Slow news week, eh?
As much as I’d love to inundate you, dear reader, with irreverent musings about Le’Veon Bell’s holdout and Nike’s latest—and boldest—branding endeavor, I’ll digress and instead wax poetic about the Cleveland Browns. Fun!
Cleveland finished with a league-worst 1-15 record in 2016, which prompted then first-year head coach Hue Jackson to infamously exclaim: “We are not going 1-15 [in 2017]. No, or I will be swimming in the lake over there somewhere. That is not happening. I just know me too well. I know me and I know these guys too well. We are not going 1-15 next year, OK? You can write it if you like. Hue Jackson said it. We are not.”
It was hilarious at the time and it’s hilarious in retrospect. You see, the 2017 Cleveland Browns did not finish 1-15; they finished 0-16, a nearly unparalleled feat of stunning ineptitude. As has become customary in Cleveland, three different quarterbacks fielded snaps for the Browns in 2017, including rookie DeShone Kizer, who started 15 games and committed approximately a thousand turnovers. None of these quarterbacks are on the roster this season. Kizer was shipped to Green Bay for Demarious Randall, a functional and surprisingly versatile defensive back who can play cornerback and safety; Cody Kessler was traded to Jacksonville for a draft pick; Kevin Hogan departed in free agency. In their stead, Cleveland, picking first in the 2018 draft, anointed former Heisman Trophy winner and future all-purpose television star Baker Mayfield the franchise savior and signed Tyrod Taylor, a former Pro Bowler who last season guided the woebegone Buffalo Bills to their first postseason appearance since 1999, as their bridge quarterback. Should some sort of calamitous happenstance render Mayfield and Taylor unavailable—which, given Cleveland’s recent history, is a virtual certainty—journeyman quarterback Drew Stanton, the No. 3 man in Cleveland, boasts a respectable 11-6 record as a starter.
Speaking of novelties, Cleveland revamped its receiving corps and backfield. Before the draft, the Browns traded for and immediately signed Jarvis Landry, a three-time Pro Bowler with the Miami Dolphins whose status as an “elite slot receiver” is almost a backhanded compliment. Even if Landry doesn’t amass a ton of yards or score a bunch of touchdowns this year, he’ll definitely catch a million balls, enabling Cleveland’s offense to churn out first downs with metronomic regularity. Landry, as Taylor’s primary security blanket, will also divert opposing defenses’ attention away from fellow reception-hog Duke Johnson — a player who is, in my opinion, one of the best receiving backs in the league — and whatever version of Josh Gordon suits up this season. Tight end David Njoku and rookie receiver Antonio Callaway have both had solid preseasons and should be viable options in the passing attack moving forward, and both former 49er Carlos Hyde and highly-touted rookie Nick Chubb will presumably factor into Cleveland’s backfield rotation. This is all a very roundabout way of saying that, holy crap, the Browns—the Browns—actually have an exciting group of young, explosive playmakers to go along with their much-improved quarterback room.
Joe Thomas is gone, though, which sucks. He deserved better than *motions hands vaguely at the Browns* this team. Even without Thomas, the Browns still have one of the league’s strongest — and most expensive — offensive lines, coached by Bob Wylie’s sentient lordly gut:
I like their defense, too! Myles Garrett is already among the beefiest studs in the entire NFL — he also seems like one of the league’s most thoughtful, fascinating players, but that’s neither here nor there as far as this article is concerned — and I fully expect him to make the jump into full-fledged superstardom in 2018. Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi is a nice player with a cool name, and linebackers Jamie Collins, Joe Schobert, and Christian Kirksey all have Pro Bowl pedigrees. The secondary is still kinda iffy, but Randall, along with No. 4 overall pick Denzel Ward, last year’s first-round pick Jabrill Peppers, and former Kansas City Chief Terrence Mitchell form an intriguing core.
The Browns haven’t officially beaten the Steelers since 2014, but it’s easy to forget that, if not for Antonio Brown’s late-game heroics, Cleveland very nearly secured an upset win against Pittsburgh in Week 1 of the 2017 season, and that was with Le’Veon Bell in the lineup. As of this writing, Bell has not reported to the Steelers (he’s also maintained radio silence on social media), and Jeremy Fowler of ESPN has indicated that Bell is not expected to play this Sunday. James Conner who, to his credit, has had a remarkable training camp and preseason, will start against Cleveland if Bell’s holdout endures. While Ben Roethlisberger and his ilk are correct that one player does not make or break a team, proceeding without arguably the best offensive centerpiece in the NFL could precipitate some deleterious effects on the offense’s general vitality (of course, this acknowledgement can be taken with a grain of salt, as Bell’s performance against Cleveland in Week 1 last season—10 carries for 32 yards; three catches for 15 yards—was nothing to write home about). However, if Conner goes out there and kills it, this could support the notion that Bell is merely the product of a system. Regardless, we’re about to learn a whole lot about Le’Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Even with the running back situation in flux, the Steelers are still among the most talented teams in the NFL. Roethlisberger and the offense should have no issues exposing veritable psychopath Gregg Williams’s game plan and eviscerating Cleveland’s young defense. (Fun fact: Williams once directed his New Orleans Saints players to injure members of the San Francisco 49ers.) (Funner fact: Williams has held three different coaching jobs since issuing this directive; Colin Kaepernick, meanwhile, remains unemployed.)
The Browns’ offense, with their myriad skill players, could present a difficult matchup for a Steelers’ defense still very much trying to find its own identity. As for Taylor, “mobile quarterback” is a misnomer; certainly, Taylor can run the ball when necessary, but he’s supremely efficient and he hardly ever commits turnovers. He’ll manage the game just like he always does, using short throws, dump-offs, and play action to keep the defense on its heels. I’d expect Cleveland’s tight ends to be heavily involved in the offense this weekend, too, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Landry and Johnson could combine for somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 receptions. Gordon is the biggest question mark (as it stands, he’s listed third on the depth chart, which is largely attributable to his absence from most of training camp), but he’s definitely capable of making a handful of game-altering plays.
Prediction: Steelers 21, Browns 17
It’ll be close. The Steelers tend to be slow starters, so I assume they won’t find their groove until somewhere around early November. Cleveland cannot possibly be worse than they were in 2017 (literally they cannot, as it’s mathematically impossible), and I think their quarterback room alone will buy them a handful of wins, but I’m not ready to buy them as a bona fide contender. The Browns’ offense will probably get the ball with like 1:30 left in the fourth quarter, only to have a potential game-winning drive squandered when offensive coordinator Todd Haley (enjoy him, Browns fans!) calls a double-reverse to the second-team fullback on 4th-and-short.