Steelers-Browns PREGAME STRETCH

Pittsburgh's focus appears fuzzy in facing downtrodden foe

The game: Pittsburgh Steelers (0-0, 13-6 in 2016) vs. Cleveland Browns (0-0, 1-15 in 2016), Sunday, 1 p.m., First Energy Stadium, 67,895.

Announcers: Greg Gumbel and Trent Green. With Pittsburgh opening the season with five 1 p.m. games, we’ll be hearing a lot of B and C announcing teams, which normally would be fine with us if the A team were still Jeem and Pheeeeel. But, of course, Pheeeeel was backstabbed by Jeeeeeeeem and pushed out the door to bring in Tony Romo, so there’s a curiosity factor involved in wanting to hear CBS’ #1 team. It looks like we’ll have to wait until Oct.15 at Kansas City for that (unless Romo comes out of retirement before then).

Information courtesy www.the506.com

Weather – or not: Sun and clouds, 70. Picture perfect football weather in the northeast will be a stark contrast as Hurricane Irma bears down on the U.S.

Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: Craig Wrolstad. Last seen working the Steelers playoff win over the Dolphins, Wrolstad and his 2016 crew worked well below league averages at 11 flags and 101 penalty yards per game. The big news on the officiating front is that all replay decisions now will be made in the league command center and not by the white hat on the field (similar to MLB’s system). That’s good news overall, but bad news for this section of our blog which likely will get a lot more boring. Officials also will be using tablets on the field (as college football is doing) instead of going under the hood on replays.

Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com and www.profootballreference.com

The last time: Landry Jones outdueled Robert Griffin III (:-D) on New Year’s Day, throwing for 277 yards and 3 TDs, hitting a streaking Cobi Hamilton for a 26-yard score in overtime to give the Steelers reserves a 27-24 win over the Browns.

The line: Pittsburgh -9

Smarts say: This opened at -8 and almost immediately went to -9 with about 83 percent of bettors on the Steelers as of midweek. The over/under of 46.5 would play out as Steelers 28-19.

Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 5th passing, 14th rushing, 10th scoring (24.9 ppg), 2nd sacks allowed (21)

CLE defense, 21st passing, 31st rushing, 30th scoring (28.2 ppg), 30th sacks (26)

When the Browns have the ball:

CLE offense, 28th passing, 19th rushing, 31st scoring (16.5 ppg), 32nd sacks allowed (66)

PIT defense, 16th passing, 13th rushing, 10th scoring (20.6 ppg) , 9th sacks (38)

So…: It’s a new year, of course, but we think the general dynamics above will hold true Sunday. The best thing (and that’s a relative term for the Browns) Cleveland does is run the ball. The best thing Pittsburgh does is throw the ball. If the Steelers can stop the Browns running game, this could be ugly. If the Browns can do the same to the Steelers passing game, we might have a surprisingly close contest.

Information courtesy www.nfl.com

Key matchups:

> DE Myles Garrett vs. OTs Alejandro Villanueva and Justin Gilbert

Why: We were literally just writing this section on Wednesday, noting that at least Garrett made it to the first game without getting injured after he famously started talking about sacking Ben Roethlisberger on draft day when …boom… he went down in practice with what sounds like a significant ankle injury. Unbelievable. Nate Orchard, who was highly thought of coming out of Utah in 2015, will step in for Garrett.

> PR/KR/Ballhawk Jabril Peppers vs. PIT special teams and Ben Roethlisberger

Why: We know what to expect from the Browns veterans, but it’s a clean slate for rookies and none is more intriguing than Peppers, the Michigan grad who had a standout preseason for Cleveland. A special teams TD or critical interception by Peppers might be one of the only ways the Browns can hang around in this game.

Player on the spot:

Congratulations DeShone Kizer and welcome to the NFL where you’ll be the Browns 27th starting quarterback since their return to the league in 1999! But wait, there’s more: You’ll be playing behind an offensive line that allowed a league-leading 66 sacks in 2016. That’s not all! Your first opponent will be a team that has beaten yours 31 of the last 37 times they played. On the bright side, you’ll be at home. Nevermind, your team is 3-13 at home in the past two years. Anyway, DeShone, good luck. Seriously, those are some daunting circumstances for any player, but for a rookie taking on the toughest job in all of pro sports? That’s brutal. On one hand, you have to think the Browns saw something special in Kizer that emboldened them to pay Brock Osweiler $16 million to go away. On the other hand, can you trust the Browns to have made the right decision? Every feature story you can find on Kizer describes him as “confident.” He’d better be. And lucky. And damn good. We’ll see.

