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Pregame stretch:
Browns vs. Steelers

September 4, 2014 - Ray Eckenrode

Cleveland Browns (0-0) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (0-0)
Sunday, 1 p.m. EST, CBS

Announcers: Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts
Annoyance factor: Several credible sources reported a few weeks ago that this game was moving to 4:25 p.m., which would have meant whatshisname and youknowho on the call, but that was when it was assumed Johnny Manziel would be the Browns’ starting QB. When Manziel fizzled, talk of moving this game did, as well, leaving us with the ultra-competent Eagle and the hit-and-miss Fouts, an eminently better fate than CBS’ in-name-only No. 1 team.
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Weather - or not?: Partly cloudy, 77. After a week of near-90 temps, this should feel refreshing.
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How they rank (preseason)
Cleveland offense: 22nd passing, 17th rushing, 14th ppg
Pittsburgh defense: 18th passing, 30th rushing, 14th ppg
Pittsburgh offense: 27th passing, 32nd rushing, 31st ppg
Cleveland defense: 29th passing, 14th rushing, 20th ppg
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Referee: Carl Cheffers
Competence factor: You again? This is the same crew that worked these two teams’ 2013 season finale and also the same crew that had a very rough time of it last year, culminating in handing the Ravens a critical Monday night win over the Lions on a non-existent pass interference call. Of course, the big question officiating-wise in Week 1 is whether we’ll see the dearth of defensive penalties on pass coverage that we saw in the preseason.
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The line: Pittsburgh -6.5
Smarts say: Pittsburgh opened at -5 and when to -6.5 within a few hours, exactly what you’d expect for a team with such a public following. The over/under of 40.5 is 3.5 points lower than the line in these two teams’ 2013 season finale and would yield something like Steelers 23-17.
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Key matchups:
Browns offense vs. Steelers defense on 1st down
Because: Quick, who’s Cleveland’s starting running back? You might have forgotten or be unaware that it’s Ben Tate. Solid. Tackles Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz. Solid. Center Alex Mack. Solid. Now, how’s Pittsburgh’s defense been against the run, not just this past preseason but last year? Not solid. In fact, it’s been so bad that hopes of firming it up have been hung on the signing of 35-year-old Brett Keisel just a few weeks ago. If Tate and the Browns running game can abuse the Steelers the way many teams have of late, it could be a long, frustrating afternoon Sunday. Conversely, Cleveland’s passing game is a disaster waiting to happen and if Dick LeBeau and company can figure out how to shut down Tate on first down and force Brian Hoyer to beat them, it could be a considerably more pleasant day to be wearing black and gold.

Long snap:
That’s where Pittsburgh rallied to finish in the 2013 NFL season and if you saw one thing in the 2014 preseason that makes you think the Steelers will be any better than that this year, well, God bless you and we’ll have one of what you’re having.
Here’s what we saw: An offense that can’t run the football consistently, an improved offensive line but with frightening little depth, a passing game with a stud quarterback, no identity and exactly one playmaker, a defense that can not stop the run, a secondary with frightening little depth, an exciting young linebacking corps with little history of performance, a journeyman punter who’s teetered between OK and disastrous and, oh yeah, the team’s one sure thing the past two years, it’s placekicker, looks like he’s starting to wobble (although the return of his long snapper might fix that).
Of course, this is the NFL and there surely will be one team with 8-8 talent that goes 11-5. For that one team to be the Steelers, we’re probably talking about what we’ve talked about the past two years: A career year for Ben Roethlisberger and a handful of lucky bounces and breaks.
But there’s another side to that coin. And that’s the idea – much more popular outside western Pennsylvania, mind you – that Roethlisberger, confined more to the pocket now that he’s over 30, is no longer a Top 10 quarterback in the league.
There’s also the corollary to that one, that Roethlisberger’s skills and impact haven’t faded, but have been diminished by Todd Haley’s offense. Roethlisberger, for his part, sounds like a Haley fan these days, but is that genuine or rah-rah from a guy who’s read the handwriting on the wall that Haley isn’t going anywhere and is lining himself and his family up for his final gigantic payday?
Whatever the case, no one would argue that Pittsburgh’s fortunes hand largely on #7’s right arm and legs. But the question that looms larger with every year of black-and-gold mediocrity is can Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin assemble the right talent around their franchise quarterback for one more Super Bowl run? The answer has been pretty emphatic the past two years. And while we’ll be hoping for a quantum leap in the most unpredictable of all leagues, we’ll be expecting more of the same.

Quick hits:
+ We saw a lot of Steelers fans (and fans of other teams, to be fair) begging their team to pick up BenJarvus Green-Ellis after the Bengals cut him with one of the reasons being “he’s only 29.” Of course, you smart fans who read this blog realize that 29 is ancient by running back standards. Green-Ellis’ 1,008 career carries almost double LeGarrette Blount’s 579. Blount is 27.
+ Marijuana use is a big part of our music culture, our youth culture and our athletic culture, so if you’re surprised LeGarrette Blount and Le’Veon Bell smoke dope, frankly, you should get out more. Our best guesstimate would be that one-third of NFL players use marijuana. The issue here is not the “what” of what happened but the stupidity (and disrespect) of when and where it happened. If you’re an NFL player, there are some simple to understand (not necessarily follow, mind you) rules of thumb to staying out of trouble: 1. Get home before midnight. 2. Use your phone for phone calls and texting, no photos, no film. 3. Think before you tweet. 4. Don’t smoke up in public.
+ Pro Football Talk reported Wednesday, citing anonymous sources, of course, that the NFL and its players association were closing in on an agreement on hGH testing. If and when such an agreement happens it will be the most significant sports (and business) story of that year (or any year) because the NFL as we currently understand it (which is the most popular and profitable sporting league in history) does NOT, repeat NOT, exist without hGH. A 16-game season would be virtually impossible, 350-pound offensive linemen will disappear, DBs with 4.25 40’s, gone. And the impact won’t be gradual. If the testing is legit, the changes will be stark and nearly immediate, sort of like what we’ve seen recently with ex-players like Alan Faneca and Jordan Gross, who’ve dropped 60-70 pounds in a year’s time. What’s left will more closely resemble the game of the 1960’s than anything we’ve seen in the last generation.

The pick: It’s generally assumed that the Browns chances to improve this season went by the wayside when Josh Gordon’s secondhand smoke defense was rejected and his season-long suspension upheld. And while that’s probably true for the big picture, it doesn’t mean the Browns are going winless and it certainly doesn’t mean they can’t win this one. The Steelers have WR issues of their own and injuries to Lance Moore and Martavis “Don’t Call Me Limas – Yet” Bryant complicate them. If Cleveland’s good, young defense can put the clamps on Antonio Brown, this could a very long, very frustrating afternoon for the black and gold offense. That would leave the defense to win this one for Pittsburgh and you know how that’s turned out the past two years. We’re not expecting that doomsday scenario, though, but we’re not expecting a blowout either ... Steelers 17-14.
Last year: Just like the Steelers, we were a not-good-enough 8-8 straight up and against the spread. We’ve gotta get back to form this year or heads will roll.

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