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The Pittsburgh Steelers open their 2017 regular season against the same team that they ended the 2016 regular season: The Cleveland Browns. And while the stakes in 2016 (The Steelers were postseason bound, while the Browns finished 1-15) from 2017 right now, many media types feel that the Steelers will continue to dominate the Browns as the Steelers are 8.5 point favorites when they take on the Browns Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio.
Historically, both teams have played each other since 1950 (With a break from 1996-1999 when the First Browns team became the Baltimore Ravens) with the Steelers leading the All-Time series 64-56 partly due to their dominance over the post-1999 Browns teams. The Steelers currently have a 4-game winning streak over the Browns with their last loss coming in 2014 in Cleveland.
In 2016, the American Football Conference (AFC) Champion Steelers finished 11-5 and lost to eventual Super Bowl Champion New England in the AFC Championship Game. Their goal is simple: To take that extra step and advance to the Super Bowl, something they haven’t done since 2010 when they lost to the Green Bay Packers. Their last Super Bowl victory was in 2008 when they beat the Arizona Cardinals.
Meanwhile, the Browns finished 1-15 which earned them their 1st overall selection in this year’s NFL Draft in which they selected DE Myles Garrett and then Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer with their second pick. Head Coach Hue Jackson knows that he’s dealing with a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2002 and had a winning season since 2017, but he also knows they have a fresh start at 0-0.
“Man, we’re excited about going to play these guys in the opener.” Said Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin at his weekly news conference “You know it doesn’t provide an opportunity to warm up to the regular season. We can’t stick our toe in the water. We understand what environment we’re going into.”
The Steelers know that despite their mastery over the Browns, that they’re a divisional team that they play twice a year and just like in college sports, those types of rivalries can go either way on any given Sunday, so they know they can’t take them lightly “We played those guys twice last year. “ Said Tomlin, “I think they had a different Quarterback in both games, so you know we’re familiar with facing them with different quarterbacks.”
For this game, the Steelers will face the rookie Kizer, who if their 27th different starting quarterback since the Browns resumed play in 1999 and he will be the 6th different quarterback to start against the Steelers since 2014. “I’m just looking at the play-caller and his approach.” Said Tomlin of Kizer.
At running back Isaiah Crowell will resume duties as a starter as he finished 2016 when he rushed for 952 yards. At Wide Receiver, the Steelers will expect to see former Tennessee Titan Kenny Britt and former Steeler Sammie Coates mixing it up against the Steelers secondary. Coates also says his goal is to show the Steelers what they’re missing after they traded him to the Browns Sept 2nd.
On defense, the rookie Garrett may not see action due to injury. The former Texas A & M standout said he will looking to sack Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger once the season began, but he may have to wait until the end of the season for the rematch at Heinz Field.
Meanwhile, the Steelers will go with QB Ben Roethlisberger for the 15th consecutive season. The 5-time Pro Bowler is looking for his 3rd ring and at 35, admits that he’s now taking it year-to-year as he knows he may be close to considering his ‘life’s work’. He will be handing the ball off to All-Pro RB Le’Veon Bell, who isn’t expected to have limited carries despite missing all of the training camp and their 4 preseason games. Bell rushed for 1,268 yards. Backing him up with former University of Pittsburgh standout James Conner who was selected by the Steelers in the 3rd round.
At receiver, All-Pro Antonio Brown will lead the way with his new contract extension in hand. Brown led the Steelers with 1,284 yards and 106 receptions last season and he will be joined by Martavis Bryant who returns from a year-long suspension. The slot receivers will be Eli Rogers and either rookie JuJu Smith Shuster or Justin Hunter. The offensive line is one of the NFL’s best and it’s led by All-Pro center Maurkise Pouncey and Pro-Bowl guard David Decastro. Fellow guard Ramon Foster and tackles Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva complete this group. At tight end, newly acquired Vance McDonald (from San Francisco) and Jesse James will be on the field with Xavier Grimble at backup.
On defense, team captain DE Cam Heyward returns from injury and is paired with fellow DE Stephon Tuitt and DT Javon Hargrave. At linebacker, 40-year old James Harrison returns, but at backup, as he makes way for first round pick TJ Watt, who was selected out of Wisconsin. Fellow LB Bud Dupree is the other starter on the outside and on the inside will be Pro-Bowler Ryan Shazier and veteran Vince Williams, who takes over for the departed Lawrence Timmons, who left for Miami.
The secondary will be the biggest challenge and the Steelers did their best to improve it by acquiring former Brown Pro-Bowler Joe Haden last week. Haden was immediately made starter opposite second-year man Artie Burns. Veteran Mike Mitchell and 2nd-year man Sean Davis are the safeties and they also added former Tampa Bay Buccaneer JJ Wilcox to provide depth.
At kicker, Chris Boswell will continue after an incredible 2016 in which he set the NFL record for most field goals in a postseason game (6) and Tomlin said that Brown will handle punt returns and Smith-Shuster will handle kick returns.
For the Steelers, it’s Super Bowl or bust.“We try to be world champs every year. We’re all in on 2017.” Said Tomlin “ The things that happened in 2016 are irrelevant. The pieces, the roles played are irrelevant. I feel good about this group. We’ve got to work our journey.”
Notes: Dupree is listed on the injury report after hurting his arm Thursday, but he expects to play on Sunday.
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