Nearly two years have passed since Martavis Bryant, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger last played together in a meaningful NFL contest. Somehow, it feels longer.
Nonetheless, the Steelers have achieved success. From November 1, 2015 to the time of this writing, Pittsburgh has won 20 games, including three postseason contests. In the same timespan, the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh’s Week 1 opponent, have won only two games. What Sunday’s game should represent, then, is an unstoppable force colliding with an extremely fragile object, like a locomotive striking a pane of glass.
The Steelers, a legitimate Super Bowl contender, are almost akin to a college powerhouse tuning up for conference play, whereas Cleveland, which has made appreciable strides on both sides of the ball but is still years from contention, is like an overmatched Division II college team that is merely seeking to benefit, albeit marginally, from some national exposure.
The Steelers are bringing a full-strength offense to the party for the first time since Mike Sullivan was named head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, yes, but expectations must be kept in check. Few expected Kansas City to walk into New England and steal a victory on the same night the Patriots unveiled their latest Super Bowl banner, yet that’s exactly what the Chiefs did.
Actually, “steal a victory” hardly describes the absolute beatdown that the Chiefs, America’s sweethearts, put on Tom Brady and his Patriots. Brady looked every bit of 40. Matt Patricia, maybe the best defensive coordinator in the NFL, had no answer for Kansas City’s unconventional offensive playbook (not that this mattered, because Patricia’s defense played flat-footed, uninspired football all night long). Gronk was anonymous. Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore, the prize jewels of New England’s off-season, had uneven debuts. Donta Hightower and Danny Amendola suffered injuries. Conversely, Alex Smith played arguably the best game of his life. The same is true of rookie running back Kareem Hunt, who had, statistically speaking, the greatest debut in NFL history. Was anyone predicting any of this? How could they?
Drawing parallels between the Chiefs—who won 12 games a year ago and very nearly topped Pittsburgh in the AFC Divisional Playoff—and the Browns, whose only win came as a result of a missed San Diego field goal in Week 16, is a stretch, but consider that nooobody picked the Chiefs in Thursday’s game—and for good reason, given New England’s absurd record of success against AFC opponents at Gillette Stadium.
And nobody is picking Cleveland, either. Not only are the Browns set to start a rookie quarterback—the 789th different quarterback the team has started since 1999—but their first-round pick, defensive end Myles Garrett, will miss the game with an ankle injury. Now, Garrett wasn’t going to turn things around for Cleveland overnight, but the Browns were undoubtedly counting on him to provide their defense with a dimension it hasn’t seen since….well, forever. Going against a top-5 offense without your best pass rusher is never an ideal scenario, but facing a quarterback who exhibits palpable disdain for your franchise (and a 23-2 career record) is a recipe for disaster.
With all of that said, upsets do happen. Maybe Cleveland’s retooled offensive line and highly-underrated running back Isaiah Crowell can control the ground game, thereby managing the clock and keeping Pittsburgh’s offense on the sidelines. Maybe DeShone Kizer, the heralded rookie, establishes himself as an all-time folk hero and franchise savior by taking the top of off Pittsburgh’s shiny new secondary. It’s possible, too, that one of Cleveland’s talented skill position players—Jaime Collins, Christian Kirksey, Corey Coleman, Kenny Britt—makes an opportune play to win a close game. Hue Jackson is a pretty good coach and he’s had approximately four months to game plan for the Steelers. The value of this extended tape study cannot be overstated. The Chiefs certainly proved as much.
Here are some of the other prominent storylines I’ll be watching:
The interplay between the Killer B’s
Le’Veon Bell, as talented of a football player as you’ll find in the NFL, didn’t participate in any of the preseason festivities, which has led many (including some of his own teammates) to question his “football conditioning.” Bell certainly is entering an ideal scenario in which to reacquaint himself with the offense (after all, the Browns did finish 31st in run defense in 2016). But he has practiced only a handful of times since Pittsburgh’s loss to New England in the AFC Championship Game. He could very well do his best Kareem Hunt impression on Sunday, but it’s just as likely he’ll first have to shake off some cobwebs.
Meanwhile, Martavis Bryant hasn’t played in a professional football game since January 2016. To this point, he has looked like a man among slightly smaller and slower men. But perhaps more so than Bell, Bryant might require a brief adjustment period. Given the understandable absence of continuity between Roethlisberger and himself, No. 10 might be the recipient of only a handful of targets on Sunday. Fortunately, Bryant is among the few players in the NFL who can translate three or four targets into three or four game-altering plays. Regardless of whether or not he even touches the ball, his mere presence on the outside should create more opportunities for Brown, who happens to be the Browns’ daddy, having caught 43 passes for 636 yards and four touchdowns in his last five games against Cleveland.
Of course, Bell overcoming his lack of practice time will be impossible if he doesn’t receive a requisite number of reps. The consensus seems to indicate that Bell is capable of handling a full workload (which, for him, is somewhere in the ballpark of 25-30 touches), but whether that actually transpires has yet to be determined.
Strides made in the secondary
Joe Haden, released from the Browns for refusing to accept a pay cut only two weeks ago, will start at cornerback. There is a 100 percent chance that Haden returns a fumble recovery or an interception for a touchdown. J.J. Wilcox, the other new addition to the secondary, could start Sunday if ironman Mike Mitchell is unable to surmount his nagging hamstring injury. If you had Haden, Wilcox, Sean Davis and Artie Burns penciled in as the starting four in June, I’d like to ask you a few questions about the NCAA tournament or the lottery.
Given Kizer’s inexperience and Cleveland’s striking offensive-line expenditures, they’re unlikely to lean too heavily on the passing attack. This will impede our ability to properly evaluate Pittsburgh’s new-look defensive backfield, but it’ll still be nice to see this unit wet its feet against an actual NFL team.
The tight end rotation
The Steelers clearly see something in Xavier Grimble, who made the roster in place of versatile H-back David Johnson. Grimble has clearly improved as a blocker, which, combined with his abilities as a vertical pass-catcher, make him a fairly complete tight end. To even see game action, Grimble will first have to unseat incumbent Jesse James and newcomer Vance McDonald. The tight ends are among the weaker groups on an otherwise loaded Steelers roster, so it’ll be interesting to see how they’re rotated and, more importantly, how they’re utilized.
The pass rush
Pittsburgh’s defense, despite its shortcomings a season ago (and the season before that—and the season before that), seems like it’s on the precipice of greatness. Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt are Pro Bowl-caliber players. Haden has All-Pro pedigree. Cameron Heyward might be the most underrated defensive lineman in the NFL. As historically has been the case, though, the success of this Steelers defense will depend on its pass rush, which features a pair of first-round picks, a pair of solid backups and a 39-year-old metahuman. Pittsburgh’s outside linebackers vs. Cleveland’s offensive line should be a legitimately good matchup to watch, as the Browns suddenly find themselves with one of the stronger units in the NFL. If T.J. Watt burns Joe Thomas, then you can be sure the kid is for real.