It’s only a 2-hour drive from Pittsburgh to Cleveland, and for many Steelers fans, it probably seemed that Mike Tomlin and Company didn’t take much more time than that to bring a bevy of new faces into town, players that might have a significant impact on the team’s fortunes in 2017 and beyond.
Considering the modest sample of work for Ben Roethlisberger in the preseason games, it’s anyone’s guess how well the Steelers’ offense might perform in the first meaningful game. In Thursday night’s debacle at Gillette Stadium, for example, the defending Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots demonstrated the kind of impact that a long, off-season layoff—plus a few missing cogs—can have on a team’s offensive machine.
So, if you’re looking for the Steelers’ offense to come charging out of the gate in mid-season form, that seems quite a lot to expect from a team whose star running back held out for the entire preseason and whose tight-end position starts out looking more like musical chairs.
Defensively, we’re holding our collective breaths until we see how the Lawrence Timmons Replacement Project works out at linebacker, along with the addition of former Brown Joe Haden to the secondary. As high as our hopes might be for T.J. Watt, there’s bound to be a substantial learning curve for the rookie as he adjusts to the NFL game. On the other hand, the veteran Haden seems like a sure bet to fit right in.
But don’t be too surprised if a few Steelers appear to be on totally different pages than their teammates during the contest in Cleveland. Count me among those who anticipate a Steelers team looking a bit rusty on both sides of the ball.
Without further ado, then, let’s look at the three keys for a Pittsburgh victory:
1) Avoid turnovers
On paper, the Browns simply don’t hang with the Steelers. But nothing makes a 1-15 team look more like worldbeaters than committing a spate of TOs. So Ben needs to avoid those head-scratching picks that occasionally have dug his team into some deep holes. Le’Veon Bell needs to show his preseason holdout hasn’t affected his preparation for the onset of games that count. While Bell arguably is the best RB in the league, he can’t afford to stumble coming out of the gate.
2) Force turnovers by relentlessly hounding DeShone Kizer, the Browns’ rookie QB
It’ll be quite unlikely if Kizer doesn’t start this game with some major gastric butterflies. Pittsburgh can turn the tables and win the TO battle by forcing Kizer to throw under pressure and before he wants to—or fall victim to the strip-sack.
3) Young players must step up
This is our first opportunity to get a feel for the type of football team that Tomlin and Company have put together this season. If the post-game reviews are to be generally positive (as opposed to suicidal), we’ll definitely need some Steelers rookies and other younger players to show right away that they truly belong in starting roles. Defensively, this means we’ll be looking for flashes of big-league brilliance from T.J. Watt, Artie Burns, Mike Hilton—even J.J. Wilcox. Offensively, we’d hope for a glimpse of what James Conner brings to the team versus NFL competition as a change-of-pace backup for Bell. Also of interest is whether JuJu Smith-Schuster can quickly develop into a serious contender for the No. 2 spot at WR.
While beating the Browns in their current state won’t prove that Pittsburgh is necessarily on its way to another Super Bowl, it might be the first step in driving a stake through the black heart of the “trap game” curse which has nagged the Steelers in the past.