Renewing the Rivalry: Browns-Steelers Preview

The Cleveland Browns will return to the field on Sunday to host their bitter nemesis the Pittsburgh Steelers at the dawn of the DeShone Kizer Era. Expectations are muted for the Browns overall, but there is no better way to inject hope into an atrophying fanbase quite like beating the fellas in black and yellow.

Are the Browns Favored?

Continuing last year’s tradition I will continue to note whether or not the Browns are favored going into a given contest. The Browns, mirroring my tradition, held up their end of the bargain by again being home underdogs to the Steelers this time by nine points. That line feels about right considering the teams’ performances last season.

Rookie Spotlight

The excitement surrounding the season opener was doused with a cold pitcher of high ankle sprain on Wednesday when the Browns announced that first overall pick Myles Garrett suffered an injury and will miss four to six weeks. Those dreams of Garrett planting Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will have to wait until Week 17. Still, Sunday marks the rookie debuts for two of Cleveland’s top picks from the spring’s draft. Jabril Peppers will make his debut at safety as well as kick and punt returner. He offers plenty of promise on special teams and can hopefully boast a woeful secondary as well. All eyes will also be on second round pick Deshone Kizer’s premiere under center. He is the next in a long (long, long, long) tradition of quarterbacks making their Browns debut in Week 1. No doubt he would prefer to avoid the division-favored Steelers, but what can you do.

Familiar Faces

This iteration of the rivalry involves a new wrinkle – familiar faces in different helmets. During final roster cutdowns the Browns parted with two-time Pro Bowler Joe Haden. The second-longest tenured Brown, it came as somewhat of a surprise to see Cleveland let him go. Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh jumped at the opportunity to sign him. He will start at cornerback on Sunday against a quarterback he has literally played against every day all summer long. He might have a good day.

Last week the Browns made a direct deal with the Steelers to acquire wide receiver Sammie Coates. To complete the deal Cleveland send over a 2018 sixth-round pick, a pick (and I cannot stress this enough) that the Browns originally acquired for flop cornerback Justin Gilbert. So the Harvard Brain Trust flipped the same negligible pick back to Pennsylvania for a 24-year-old wide receiver with 22 receptions, 446 yards, and two touchdowns. He is hardly Julio Jones, but it’ll be interesting to see how he fares against his old team.

Season openers have not been kind to the Browns since they returned in 1999. Their struggles in Week 1 are well documented: 1-17 in season openers, most of those losses coming at Cleveland Browns/First Energy Stadium. It’s been thirteen years since the Butch Davis-led Browns defeated the Baltimore Ravens 20-3 to kick off the 2004 season. To make matters worse the Browns have repeatedly been crushed in Week 1 over the past five years, getting outscored 130-73. They will get a chance to flip that script on Sunday.

The Browns’ unexpected 4-0 postseason run made a few waves (and inspired a few tee shirts) in the greater Cleveland area. Even if the games do not count there it is not unreasonable to believe that good habits and strong play could translate from August to September. It is worth noting, however, that preseason performance has very little correlation with regular season outcomes. In perhaps the most famous example the 2008 Detroit Lions enjoyed an undefeated preseason before dropping all of their regular season games to become the league’s only 0-16 team. On the other hand, the 2007 Patriots went 16-0 in the regular season after a 2-2 preseason run. So I would caution anyone from placing any wagers based on preseason showing.

So what does this game mean in the grand scheme of things? It’s hard to say. With Myles Garrett’s injury disrupting the defensive game plan it would be easy to put an asterisk on the game if the Browns lose a close one and wonder “what could have been” were number 95 on the field. Still, I’m looking for competitiveness. The Browns made no bones about tanking last year, and my top question is whether that was a one year experiment or a Philadelphian “Process.” Either way it’s only one game. Hell, it would just be nice to win on Opening Day for once.