It’s finally Week 1 of the 2018 NFL season! The Steelers will be heading straight into the divisional fire with what seems like their annual Week 1 battle with Cleveland. Last season, the Steelers nearly lost the Week-1 matchup to the 0-16 Browns, but were saved on the strength of Antonio Brown’s heroics. This time around, the goal should be to make things go smoother. The Steelers truly do have a message to send this week — that they’re a force to be reckoned with. Of course, a lot fans in Pittsburgh believe that — but the perception of the Steelers outside Steelers Nation seems to place them no better than the 3rd or 4th best team in the AFC. They need to change this perception, by taking care of an improved Browns team, can they do it?
The Browns have an impressive duo of quarterbacks in Tyrod Taylor and 1st overall pick Baker Mayfield. The Steelers will be seeing Taylor as the starter, and he’s much better than people give him credit for. He’s better than Marcus Mariota, who the Steelers’ starters dominated week three of preseason, but that shouldn’t mean much if the Steelers play like they did in that game. Taylor is a threat with his legs and he’s a much better deep passer than you might think, but if you can force him to throw into tight windows, that’s where he’ll have trouble.
Mayfield is similar, while slightly less mobile than Taylor. He has better ball placement, but it’s not exactly precise placement, and he gets rattled easily by pressure up the middle. Both quarterbacks can be countered by strong defensive line and secondary play. The linebackers may not have all the weight on them this week.
Meanwhile, the Steelers trot out future Hall of Fame QB Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh will be throwing in a mix of everything, and you can expect Ben to be a bit rusty. But the Steelers clearly have the advantage with Roethlisberger under center — a QB who can spread the field better than just about anyone in the league. The intermediate passing game will be bigger this week due to the way Gregg Williams draws up his defense. But regardless, the advantage goes to the Steelers here.
The wild card in this area is Le’Veon Bell. With Bell not looking as if he will show, it is nice knowing James Conner has looked good enough to warrant playing time. Jaylen Samuels likely will as well, and he’ll be mixed into the screen game and the slot at times. With Connor as the starter, this running back corps takes a different turn. I believe Connor can, and likely will, be productive, but I am not sure how productive he will be. He still has spotty vision that could hinder his production.
The Steelers’ wide receivers should be more than ready for the battle. Antonio Brown is the best receiver in the game and, while he was injured this training camp, he looked better than ever when he was healthy. Assuming he’s now fully healthy, he’s the biggest mismatch on the field against the Browns, especially against rookie Denzel Ward who, while talented, has never covered a receiver of Brown’s level. JuJu Smith-Schuster is coming into his second year and looks better than ever. The wild card will be rookie James Washington, who will be seeing former Kansas City Chiefs cornerback, Terrance Mitchell. That’s a matchup Washington can win, and his ability to stretch the field and win those jump balls could be a key factor in the game.
Tight End is the biggest question mark for the Steelers this week. They very well might only have one tight end in Jesse James. If Vance McDonald meets his Week-1 deadline for Plantar Fasciitis, then the Steelers will have a much more versatile scheme, as McDonald will see looks from the slot and other areas on the field.
Meanwhile, the Browns have a skill-position group that’s just about as talented as the Steelers. At running back, they still have Duke Johnson, but with the additions of Carlos Hyde and rookie Nick Chubb. All three of them will get snaps, with Hyde seeing the field more on early downs, Johnson getting looks from the shotgun and third down, and Chubb being sprinkled in on certain packages as a hybrid of those two. Johnson is the biggest threat to the defense, as given his speed in the receiving game, he could be a coverage mismatch for either Jon Bostic or Vince Williams. In other words, we may be seeing a bit of Matthew Thomas this week.
The wide receiver room has two clear standouts in Josh Gordon and Jarvis Landry. That’s a deadly one-two punch that rivals the Steelers’ one-two punch as well. Landry will likely see much of his time in the slot or on the outside, when the Browns use their real x-factor in David Njoku. Njoku is a matchup nightmare for the Steelers. They’ve got no one to cover him except possibly Terrell Edmunds. How they deal with Njoku will decide who wins the battle between the Steelers’ defense and Browns’ offense. Antonio Callaway is an uber-talented deep threat, but he’s shown weakness in getting off the line comfortably in press situations. That’s an ideal matchup for Artie Burns, but Burns will likely see a mix of Landry and Callaway, against each of which Burns has the advantage if he plays smart and shadows correctly. Gordon, and the slant route, will be a key area to watch as well. Gordon is a deadly receiver, but how polished he is remains to be seen.
These are two good units, but Njoku is a difference maker in this battle.
The Steelers have top-5 trench play in the NFL. On the offensive line, they have four Pro Bowl-level offensive linemen in David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus GIlbert, and Ramon Foster. Alejandro Villanueva is easily the weak link on that line, but that doesn’t mean he’s bad by any means. But this week he sees the stud that is Myles Garrett. He also has the possibility to see fifth-round standout Genard Avery. Both offer problems with their speed-to-power combination, as Villanueva has routinely struggled with more athletic edge rushers over the years. That’s a key area to watch for the Steelers in this game. On the other side, Emmanuel Ogbah and Larry Ogunjobi man the rest of the line and, while Ogbah might get a pressure or two, expect Foster, or Finney, and Gilbert to lock down that side for Roethlisberger.
