#STEELERS PREGAME STRETCH: Answering the bell?

WEEK 1

PITTSBURGH STEELERS (13-3) VS. CLEVELAND BROWNS (0-16)

CBS, SUNDAY, 1 P.M., FIRST ENERGY STADIUM, 67,895

Blogger’s note: It’ll be pregame blogs only this year, no postgame write-ups. First and foremost, we just don’t have the time anymore with several new businesses we’ve (this is actually a collective “we” and not the usual third-person “we” schtick) started at the Mirror. Second, there’s so much other Steelers coverage available, it seems prudent to focus on one good piece, rather than two rushed ones. When we started doing this blog 12 years ago, there was a dearth of fan-focused, fun, informal Steelers coverage on the interwebs. Now, of course, that kind of coverage is abundant. This blog started out as some wisecracks intended for an audience of friends. We never dreamt it would end up being read by a couple hundred (and sometimes a couple thousand) people. So thanks for reading and we’ll try to post weekly on Friday mornings for Sunday games and Monday mornings for Monday night games.

Announcers: Greg Gumbel, Trent Green, Bruce Arians and Melanie Collins (sideline).

What? Huh? It’s almost like there was a meeting where CBS discussed how they could make games more unwatchable. Four people! FOUR! For a Week 1 game??? Why? Sideline reporters already are obsolete. Why do you need TWO analysts? (Unless in this case, it’s because one of them – Green – can’t analyze squat, then OK.) And on top of that, Gumbel’s play-by-play skills have diminished greatly in recent years (in prepping for this blog, we watched some tape from last year’s opener and noticed Gumbel credited Anthony Chickillo, instead of Tyler Matakevich, for the critical first-quarter blocked punt and never corrected that through four freaking replays).

Weather – or not: Rain, possibly heavy, 68. After a 2017 season where weather did not play a factor in a game until well into December, it looks like the 2018 opener could possibly be impacted by the remnants of Tropical Storm Gordon (and if Josh Gordon has a big game, we’re calling dibs on that headline). At this writing, it’s still too early to know if the timing will be spot on for an all-game soaker, but that possibility certainly exists. Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: Shawn Smith. This is Smith’s first game as an NFL white hat (after only three years as an umpire) so we have nothing but nice things to say about him. He’s replacing Terry McAulay, who headed into the booth with NBC full time this summer. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com (it takes three, count ’em, three web sites to provide you with the best each week in officiating background information).

The last time: Pittsburgh opened last year at Cleveland, as well, getting the aforementioned blocked punt TD three minutes into the game then hanging on for dear life in a 21-18 win. That Browns team certainly was not as good as the one that will line up for the opener this year so all those folks predicting a Browns’ upset certainly have a basis to do that.

The line: Pittsburgh -4/44. Smarts say: This line has moved down by 2.5 points as its become apparent Le’Veon Bell is not going to play. That’s way overvaluing a running back, but we’d expect nothing less from the betting public. The over/under has dropped three full points, from 47 to 44. Even 44 would be high in terms of how Steelers games unfolded last season, and, not surprisingly, about three-fourths of bettors are on the under at this writing. Putting the line and o/u together and you get something like 24-20 Steelers. Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball (2017 regular season stats):

PIT offense, 3rd passing, 20th rushing, 8th scoring (25.4 ppg), 3rd sacks allowed (24)

CLE defense, 19th passing, 7th rushing, 31st scoring (25.6 ppg), 21st sacks (34)

When the Browns have the ball:

CLE offense, 22nd passing, 18th rushing, 32nd scoring (14.6 ppg), 27th sacks allowed (50)

PIT defense, 5th passing, 10th rushing, 7th scoring (19.2 ppg), 1st sacks (56)

Giveaway/Takeaway: CLE -28; PIT +2

Strength of schedule: CLE .520; PIT .453

So…: Did the Browns go winless in 2017 because they were dead last in the two most critical stats in football – scoring and turnover margin? Or were they dead last in scoring and turnover margin because they were profoundly terrible? In other words, are point and turnovers a cause or an effect? If you’re one of those people who believe Cleveland could be a surprise this year in the league, you lean toward the first explanation. If you’ve watched the Browns for any amount of time, you lean toward the second. Information courtesy www.nfl.com and www.espn.com.

