The 2014 regular season is underway, as the Pittsburgh Steelers open at Heinz Field against their division rival Cleveland Browns. On paper, there appears no way the Steelers could lose this game.
With Ben Roethlisberger under center, the Browns have only defeated the Steelers once. You read that properly: once. In that game, played in December of 2009, Ben was sacked 7 times en route to a 13-6 loss.
The stats continue:
- In their last 8 games against each other, the Steelers have sacked Browns QBs 31 times.
- In 27 games the have been held under 300 passing yards.
- In their last dozen meetings, the Browns have had 1 or less passing touchdowns.
The Browns will approach the game with Brian Hoyer starting at QB, though the Steelers are prepared to see some of first round draft pick Johnny Manziel also. Hoyer, a hometown product of Cleveland, brought hope to the team early last season, as he started in favor of woeful Brandon Weeden. On a road trip to Minnesota, days after trading would-be franchise player Trent Richardson, Hoyer lead the team to a 31-27 victory, and on to a 3 game winning streak before an injury cost him the remainder of the season.
Those 3 wins placed Cleveland at the top of the AFC North, with long-time stalwarts Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the basement. Brian Hoyer gave fans hope, however, his statistics were up and down:
If the Browns want to succeed against the Steelers this Sunday, they will have to rely on Hoyer being a game manager. However, this could prove a difficult task, if Manziel will also get snaps.
Combine this two-headed approach with the loss of top receiving threat, WR Josh Gordon, and the Browns may be looking at an uphill battle. Gordon's replacements are Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins. Austin appeared in 11 games for the Cowboys last season, catching 24 balls for 244 and no touchdowns. Hawkins played in 8 games for the Bengals, none of which he was the starter: he didn't fare any better, with 12 grabs for 199 yards and zero scores.
With a shaky WR corps, the Browns will try to open the middle of the field with TE Jordan Cameron, who caught 80 balls for 917 yards and 7 TDs, despite working with 3 different QBs over the season. It's yet to be seen if Cameron was a product of former offensive coordinator Norv Turner's emphasis on tight ends, but the safe bet is that Cameron will be an intergral part of the Browns' offense, which will need to back Steeler LBs such as Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier away from the line to make way for their bruising RB Ben Tate.
Tate is the lone proven commodity in the Browns backfield. Tate ran for 771 yards and 4 touchdowns on 181 attempts with the Texans last year. He also caught 34 passes will relieving injured Arian Foster in the Texans backfield. Tate is the lone hope to improve on Cleveland's backs of 2013: Willis McGahee had the best performance of the group with 26 attempts for 72 yards against the Bills. Not only was McGahee's 72 yards the highest single performance of last season, but the Browns were only able to gain over 100 yards on the ground in 5 of their 16 games. Without a passing attack, the Browns could find themselves staring across the line at a horde of Steeler defenders in the box.
As for the Cleveland defense, their group remains largely unaltered from 2013. Karlos Dansby replaces D'Qwell Jackson at LB and Donte Whitner replaces TJ Ward at safety. Both players are comparable to their predecessors, so the defense should not skip a beat. A no huddle approach should keep Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo on their heels. Coach Mike Pettine claims All-Pro corner Joe Haden will not shadow Antonio Brown, however, this should not make a difference in the Steelers offensive scheme, as Brown had 6 grabs for 92 yards and a touchdown in their only meeting last season. (Haden did not play in last year's season finale.)
However, 2014 is a new year. A loss to the Browns could signal another early season spiral for the Steelers, as they will have a short week to travel to Baltimore, before preparing for a Sunday Night matchup in Charlotte, against the Panthers; the only team from the first 7 games on the schedule who had a winning record in 2013. A quick start is imperative, as we saw what happened with an 0-4 start last season. An 0-3 start, with 2 of those losses within the AFC North, would end any optimism for Pittsburgh making the playoffs this year.