On the other side, the Steelers will be meeting with former Steeler, Chris Hubbard. The Cleveland Browns’ OL is good, with Kevin Zeitler and Joel Bitonio being the headliners. But even with them on the line, they’ll have their hands full with Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Javon Hargrave. J.C. Tretter is a slight weakness at center, so Hargrave is going to get his opportunities. Rookie Austin Corbett is good but still raw in pass protection, meaning Cam Heyward gets the chance to wreak havoc. Hubbard may be the weakness of the group, and T.J. Watt may get some opportunities to get some pressure on Tyrod Taylor this week. As for Bud Dupree, he is likely going to be stonewalled when facing pro bowler Joel Bitonio, who has made the move the left tackle very well.
So, the Steelers inside linebackers are the key to this matchup. Will they be able to cover David Njoku and stop the run game effectively this week? The answer to the first question would seem to be no, and as to the second, it seems to be yes. Jon Bostic and Vince Williams likely will be able to stop the run. The Browns block the run well, but Bostic and Williams defend the run equally well. But Todd Haley’s screen game and mismatch scheming is where the answer will lie. If Bostic is one on one with David Njoku, that’s understandably not going to end well. That means they’ll either use an extra defensive back, or that Matthew Thomas will be getting snaps to help in coverage. Thomas still may be a matchup issue against Njoku, but clearly not as blatant as Bostic or Williams.
As for the Browns, Joe Schobert, Christian Kirksey, Jamie Collins, and Genard Avery all stand to be key to their matchup plans. All are decent run defenders, but Avery is a natural edge rusher, meaning they will stunt him into looks he’s comfortable with. Kirksey and Schobert’s pass coverage will be a key, as while both are good at it, the Steelers are going to be running complex looks with the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster to get mismatches. Regardless, the Browns are far better off here than the Steelers’ situation.
There certainly are question marks in both secondaries. The Steelers don’t know if they’ll have Mike Hilton, but with Cam Sutton to back him up, Steelers fans should feel at least somewhat comfortable. Sutton is a better slot-corner than outside corner, and that’s where Sutton thrived this preseason. If Hilton is the one who plays, we know we will see blitz schemes where he’ll get opportunities to sack Taylor, and Hilton is always solid in coverage. As for Joe Haden and Artie Burns, both must play physical this week. The Browns receivers don’t necessarily deal well with physical receivers, and with Haden seeing Josh Gordon and Jarvis Landry, he’ll need to do everything he can to guard them well this week.
Burns, on the other hand, has to make sure he’s shadowing closely, or he’ll get burnt like he did at times last season in tough matchups. Terrell Edmunds and Sean Davis are a wild card of a duo this week. They looked good in Week 3 of the preseason, and I think Edmunds will be fine, but he’ll be assigned to David Njoku this week. That’s a tough matchup regardless. Sean Davis has to be zone smart this week, and if he’s not, the Steelers will be burnt by the deep passing game. The first full game of Davis at free safety is going to be one that will be huge in the game. Morgan Burnett will also be making his first start for the Steelers if he plays. The support in run defense and particularly across the middle are huge keys to the recipe of success this week, so having Burnett will be incredibly important.
The Browns have their weaknesses in the secondary. They don’t have anyone that can matchup with the Steelers’ weapons. Denzel Ward is a rookie in his first game who will be covering Antonio Brown. I’m taking Brown every time. Terrance Mitchell is a decent starter who has been prone to getting beat deep, meaning James Washington may be getting open downfield. Briean Boddy-Calhoun and EJ Gaines are splitting time in the slot, and both are good, but when facing a top flight slot guy in Smith-Schuster, JuJu will get his dues. The safety position is a mess regardless. Gregg Williams plays Jabrill Peppers 25 yards deep for the whole game, so deep balls may not be key, but it leaves the intermediate game wide open. Damarious Randall has yet to have a good season after being mediocre in Green Bay. There’s room for exploitation here.
Player to Watch: Sean Davis
I am rooting for Sean Davis. The rookie Sean Davis was great, and he showed his skills at strong safety well. Is Davis a free safety or strong safety? He has the traits of a strong safety, but is more than athletic enough to play free safety. Davis loves to play in the box and be a hard hitter, and while he was that at Maryland, he was at his best when he was allowed to roam in space and do his thing. If Davis is plays up to the level his tape suggests he is, the defense changes drastically. Davis has a chance to really show his value to the team, and this week will be a test for him with talented receivers all across the board for Cleveland.
Matchup to Watch: Myles Garrett vs. Alejandro Villanueva
For the Steelers’ offense, there’s no more important matchup than Garrett vs Villanueva. Myles Garrett is an absolute stud and I believe soon to become a superstar. He’ll likely get pressure against Villanueva this week, but Villanueva at least has to slow him down, and if he can do that, Ben Roethlisberger can work his magic all over the field. Regardless, though, Garrett is going to be a massive headache for the Steelers.
The Browns are much improved. We say that every year, but looking at their roster, you see lots of talent. Hue Jackson may not be a very good coach, and he might hold them back, but this roster is dangerous. In any case, the Steelers have one of the most talented teams in the NFL, and they will create mismatches all over the field this week. It’ll be a battle with rust for the Steelers, but the stars will get it done.
Prediction: Steelers win 24-21