Players on the spot:

Pittsburgh: James Conner

Why: Most NFL’s team can roll with their backup RB and expect to get 90 percent of the production of their starter. Conner, though, is stepping into the shoes of the most productive RB in the league and 90 percent of his one-game production equals 80 yards rushing, 40 yards receiving and a touchdown. You also have to figure that part of Pittsburgh’s strategy for keeping Ben Roethlisberger upright is running at Browns defensive dynamo Myles Garrett, so look for how Conner does in that regard early.

Cleveland: Myles Garrett

Why: Garrett was a non-factor in the Steelers games last year, but finished his injury-plagued rookie season on a high note with seven sacks. He’s looked monstrous in the Browns preseason and the pairing of the highly touted former No. 1 pick and new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has the hype train in full effect with analyst Chris Simms already predicting Garrett as the AFC Defensive Player of the Year. Garrett living up to his draft-day boast about putting a lick on Ben Roethlisberger could signal a change in fortune for both franchises.

Key matchups:

Weak-side rush Myles Garrett vs. Ts Alejandro Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert. Why: Garrett is a guy who could wreck the Steelers season in a hurry Sunday and keeping him away from Ben Roethlisberger should be Priority #1 in the offensive game planning. Look for more no huddle and the usual quick passes and wide receiver screens from Roethlisberger’s hand-picked offensive coordinator, Randy Fichtner, but there will be a handful of plays where the tackles, especially Villanueva, are on an island with Garrett.

Quick hits:

+ As the Le’Veon Bell drama has unfolded, it’s fascinating to see the different perspectives locally vs. nationally. Local opinion is almost unified now that the Steelers did the right thing in not offering Bell a gigantic contract and Bell’s teammates being justified in criticizing the RB for missing games. National takes are pretty much the opposite, with pundits painting the Steelers as the bad guys for not paying Bell and his teammates as dolts for getting involved in Bell’s business. Provincialism plays a huge part in that, of course, but there’s also an element of sports media now that considers the pro leagues as businesses first and athletic competitions second. Obviously, this is the polar opposite of how fans of any team view things. Based on some of the league-wide reaction from players, it appears there is still division among them whether their career is “business first” or “win first.”

+ Count us among those stunned the Steelers kept Josh Dobbs over Landry Jones. Jones is a tested NFL backup, who has won multiple games in that role and who can run the offense exactly as Ben Roethlisberger runs it, with the exception of not being as good as Ben Roethlisberger. In Roethlisberger’s 14-year NFL career, he has missed two or three games four times. Three of those years were ones where Pittsburgh went to the Super Bowl and the backup quarterback won at least one game in each of those seasons. So to say “if Roethlisberger gets hurt, the Steelers are done anyway” isn’t just disingenuous, it’s plain wrong, proven by history. Dobbs might have great success as an emergency backup, entering a game because of injury when a defense has not prepared for him. But if you give an NFL coordinator and starting defense a week to game plan for him, we think they will eat him alive right now (and Pittsburgh is a team built in many other capacities for RIGHT NOW). Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are taking a HUGE risk in keeping Dobbs. In fact, it’s YUGE.

+ Also, the people knocking the Steelers for drafting Dobbs in the 4th in 2017 then Mason Rudolph in the 3rd in 2018 are clueless, as well. But just in case they need reminded: Our perception of time is linear. Meaning, of course, when you take Dobbs in 2017, you have no idea Rudolph is going to fall to you in 2018.

+ At this writing, there’s still the thought that tight end Vance McDonald might play Sunday after missing about a month’s worth or practice with a foot injury. If he does play, McDonald might be as likely to commit a key drop or fumble as he is a big catch. You’ll remember the oft-injured McDonald had issues with rust in 2017 several times after injury absences.

The pick: This was looking like a Browns win to us until this week’s Le’veon Bell-inspired fireworks. But now… the Steelers offensive linemen are mad at Bell. The national media and many current and former players are mad at the Steelers offensive linemen. If there’s anything Ben Roethlisberger loves more than injury drama, it’s his offensive linemen. And EVERYBODY loves James Conner. A lot will be made of the “drama” surrounding this game and we’re usually of the opinion all their own noise usually hurts the Steelers, but we think this week they’re in a perfect place for a strong performance… Pittsburgh 24-14.

Last year: With sports betting coming to PA, you’ll soon be able to take these picks to the bank! (Narrator: Don’t.) We did have a good year last year, though, finishing 11-6 straight up and 10-7 against the spread for the season. Not too shabby.

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