For the second consecutive season, the Cleveland Browns open up their regular season against the Pittsburgh Steelers, an AFC North division rival…or a former “rival”. The Browns vs. Steelers “rivalry” has not been much of a rivalry for the last 19 seasons. Hold onto your seat for this one… since 1999 the Browns have only beat the Steelers six times — SIX. The bright side — four of the Browns six wins against the Steelers since 1999 have come at home, so there is some “optimism” there.
In the last Browns vs. Steelers six matchups (which have all been losses), the orange and brown have been outscored 158-96. The two most recent meanings between the two teams (being featured last season), were two of the closest games yet. Cleveland fell to Pittsburgh in four points and three points losses, respectively. The most recent of losses coming in the Steel City when the Browns played the Steelers “junior varsity” squad. The most memorable moment from that game? Former first-round pick Corey Coleman (the guy they drafted after passing on some guy named Carson Wentz) dropping a pass to potentially seal a win, avoiding a winless 0-16 season.
Alright… enough with the losing, let’s turn to some optimism. Last season in game number one, the Browns nearly upset the Black and Gold in one of their closest games of the winless journey. That upset nearly happened with a team that won zero games. This year…the Browns have actual talent. General manager John Dorsey added *31* new players out of the 53 players on the current active roster. This is not the same team, and may not have the same result.
- One of the league’s best receivers expected to play in his first opener since his rookie season in 2012
The odds have been against Josh Gordon ever since the star collegiate receiver was drafted in the supplemental NFL Draft in 2012. Since then, Gordon has set records, earned Pro Bowl honors, and has even been named All-Pro. With all the good Gordon provided for the Browns for essentially one season, everyone knows the bad and the ugly. The star receiver, Gordon, was nursing a hamstring the last two weeks but was a full participant in practice on Friday. As they call him: “Flash”, will be in uniform and on the field for just his second career season opener. Expectations were high for Gordon before he stepped away from the team to address mental health issues but being on the field for week one is a huge accomplishment in itself.
- An undrafted free agent is replacing one of the best left tackles of all-time
Desmond Harrison, a former offensive lineman from West Georgia, is the one that has the auspicious responsibility of replacing Hall of Famer Joe Thomas. Harrison (much like Gordon) has faced difficulty with consistently staying on the football field. Harrison’s collegiate career started at Contra Community College where he was named first team community college All-American. He then transferred to Texas but was suspended three different times, which resulted in his college career concluding at West Georgia. After being invited to the senior bowl and failing a drug test at the combine, Harrison finds himself filling the biggest shoes in the NFL this season. Good luck!
- The bell cow back of Pittsburgh is milking his return
Le’Veon Bell, a three-time All-Pro NFL running back is not going to be in the backfield for the Steelers this weekend. The star running back has held out from making his way back to the franchise after failing to reach an agreement on a contract extension. Bell has been unwilling to play on the franchise tag for the second consecutive season. One of the most dynamic running backs in professional football is leaving his fantasy owners hopeless but he’s not leaving all accounts with the same feeling. No Bell is a bonus for the Browns.
- Opposing receivers, fruitful friends
Browns wide receiver Antonio Callaway and Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown may be in opposite uniforms this Sunday, but that does not mean the two do not share a friendship off-the-field. Brown, a mentor of Callaway, has been credited with the athletic and personal development of Callaway, a troubled Florida receiver that spent last season watching football from his couch. The most feared receiver in the NFL that wears black and gold may have just given the Browns an advantage by providing Cleveland with Callaway, a first-round talent receiver that is turning his life around under Brown’s leadership.
- The Hardland Hurricane
The Browns have coined the 2018 squad “The Hardland of America”. Well, the Hardland of America may encounter weather conditions that will have Northeast Ohioans experiencing the effects of Hurricane Florence. According to a report from Channel 19 News in Cleveland, Sunday’s matchup could feature up-to seven inches of rain and 40mph winds. I am no meteorologist but if this stands true this game may end-up displaying a flashback of the 2016 Notre Dame at North Carolina State game. I will put it this way, that game was a disaster.
