Usually leading up to a Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cleveland Browns game, there isn’t much talk or concern about the upcoming game from Steelers fans. Most just brush it off, put a ‘W’ next to the game on their schedules and move along with their day.
However, in the Week-1 game pitting these two AFC North rivals against one another, it's a different story.
A combination of a Browns team with more talent than they've ever had before, and a lack of one Le’Veon Bell for the Steelers, has this game looking more like a true grudge match than another notch in the belt of Ben Roethlisberger vs. the Browns in his career.
So, I went over to Dawgs By Nature, SB Nation’s Browns website, and spoke with their editor, Chris Pokorny, to get the lowdown on the matchup from the other side of the fence.
Check out my questions, and his answers, below, and be sure to check out Dawgs By Nature for the best coverage of the game from the Cleveland perspective.
BTSC: The Cleveland Browns are an unknown in the AFC North. With some great draft picks combined with free agent acquisitions, what are the realistic expectations for this team in 2018?
DBN: The Browns are a very intriguing club for the reasons you highlighted, and the Hard Knocks show kind of put that into focus for a lot of general fans of the NFL. I’m sure you can imagine that I always dread talking about realistic expectations as a Browns fan, because it's so fun to be optimistic heading into a season (but the club has had just one win over the past two years). When you look at some of Cleveland’s biggest issues last year -- having their quarterback turn the ball over in the red zone and not being able to rush the passer -- this has been addressed. Tyrod Taylor is one of the more careful quarterbacks with the football in the league, and he has a plethera of weapons to throw to in Jarvis Landry, Josh Gordon, David Njoku, and Duke Johnson.
Defensively, as long as Myles Garrett doesn’t sprain his ankle leading up to Week 1 like he did a year ago, he has looked like an unstoppable force. Our expectations are to get to that 6- or 7-win mark at a minimum, with the hopes that they can do better than that and compete for a wildcard spot in the AFC.
BTSC: Todd Haley spent a lot of time with the Steelers, but how has he looked as the coordinator for the Browns?
DBN: The preseason has been a mixed bag, but I’ve seen enough of Todd Haley’s offenses over the years to know that his real playcalling will be on display during the regular season. For example -- he’s not going to throw the ball four times from the 1-yard line to try to score. He also didn’t set up a single pass play all preseason for Duke Johnson, who will be heavily utilized as a receiver during the regular season. The most intriguing elements of the offense have been in the hurry-up or running the ball. Hard Knocks really exposed fans to his personality and his relationship with the players, so everyone is a big fan of him right now. Many people believe that if Hue Jackson gets the team off to a bad start, the organization will put Haley in charge as his replacement.
BTSC: Can you give us a list of three players fans might not know who could make a big impact on the game Sunday?
DBN: That’s a tough question, considering the Browns have a lot of rather big-name players on offense now. Therefore, I will stick to the defensive side of the ball:
*DT Larry Ogunjobi: He's the big reason the team traded former first-round pick Danny Shelton away this offseason. The second-year player has a ridiculous amount of strength and presents himself as both a pass- and run-stopping threat (more so geared toward the run). Last year, he succeeded as a rotational player, but this year he will be full-go as a starter.
*LB Genard Avery: A fifth-round pick this year, Avery was expected to be utilized as a pass-rusher in certain subpackages this year. During the preseason, he was injured a bit, but when he did play, he thrived at getting to the quarterback.
*CB Terrance Mitchell: Cleveland completely revamped the cornerback position this offseason, but Mitchell was originally expected to be the fifth cornerback or a special- teams contributor. Instead, he has risen to the opportunity and played like the team’s best cornerback in camp (although he's still considered the No. 2 guy).
BTSC: What is the latest on Josh Gordon? Will he be in the lineup Sunday? And if so, what do fans expect from him?
DBN: Hue Jackson has played one of his silly public relations games where he's saying Josh Gordon will not start on Sunday. The full expectation is that he will play the majority of the game, though, and is in fantastic shape. Even with the few weeks he was away at training camp, this year was the most Gordon was with the team through the offseason in who knows how long. Fans are expecting him to be at the top of his game, although statistically it may not show due to the number of high-target receiving options the club has.
BTSC: If you can give us a strength and a weakness for the Browns on offense and defense, what would those be?
DBN: The weakness on offense is the uncertainty of the offensive line. Unless Hue Jackson makes a last-second change, Joel Bitonio will make his first start at left tackle after being the left guard for years. Rookie Austin Corbett starts at left guard. Veteran Kevin Zeitler missed most of the preseason to injury. Right tackle Chris Hubbard is new. On paper, this group has some good potential. But have they played long enough together to build proper chemistry?
On offense, a strength is the team’s top-2 receivers. Jarvis Landry and Josh Gordon could be one of the best one-two receiving punches in the NFL.
On defense, I’m still concerned with how well our linebackers will fare in coverage. It was exposed most of last season, and the same personnel group is back this year.
Can we lump Myles Garrett into his own category as a strength? If you saw just how lights-out he was in limited reps this preseason, you’d see what I'm talking about. That can trickle down to improve the whole rest of the defense.
BTSC: Lastly, what is your prediction for the game?
DBN: Go ahead and hate me, but I’m picking the Browns to win. With Le’Veon Bell not playing, Cleveland can really blanket the Steelers’ receivers, and I trust Tyrod Taylor to continue his track record of not turning the ball over. The big difference this year is he has more and better receiving options than he's ever had.