The first half of last season's opening game with the Browns resembled the movie Groundhog Day.
The second half, and the Steelers' Week 6 rematch with Cleveland, was a script straight out of the Twilight Zone.
As they had in 19 of their previous 21 meetings, Pittsburgh manhandled their former arch rival to the tune of a 27-0 halftime lead in Week 1. But just as it appeared that the groundhog would again see his shadow while retreating into hiding, the Browns decided to delay their winter solstice, at least for a while.
Led by rookie Terrance West's 100 yards on 16 carries, the Browns racked up 191 yards on 31 carries that included two second half touchdown runs by fellow rookie Isaiah Crowell. The Steelers escaped with a 30-27 win that day, but they wouldn't be so fortunate when the teams met five weeks later in Cleveland.
Cleveland jumped on Pittsburgh early this time around, taking a 21-3 lead into the dressing room en route to a shocking 31-10 victory. The Browns again were able to run roughshod over the Steelers defense, amassing 158 yards on 38 carries while scoring three touchdowns on the ground. Crowell led the way, scoring two more rushing touchdowns while averaging 7.0 yards per carry in the rout.
The Browns win over the Steelers was a part of a storied start to the 2014 season that saw Cleveland win seven out of their first 11 games. But an injury to Pro Bowl linemen Alex Mack and quarterback controversy led to the Browns second half slide as the team ended 2014 on a five-game losing streak. It was a polar opposite story for the Steelers, who finished the season by winning four straight heading into the AFC playoffs.
While Cleveland's sour end and Pittsburgh's strong surge to close out 2014 may have led to many forgetting their season series, the fact remains that the Steelers never did find a way to slow down the Browns running attack last season. The million dollar question now is whether or not the Steelers will find a way to do so in 2015.
Last season, the Browns faced the Steelers at very opportunistic times. Pittsburgh was starting rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier, second year linebacker Jarvis Jones and newcomer Mike Mitchell at safety for their Week 1 showdown. Shazier, Jones and cornerback Ike Taylor were injured and inactive for the Week 6 matchup as defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and his unit was just struggling to put a consistent and cohesive unit on the field. The Browns took advantage, rushing for 349 yards in those two games with an average of 5.92 yards per carry with five rushing touchdowns. But with a deeper, more experienced linebacker unit this season and with Mitchell now having a full season in the Black and Gold under his belt, Pittsburgh's defense, if healthy, should be a more formidable foe against any run defense, let alone Cleveland's.
Both games against the Steelers came with Brian Hoyer under center, who put up workmanlike numbers in directing Cleveland's run-oriented offense. Hoyer is gone now, along with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who employed a zone rushing attack that featured the cutback skills of West and Crowell while setting up play-action passes for Hoyer. Conventional wisdom says that Cleveland will continue to play a low-risk, run-heavy offense so that quarterback Johnny Manziel can slowly develop his tools as a starting NFL quarterback. And with West, Crowell, Mack, and All-Pro linemen Joe Thomas and the addition of rookie running back Duke Johnson all on the squad this season, it appears the Browns again have the weapons to be a dangerous running team.
There are two distinct differences between the Steelers the Browns faced last year and one that is prepping for this upcoming season. Pittsburgh's offense is whole now after the team was searching for a consistent No. 2 and No. 3 receivers at the start of last season. The Steelers offense should be able to rack up points against any opponent, meaning that the Browns may have to abandon the running game if they fall off pace early. Pittsburgh's defense, which steadily improved as the season progressed, is looking to have a strong season with their rookie additions along with the promotion of new defensive coordinator Keith Butler.
Cleveland had great success against a weaker Pittsburgh team last season, no one can dispute that. But as the Steelers stand today, and with the questions surrounding Cleveland's quarterback situation, the Browns will have to elevate their game to an even higher level if they wish to sustain that same type of success against their one-time nemesis in 2015.