Browns vs. Steelers – 5 things to watch in Week 1
The last time the Browns opened a season in Pittsburgh, in 1989, they beat the Steelers 51-0 to start a year that saw the Browns advance to the AFC Championship Game.
It’s safe to say it has been all downhill since then for the Browns and their one-time rival.
The Browns have only beaten the Steelers twice in the past seven years, have only one win in their past 14 games at Heinz Field, and have gone 5-31 against Pittsburgh over the past 36 meetings between the two teams.
It’s not just Pittsburgh, either, as season-opening games have not been kind to the Browns since 1999.
The Browns have lost nine consecutive opening games; lose today against the Steelers and they would set an NFL record for opening-day futility.
“That’s something that’s a big part of our prep (but) understanding that that has nothing to do with us,” Browns head coach Mike Pettine said earlier this week. “That has nothing to do with this game. That has nothing to do with us moving forward. That was our message back in the spring when we said, ‘Hey, recognize the history, but break off the rear view mirror.’ This is just another way to prove that.”
As the Browns get ready to start reversing those disappointing numbers today in Pittsburgh, here are five things to watch for.
Heath Miller & Dri Archer vs. Craig Robertson & Chris Kirksey
The Browns have struggled to cover tight ends seemingly since John Mackey was in his prime and last year was no exception.
Robertson had issues (to put it mildly) as a coverage linebacker in 2013, with the low point of the season coming in Week 6 against Detroit. On the season, he was ranked 52nd overall among inside linebackers and 55th (that’s last if you are scoring at home) in pass coverage by ProFootballFocus.com.
The Browns drafted Kirksey in large part because of his coverage skills, and while Kirksey is listed behind Robertson on the depth chart, he should see plenty of playing time against the Steelers.
Today’s game will provide a good test for the Browns, as Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller is entering his second season since suffering a knee injury and is reportedly back to his old self. That player was one that had career highs in receptions (71), yards (816) and touchdowns (8) in 2012, a season that saw him earn team MVP honors.
If the duo of Robertson and Kirksey can keep Miller in check, that should provide some hope for the upcoming season.
It’s not just tight ends that give the Browns fits, but running backs are also a problem in the passing game. That’s why Dri Archer – a player we wanted the Browns to target in the draft – has us worried. It’s not too hard to imagine Archer doing this or this at a crucial point this afternoon.
Antonio Brown vs. the Browns cornerbacks
Brown worked over the Cleveland secondary last season, catching 15 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown. Over the past four seasons, he has totaled 32 catches for 494 yards and three touchdowns against the Browns.
That’s why it was interesting to hear Pettine say this week that he will rotate coverage on Brown, rather than have Joe Haden follow Brown wherever he goes.
“I’m never a fan of giving an offense a steady diet of the same matchups and same types of coverages,” Pettine said earlier this week in published reports. “Offensive coordinators are pretty good because they gather information throughout the game. If you settle into a constant, they’ll adjust accordingly. Part of being a good defense is mixing things up and trying to stay a step ahead.”
That sounds good during a press conference, but we’ll see how it plays out once the game begins.
The Browns drafted cornerback Justin Gilbert in the first round because they have grown tired of Buster Skrine’s “coverage skills” on outside wide receivers. Much like Kirksey, Gilbert is listed second on the depth chart because he is a rookie, but expect to see plenty of him on the field on Sunday. And you have to make your NFL debut at some point, so why not throw him into the fire against Brown?
Brian Hoyer in his first game action
Starting quarterback Brian Hoyer will see his first real game action in 11 months as he makes his return after suffering a torn ACL last October against Cincinnati.
Hoyer didn’t exactly light it up in the preseason and, in some ways, won the starting quarterback job by default as rookie Johnny Manziel wasn’t ready to take over the team.
But Hoyer can make everyone forget about that if he goes out against the Steelers and plays the way he did last season against Minnesota and Cincinnati. He doesn’t even have to lead the Browns to a win (although it would be nice if he did), all he has to do is show the quick decision-making and aversion to turnovers that he displayed last year to give Browns fans hope that this could be a decent season.
Browns running game vs. Pittsburgh’s defense
The Steeler defense isn’t what it used to be, especially against the run as Pittsburgh finished ranked at No. 21 in rushing defense last season, giving up 115 yards per game and the fifth-most rushing touchdowns in the league.
The Browns cleaned house after last year’s abomination of a running game, bringing in Ben Tate as a free agent, drafting Terrance West and signing Isiah Crowell and Ray Agnew as undrafted free agents, all in an attempt to make sure they don’t lead the NFL in pass attempts again this season.
“This offense starts with the run, so it’s important for us to run the ball against the Steelers,” Tate told The Pittsburgh Tribune. “It’s good to know that our success could determine the success of the team, so we’ll do whatever it takes to win.”
Being able to run the ball would go a long way toward helping an offense that still has major question marks, especially at wide receiver. If the Browns are serious about making a commitment to the run, this week’s game provides a perfect opportunity for them to show it.
Roethlisberger is 17-1 against the Browns. The Browns need to start doing something about that, so why not start this week?
Roethlisberger has been sacked an average of 39 times per season over the past five years; would it kill the Browns to start adding to this season’s total on Sunday?
Do we really want to know the answers to those questions?
The start of a new season also brings with it the sense of hope, a belief that this year will be different.
Then the season starts and reality has a funny way of quickly setting in.
We’re as optimistic as anyone about the Browns chances, but there is a sense of realism mixed in there as well.
We have a feeling the Browns offense just isn’t quite ready for the real games to start – there are too many question marks among the wide receivers and Hoyer still needs time to shake off the rust.
Plus, given the history between the two teams, there is probably no worse place for the Browns to open a season than in Pittsburgh.
We like the Browns to keep it close, but the Steelers to win and cover (they are -6.5 favorites), and we’ll hope for a brighter day to come next week in the home opener.