Previewing Game #1 – Browns @ Steelers
The NFL did no favor for the visiting squad who has struggled both in season openers as well as competitions at Heinz Field. Both of which occur on Sunday afternoon; the odds are long and many feel another lopsided win will occur by the black and yellow. However, there’s still a shot at the upset, let’s preview this matchup…
Offense: It’s fair to believe that Brian Hoyer’s not going to throw for 350 yards and four scores in the opener. However, where he can “get it done” is in pressure situations. This includes difficult third downs where converting can mean flipping field position and keeping Big Ben off the field. Hoyer must be smart in reading the defense and not swinging for the fences. A staple of the opposing defense has been baiting signal callers into difficult tosses, only to garner turnovers. Sunday will be an excellent opportunity for the veteran to prove he can do what it takes to win a road contest.
Ben Tate, Terrance West, and (surprisingly) Isaiah Crowell should all make sure their legs are well rested. I figure around thirty carries to be distributed among this trio; any fewer could be trouble for the Browns (as they would need to pass to catch up). Tate should be the between the tackles guy, while West figures to be a pass catcher and run in open field athlete. Crowell’s performance makes him an intriguing option – he ran exceptionally well last week but against third stringers. What can he do in a regular season contest? That is a huge question.
My expectations for the wide receivers could be at an all-time low (a.k.a. 2011 low, where Greg Little was the big playmaker). Short, quick throws will be prevalent by the Browns, and those targets must secure those and run away from defenders. However, I worry most about the guys on the outside getting separation and allowing Hoyer to find targets down the field. If this doesn’t happen, the Steelers’ defense will load up the box (between the tackles) and make life miserable for anyone who is holding the football.
Once again, the offensive line faces a stern test they cannot afford to fail. The guys across the line of scrimmage will be relentless all game long, whether it’s tackles, ends, or linebackers. Many eyes will be on right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who some feel is this unit’s weak link. Jason Worilds and Lawrence Timmons are the likely candidates to flood the right side of the offensive line; Schwartz must do his best to put out “a few fires”.
Defense: I truly hope Desmond Bryant heals from his wrist surgery quickly but understand he will be limited in his playing time for a little while. Armonty Bryant has been exceptional in the preseason, and I want to see him keep that up in Pittsburgh. He brings a unique versatility in the passing game and his smaller size has allowed him to knife by offensive linemen. Perhaps his play could force the home team to focus on him more – allowing veterans Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin to face just one guy. This decision could be advantageous for the visitors.
The linebackers should be in certain situations that force the action quickly. Barkevious Mingo, Jabaal Sheard, and Paul Kruger will do their best shoot both inside and outside gaps to be disruptive. Mingo is due for a breakout performance – why not in this contest? The Chris Kirksey/Craig Robertson battle has been an exciting one, mostly because both are performing well. While somewhat of a weakness in 2013, the inside linebackers have a chance to be a strength of this year’s team. My bold prediction is that Karlos Dansby makes a huge play – be it a sack, interception, or important tackle to force a fourth down.
The pair of cornerbacks is finally afforded a chance to see the field after missing the past few weeks. Joe Haden says he’s good to play, while Buster Skrine might have to wear a protective glove over his injured thumb. However, their presence should lessen the pressure off rookie Justin Gilbert, who looks like he needs more time before he can be a great cornerback. Tashaun Gipson and Donte Whitner will start out at the safety spots in this contest. While the latter is a veteran, he has been far from perfect the past few weeks. Should he or Gipson struggle, Pettine could go to his guy, Jim Leonhard, for some snaps in the secondary.
Special Teams: I bet both Travis Benjamin and Taylor Gabriel will see time as returners in this contest. Any advantage the Browns can get is very important, and field position is very important. Kicking at Heinz Field has proven to be difficult over the years – I doubt the game will come down to one kick, but a key miss might affect a young team like the Browns.
Coaching: Pettine and Jim O’Neil should be aggressive on defense, but not to the point of reckless. They must make it as difficult as possible on the opposition, but once Big Ben exploits something – the coaches must realize this immediately and switch things up. Offensively, Kyle Shanahan should start out conservatively (two runs and then a pass format), until the defense makes their tendencies apparent. That is when the team can dial up a play for Hoyer to strike.
Prediction (2013 Record: 10-6): I would love nothing more than the Browns to come out, steal a win, and give this fan base hope for the upcoming season. However, I simply do not see this occurring, and the drought at Heinz Field grows to twelve straight losses. The Browns fall on the road by the score of 31 – 17 and yet again start 0 – 1.