The Steelers solidified their divisional dominance, overcoming a 4-5 start by winning their last seven games of the season and ending up a full three games in front of their closest AFC North foe. The offense was once again lethal, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell, and wide receiver Antonio Brown lighting up unsuspecting defenses. Added speed in the secondary also sparked the defense, which finished tenth in the NFL in points allowed. Pittsburgh trounced Miami in the first round of the playoffs and nipped Kansas City on the road in the divisional round, but they ran into the juggernaut Patriots and were clobbered 36-17 in the AFC Championship.
The Browns upheld their reputation as league doormats with another disheartening season. The team was at or near the bottom of the barrel in most statistical categories. Although Isaiah Crowell managed a 1,000-yard rushing season, the passing game was a mess, as might be expected from a team where five different quarterbacks received playing time. The defense couldn’t rush the passer or stop the run. It looked for a while like the Browns were headed for a winless season, but they toughed out a 20-17 victory over San Diego in the season’s penultimate week to prevent it.
Next up – DeShone Kizer becomes the latest in a long line of hopefuls at the quarterback position in Cleveland. The Notre Dame product was expected to sit early to get some seasoning, but he so clearly outplayed Brock Osweiler in the preseason that Kizer got the job and Osweiler was cut. His ability to make plays with his feet as well as his arm may be enticing to fans, but Johnny Manziel also had that ability, and we all know how that turned out. Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler will throw a lot of looks at the rookie from the 3-4 base to try and confuse him into mistakes.
Inexperience vs. expertise – The Browns defense will be leaning heavily on rookies and young players. While Myles Garrett is out with an ankle injury, S Jabrill Peppers and several others with very little starting experience will be playing prominent roles on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh offense counters with the veteran trio of Roethlisberger, Bell, and Brown, for once all healthy and active together to start a season. That discrepancy between the two teams seems like the biggest obstacle to the Browns staying close in this one, even at home.
Another weapon back in the fold – Martavis Bryant returns to Pittsburgh for the 2017 season after being suspended for the entire campaign a year ago. While Antonio Brown once again put up ridiculous offensive numbers a year ago (106 catches, 1,284 yards, 12 TD’s), Roethlisberger struggled to build a consistent rapport with any other receiver. Bryant brings deep-ball ability that was lacking in Pittsburgh a year ago, and that puts stress on an already questionable Browns secondary.
Matchup to watch
Steelers OT Alejandro Villanueva vs. Browns DE Carl Nassib – The difference between franchises can be summed up in a guy like Villanueva. While the Browns have watched countless top draft picks flounder in recent years, Villanueva has come seemingly from nowhere to do a great job at left tackle for Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, Nassib must pick up the slack with Myles Garrett, the top pick in the draft for the Browns, out with a high ankle sprain. He’s not the electric talent that Garrett is, but he’ll need to have success stopping the run and putting pressure on Roethlisberger.
Fantasy football tip
RB Duke Johnson – Johnson is always an effective flex play or even better in scoring systems that allow a point for each reception. He becomes an even better play in a game like this, when the Browns figure to be playing from behind and Kizer will be looking for safe passes against the opportunistic Steelers defense.
Prediction: Pittsburgh Steelers 34-13 Cleveland Browns
The Browns are in rebuilding mode (aren’t they always?) and the Steelers look primed to contend for a championship. You do the math.
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