The Pittsburgh Steelers will host a Cleveland Browns team Sunday at Heinz Field that struggled for consistency in the preseason as much as they did. While the slate is clean on the 2014 NFL regular season, both teams enter the matchup with just one preseason win under their belts and questions about performance and personnel on both sides of the field. The contest promises to be one where both teams will look for chinks in each others’ armor for the win. Kickoff begins at 1 p.m. Eastern.
The AFC North looks to be a division that will be hotly contested in 2014 and both the Steelers and the Browns want to put their 1-3 preseason records behind them as quickly as possible moving forward. The two teams not only had similar records, but also had difficulty scoring and keeping their opponents from putting points on the board. With their initial 53-man rosters set, the division rivals will test each other in nearly every aspect as they attempt to find cohesion among their core players.
The quarterback controversy appears to be over in Cleveland as Brian Hoyer was named the starting QB over highly-touted rookie draft selection Johnny Manziel. Hoyer spent two weeks on the Steelers roster during the 2012 season after being cut as Tom Brady’s backup in New England, but Pittsburgh is a different creature in 2014. Earlier in the preseason, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau stated he wouldn’t be surprised to see Manziel start against his defense, but whether that comes to fruition or not remains to be seen. Manziel and Hoyer did team up to pace the Browns offense in their final preseason game.
The Browns appear to be moving toward a trending NFL standard of pass over run. During the preseason, they utilized running backs Ben Tate, Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West most frequently and put up 441 yards total on the ground. Alternately, Cleveland threw for 750 yards of offense with 41 first-downs coming via the air attack. Taylor Gabriel, Willie Snead and Andrew Hawkins had the most receptions with 26 for a combined 328 yards, but only a single touchdown. The Browns offense only scored eight touchdowns during the entire preseason.
Cleveland is looking for a more dominant defense in 2014 and head coach Mike Pettine put most of his cards in the pile of an exceptionally deep 12-man defensive backfield. First-round draft pick Justin Gilbert, fourth-round selection Pierre Desir and two rookie free agents – Robert Nelson and K’Waun Williams – join veterans Joe Haden, Aaron Berry and Buster Skrine at cornerback. Donte Whitner, Jim Leonhard, Tashaun Gipson, Jordan Poyer and Johnson Bademosi make up the safeties.
Cleveland snagged five total interceptions during the preseason, two of which were returned for touchdowns. The Browns defensive front will feature Desmond Bryant, Armonty Bryant, John Hughes, Ishamaa’ily Kitchen, Phil Taylor, Billy Winn and Ahtyba Rubin. Cleveland retained eight linebackers, with Karlos Dansby, Barkevious Mingo, Craig Robertson, Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard, Chris Kirksey, Tank Carder and Eric Martin. Kirksey, a draft selection from the University of Iowa, led the Browns with 20 tackles (5 assisted). Mingo led the team in sacks, with 2.0. The Browns had a combined sack total of six and caused two turnovers.
With troubled receiver Josh Gordon’s issues on the burner, general manager Ray Farmer wants to move on and under Norv Turner and Kyle Shanahan, the Cleveland offense wants to use a zone-blocking scheme that will play into the game set of Tate and West. Pettine is excited about the possibilities to use the pair as a committee and throw the elusive Crowell in to keep defenses off balance. Add that to a tandem between Hoyer and Manziel, and the Browns think they can push themselves into true contention. Without Gordon, Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron may have a shot at a 1,000-yard receiving year. Add Hawkins in the slot and Benjamin as a deeper threat, and the Browns may have something.
Pittsburgh’s defense has had nearly as much trouble stopping the run as they have the pass during the preseason – enough that veteran Troy Polamalu, a typically soft-spoken leader, was verbal on the sidelines with his teammates. LeBeau and assistant coaches Carnell Lake and Joey Porter will need to dial up some disruptive defensive front plays and blitz packages to keep Hoyer, and possibly Manziel, from getting comfortable.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger appears to have hit his stride and was definitely the most consistent quarterback on the team during the preseason. The Steelers offensive line will need to be quicker and stouter against rushers like Mingo, keeping their feet and pads under them. With good protection, Roethlisberger can use the tandem of Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount to pound the ball with speedy Dri Archer as a multi-talented weapon. Receiver Markus Wheaton will need to step up his play to match veteran Antonio Brown if the Steelers want success on passes thrown for more than short yardage.