Players to Watch
Running Back James Conner
Conner is replacing all-pro running back Le’Veon Bell as Pittsburgh’s lead back this Sunday. The former Pittsburgh Panthers star was thought by some to display first-round talent during his collegiate career but battled cancer during his time as a Panther. In his first opportunity carrying the workload of a starting running back, it will be intriguing to see how Conner responds to a strong Browns front seven.
Edge Rusher T.J. Watt
In his second year out of Wisconsin, the little brother of three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, T.J., has a fair amount of expectations lying ahead for this season. T.J. Watt will have key battles against Browns left tackle Harrison and holds an advantage over the undrafted free agent. In two games against the Browns last season, T.J. registered three sacks against Cleveland which covered nearly half his sack totals of the 2017 season.
Safety Terrell Edmunds
A stunning first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Edmunds will make his professional debut in the secondary against a talented Browns receiving corps. Much like T.J. Watt, Terrell Edmunds was lying in the shadow of his brother Tremaine Edmunds, the Bills 16th overall pick in last year’s draft. Earning third-team All-ACC accolades in 2017, the former Hokie will look to prove that it is not just his brother that has all-pro potential talent.
Left Tackle Desmond Harrison
This one is obvious. Joel Bitonio was sought to fill the shoes of Thomas for the time being but instead, Harrison receives the tall task. All eyes will be glued on Harrison as he faces a strong Steelers pass rush in his NFL regular season debut.
Cornerback Denzel Ward
Welcome to the NFL buddy boy! Congrats on being drafted fourth overall, now go cover the best receiver in the NFL. Ward is going to have his hands full this season as he will primarily cover not just Antonio Brown but also Michael Thomas, A.J Green, Mike Evans, Keenan Allen, Julio Jones, and Deandre Hopkins as a rookie. The former Buckeye should be well suited to handle the challenge.
Edge rusher Myles Garrett
In 13 games last season while playing under 100% from a health standpoint, the former first overall pick collected seven sacks. Garrett has received votes for defensive player of the year in his second season in the NFL, and rightfully so. His sophomore tour begins against Alejandro Villanueva, one of the league’s best pass blockers.
- Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley spent the previous six seasons as the offensive coordinator for the Steelers, anchoring one of the league’s top offensive powers.
- Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner is a native Cleveland and his father, Ross, played safety for the Browns from 1960-1967.
- Amos Jones, the Browns special teams coordinator Amos Jones was a member of the Steelers’ staff from 2007-12. Leading the special teams unit, Jones won a Super Bowl as a member of the black and gold.
- Browns starting right tackle Chris Hubbard was a member of the Steelers organization for five seasons before signing with Cleveland in free agency. He played in 40 career games for Pittsburgh, including six playoff games.
- Steelers offensive lineman Zach Banner played in eight games as a member of the Browns in 2017.
Injury Report and Guessing Inactives
- DB E.J. Gaines (knee) has been ruled out for Sunday’s game.
- LB James Burgess (concussion) is unlikely for Sunday’s game.
- LB Genard Avery (glute), DL Trevon Coley (ankle), TE Seth DeValve (quad), WR Josh Gordon (hamstring), LT Desmond Harrison (knee), LB Christian Kirksey (shoulder), and DB Damarious Randall (knee) were all limited at times during practice throughout the week but all are expected to play.
Other 5 Inactives? (Guessing)
- QB Drew Stanton. Browns unlikely to dress three quarterbacks.
- WR Derek Willies. Browns already have Gordon, Landry, Callaway, Higgins, and Ratley ready for Sunday.
- CB Tavierre Thomas. Bottom of a secondary that already has eight key players.
- DT Ifeadi Odenigno. Recently signed and at the bottom of the depth chart.
- DL Anthony Zettel. Signed late in the week.
I will be covering the game on my Twitter (@KyleKellyWFNY) and my Quick Hits and More Column will return on Monday morning.