Browns 30, Steelers 14.
Josh Finney: “Expect the ground game to be moderately effective and everything else to be out of sync.” Steelers 23, Browns 19.
Mike Hoag: “The winless 2017 Browns kept last year’s Week 1 contest in Pittsburgh respectable. Short of another special teams collapse, I think they have the horses to give the Steelers a run for their money. With Le’Veon Bell out of the picture, and Cleveland’s entire roster overhauled--including having former Steelers offensive coordinator on board--the Browns have the blueprint and the talent to take down their rivals. I think their impressive defense and adequate-enough offense should be able to lead them to a home victory this weekend, and it shouldn’t shock anyone who’s been paying attention.” Browns 24, Steelers 16.
Tom Moore: “Sunday’s expected poor weather should benefit the Browns as they have a running game and a proven offensive line - well, at least 80 percent of a proven offensive line. The weather should also help make Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown a bit of a non-factor. The Browns have improved, but the high volume of roster turnover means the team still needs time to find out how to work together, which means that Sunday will have a familiar result.” Steelers 14, Browns 10.
Ezweav: “Browns have a much better roster, but still a suspect coaching staff. My suspicion is that all this jumbling around of the o-line isn’t helpful, and combined with Tyrod’s penchant for playing it safe and not challenging defenses leads to a fairly anemic offensive effort, which is a shame because the defense is going to ball out, and play plenty good enough to win. It won’t matter though, because they’ll just keep going out there and we end up losing a stinker.” Steelers 19, Browns 16.
rufio: “AB gets open for a few big plays, despite being contained for most of the game (flashback to the Joe Haden days). But Josh Gordon and Antonio Callaway make a few big plays of their own. Neither team can run it too well, but Tyrod Taylor’s slow and steady approach win out over the boom or bust of Ben Rothlisberger. Myles Garrett makes a few big plays and the Browns come away with a few crucial turnovers.” Browns 26, Steelers 23.
Dan Lalich: “The Steelers come in without their star running back, and the off-field drama associated with that will distract them. The Browns, meanwhile, are still trying to gel, especially up front. Combine early season sloppiness with sloppy weather, and this one should be a defensive struggle.” Browns 11, Steelers 5.
Who do you think will win, Browns fans? Let us know in the comments section below.