The Browns open their season at home against the Steelers, and for a team that’s looking to test its defensive mettle, there are few more challenging opponents than the Pittsburgh Steelers.
They have arguably the second-best tailback in football in Le’Veon Bell, what is widely considered to be the best-receiving corp in football and finish it off with a quarterback who is talented enough to consistently distribute the ball to all of them.
Compared to the high-flying Steelers offense, the Browns defense is taking a tumble off a cliff after the news came down about the high ankle sprain of first-round-phenom Myles Garrett. Garrett was coming off of a fantastic preseason where he outperformed every other edge rusher taken in the draft (fitting given his number one draft status), and the Browns are likely going to feel his absence.
Dany Shelton is also questionable for Sunday’s game, so the Browns will be missing two of their biggest front seven threats. For a Browns team that physically dominated at the line in the preseason, the lack of both of these big bodies up front is going to have consequences, especially for the run defense.
Le’Veon Bell had 146 rushing yards against the Browns when the two teams met last year in week 11. The Browns defense, while much improved, is likely going to give up another hundred yard game to Bell with two of their best defensive players out.
Another interesting thing to know for Sunday’s game: Kevin Hogan will be the official backup quarterback to DeShone Kizer. The news pretty much puts the nail in the coffin for a Cody Kessler start this season.
Players to Watch
This one is easy; Roethlisberger has historically struggled on the road against the Browns, and if the Steelers are going to get the win it’s likely going to come off of the legs of Le’Veon Bell.
Bell averaged 4.9 yards per carry last year and he doesn’t look like he’ll be slowing down anytime soon. The Steelers have the talent to pick the Browns apart through the air, but historically their success against the Browns has been led by Bell.
DeShone Kizer and Isaiah Crowell
The Browns haven’t allowed a touchdown since the first game of the preseason, and while it’s unlikely they’ll continue that streak through Sunday that’s obviously the goal of Gregg Williams and company.
Since the defense is likely to struggle, it’s likely going to come down to DeShone Kizer and the Browns offense to keep the chains moving and keep the Steelers offense off the field.
Enter Isaiah Crowell.
If the Browns are going to win this game, they need to dominate the running game and keep the Steelers off the field. If Crowell and this fantastic offensive line can effectively run the football, then Kizer will have fewer opportunities to make mistakes and the Browns can keep the clock moving.
When DeShone Kizer does have the throw, the Browns need to make sure he doesn’t take unnecessary sacks. In the preseason, Kizer would onto the ball too long in the pocket on a lot of plays, and he still needs to develop his pocket awareness. Kizer needs to not make rookie mistakes if he wants to keep the Browns in this game.
Sammie Coates and Joe Haden
Joe Haden’s cut and subsequent move to the Steelers made headlines in Cleveland, but what Browns fans seem to be forgetting is that Joe Haden was becoming a liability in the secondary. His departure may be felt in the locker room, but the Browns are a better, younger secondary with him in Pittsburgh.
The Browns may take advantage of this by picking on Joe Haden anytime he see’s the field for the Browns. They’ve seen him match up with their receivers in practice; they know who he can and can’t beat. Look for Hue Jackson and company to target Haden early on Sunday.
Sammie Coates is a similar story. He’s a speedy deep threat, but has the highest drop rate in football, dropping about half of the passes that come his way. The Browns may use him to stretch the secondary, but Coates likely won’t make an impact on the game aside from deep, non-targeted routes.
If Myles Garrett was healthy and playing, it would be tempting to take the Browns. They’re at home, they’re young, they’re playing their division rival and FirstEnergy Stadium is likely going to be rocking early. This is most optimistic Browns fans have been in a while.
Without Garrett and against one of the NFL’s best offenses, the Browns simply don’t have what it takes (on paper) to beat the Steelers. They can win if they absolutely dominate in the running game and keep Ben, Bell and Brown off the field, but the Steelers offense is just too explosive to contain otherwise.
Pittsburgh Steelers: 27
Cleveland Browns: 17
The Browns have what it takes to put some points up and stay competitive early, but once the Steelers get their hands on the football the Browns just don’t have the defense to keep up with them.