Quick hits:

+ You might have heard the Steelers made not one, not two, but THREE significant trades in the seven days before their 53-man roster had to be set, bringing them two likely starters and a key reserve. You certainly know that’s unheard of for the Steelers, but what was behind it? Our first instinct was that it was an acknowledgement that this just might be Ben Roethlisberger’s last year and the team was “all in” on going after another Super Bowl. But just as that sentiment gained traction among fans, a number of media types said not so fast jumping to that conclusion, the Steelers are always “all in,” it’s just that this year is the first in a decade when they had any salary cap room to work with. We were coming around to that way of thinking when a cynical spin hit the interwebs. It goes something like this: Having cap room is one way to ensure your star players look for big raises come extension time and Pittsburgh chewed up their unusual cap room this summer to preserve their widely acknowledged knack for not overpaying big-name players.

+ The biggest trade, of course, was the acquisition of former Top 10 pick and Pro Bowler Joe Haden from the Browns. Haden was injury plagued recently and his play slipped badly in 2015 and ’16 as he was regularly toasted by Antonio Brown and roasted by Pittsburgh fans, but you’d have never known that when he became a member of Steelers as fans went literally wild on social media. Part of that can be attributed to the nature of fandom and part to the incorrect belief of many Pittsburgh fans that Ross Cockrell was a terrible cornerback. The reality is that Pro Football Focus, the closest thing to an impartial observer in the game, graded Cockrell near 30 points higher than Haden in 2016 (and ranked both Coty Sensabaugh and Valentino Blake higher!). Now, if injuries were the culprit and a healthy Haden reverts to 2014 form, go nuts Steelers Nation. But until then, here’s what to look for: Haden has always been an excellent tackler. There’s no reason to think that won’t continue. He’s always been a ball hawk and you can expect more interceptions than we’re used to seeing as Steelers fans. What has been noticeably absent from Haden’s game in the past two years is his once world class speed, which allowed him to cover for mistakes in technique. Speed is not Artie Burns strong suit, either, so it’ll be interesting to see who draws a wide receiver like, oh, we don’t know, say Sammie Coates as an example. It’ll also be interesting to try and glean whether a winning culture has a positive impact on Haden.

+ The aftershocks of last year’s ill-advised Ladarius Green signing continue to be felt as the Steelers had to go out and get San Francisco’s Vance McDonald via trade late in the preseason after neither Jesse James nor Xavier Grimble showed any signs of marked improvement. Both are serviceable as occasional receivers but the way the Steelers offense is structured right now there are often huge chunks of yardage available in the seams down the middle of the field (as Green displayed in just a few health quarters last year) and it’s obviously frustrating Ben Roethlisberger, Todd Haley and Mike Tomlin when they aren’t able to take advantage of that. McDonald is a guy who might be able to outperform his career averages in this offense IF he can hang onto the football. Drops have been one of his bugaboos and something to watch early in Pittsburgh, when he’s certain to be nervous to impress his new team and QB.

+ Finally, when both Jordan Dangerfield and Malik Golden both went down with injuries in the final preseason game against Carolina, Pittsburgh still had enough cap room left to go out and get J.J. Wilcox from Tampa, who might step in as the hybrid LB/DB in Pittsburgh’s dime defense. Wilcox was slated to fill the same role with the Bucs but became expendable when Tampa signed T.J. Ward. Wilcox’s transition will be considerably smoother if Mike Mitchell is healthy and able to return at full strength Sunday. If Mitchell can’t go or gets dinged again, it could be baptism by fire for Wilcox.

+ Oh yeah, aside from those three new faces, Martavis Bryant, he of the occasionally otherworldly physical tools, is back on the active roster, providing the kind of opposing threat that could make Antonio Brown somehow even better. Bryant’s road back from marijuana suspension has been anything but smooth and he could be gone for good in the blink of an eye, but if he can somehow keep it together and stay healthy for the whole season, that might go a long way toward getting Pittsburgh to the AFC Championship game.

The pick: Wanna hear a scary story? Sammie Coates beats Joe Haden on a 9-route for a long TD and DeShone Kizer and Jabril Peppers serve notice that these aren’t your father’s Browns. Don’t think that can happen? You, my friend, have not been paying attention. Consider: You’ve got a Steelers offense that has played all of 20 plays together in the preseason, a quarterback who’s taken one hit, a running back who’s taken zero (although he says he’s been mentally taking them), a star wideout who’s already planning touchdown celebrations and a potential star wideout playing for the first time in nearly two years. And that’s just on one side of the ball! You’ve got an unproven rookie starting in Pittsburgh’s most crucial defensive position, a guy starting at one corner who’s been with the team for 10 days and your safety is either going to be playing hurt (Mike Mitchell) or the guy who had arguably the worst preseason performance (Robert Golden) on the team. On top of that, how many stories have you seen this week with Steelers players talking about the Browns? Not. Very. Many. We’re not going to pick against the Steelers here, but doing so isn’t as far fetched as you might think… Pittsburgh 27-21.

Last year: We finished last year 12-7 straight up and in the red on the money line at 9-10 against the spread.

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