By Daniel Benjamin
The Pittsburgh Steelers will look to open the 2017 NFL season exactly the way they closed their 2016 regular season—with a victory over the Cleveland Browns.
Pittsburgh will make the familiar two-and-half hour trip to Cleveland for their 1 p.m. ET kickoff at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sept. 10. for the Steelers’ 65th trip to Cleveland. The Browns own a 37-27-0 home record against the Steelers, although they have dropped three of their four meetings at FirstEnergy Stadium—including the last two meetings. Pittsburgh has outscored Cleveland 88-63 in the four meetings at FirstEnergy.
Cleveland is coming off its worst season (1-15) in franchise history. The Browns, who have posted just two winning seasons since 1999, last made the playoffs in 2002. The team owns a 88-200 record since re-joining the NFL in 1999. Cleveland has lost a NFL-record 12 straight season openers.
Browns on offense
Cleveland had one of the three worst offenses in the league last season, ranking 30th in total offense and 31st in scoring offense. The Browns, who averaged 16.4 points a game, were held to 13 or less points on eight occasions.
Cleveland, led by Isaiah Crowell, has a decent running attack. The Browns averaged 107 yards on the ground in 2016 (19th in the NFL). However, their passing game was dreadful. The Browns used six different quarterbacks and they combined to rank 28th in passing yards (204 ypg) and were 28th in quarterback rating. Their quarterbacks were sacked a league-high 66 times and they threw 14 interceptions compared to 15 touchdowns.
Cleveland does have a few weapons on offense, though they are starting a rookie quarterback in DeShone Kizer. In addition to Crowell, Duke Johnson is a quality back both as a runner and receiver. Second-year wide receiver Corey Coleman is a deep threat and veteran Kenny Britt is a solid receiver. Rookie running back Matthew Dayes, a 2017 seventh round selection, led the team with 10 receptions during the exhibition season while tight end Seth DeValve hauled in nine catches. Cleveland recently acquired wide receiver Sammie Coates from the Steelers.
Browns on defense
Cleveland was not much better on the defensive side of the ball last season. The Browns gave up nearly 394 yards and 28.4 points a game, which ranked 31st and 30th in the league, respectively.
Cleveland’s defense has a lot of young talent and a new defensive coordinator in Gregg Williams. The Browns are projected to start seven players selected in the first five rounds of the draft since 2014, including two 2017 first rounders—defensive end Myles Garrett and safety Jabrill Peppers.
Players to watch: Running back Isaiah Crowell and linebacker Jaime Collins
Isaiah Crowell is coming off the best season of his career in 2016 and is a top-20 back in the league. Crowell is an efficient runner who is also a good receiver out of the backfield. He finished with 952 rushing yards on 198 carries (4.8 yards per carry) to go along with seven touchdowns. He also added 40 receptions for 318 yards.
Jaime Collins finished third on the team with 69 tackles—48 being of the solo variety. In the eight games he’s played for the Browns, he recorded double digit tackles three times and had at least eight stops on six occasions. Collins also had two sacks with the Browns. He tallied 112 tackles to go along with three sacks and two interceptions for the season.
Steelers’ offseason moves
The Steelers made several roster moves this offseason, and they are the favorites to win the AFC North this season.
Pittsburgh is loaded on the offensive side of the ball as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a number of weapons, including running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receivers Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Eli Rogers. In addition, Pittsburgh added a pair of quality receivers this offseason in veteran Justin Hunter and second-round draft pick JuJu Schuster-Smith. The Steelers also recently traded for veteran tight end Vance McDonald.
Pittsburgh’s young defense was solid last year, ranking in the top-12 of the league in both total defense and scoring defense. But the Steelers were torched by the New England Patriots and Tom Brady for 36 points and 431 total yards in the AFC Championship game. In an effort to prevent that from happening again, the Steelers upgraded their defensive secondary with the additions of cornerback Joe Haden and safety J.J Wilcox. And 2017 first-round draft pick T.J. Watt and third-round selection Cam Sutton add further depth to the linebacker and secondary corps.
Outlook: Steelers 24, Browns 9
Week 1 is never the crispest of games, so don’t expect the prettiest contest. That said, the Steelers have too many weapons for the up-and-coming Browns. Expect the Steelers defense to confuse Kizer with different looks and blitzes.