Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns: Week 1 game preview

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 20: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers carries the ball past the defense of Jamie Collins #51 of the Cleveland Browns during the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 20, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 20: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers carries the ball past the defense of Jamie Collins #51 of the Cleveland Browns during the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 20, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /
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The Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns game has a little more juice to it in terms of anticipation than it probably should.

Remember this is the Browns after all. They haven’t given people any reason to believe they’re ready to win. At the same time, they’ve made a number of significant upgrades to their roster on paper. They have pieces worth talking about. Whether they know how to use them is the big question. The last two years don’t paint a rosy picture.

Then again, the Steelers aren’t in a great position either. They’re coming off one of their more humiliating playoff exits in recent memory, giving up 45 points at home to Jacksonville. On top of that they have off-the-field distractions thanks to their disgruntled running back. Will they come into this game not entirely focused?

Storylines:

Life without Le’Veon – The Steelers have always made it clear one player is never bigger than the team. Running back Le’Veon Bell is a star and a big part of their offense. He wants to get paid that way. Unfortunately, the two sides haven’t reached any common ground on a long-term extension. Since then Bell has held out and it appears that will extend into the regular season. Historically the team has struggled without him in the lineup. Will that continue?

How short is the Tyrod leash? – Cleveland is trying to do this right. They want to avoid throwing their rookie #1 pick out on the field before he’s ready. That’s why they traded for Tyrod Taylor in the first place. He’s smart, protects the football and can keep the offense on schedule. The question is if he doesn’t get off to the best start, how long with head coach Hue Jackson wait before he turns to Baker Mayfield? The pressure to do so will be immense.

Key matchups:

Alejandro Villanueva vs. Myles Garrett – Steelers left tackle Villanueva has been one of the more underrated at his position for a long time. He’s going to have his hands full for 60 minutes. Garrett, the other #1 pick on the Browns roster, seems poised for a monster season after 7 sacks as a rookie. He’s big, long, strong, athletic and continues to showcase more and more moves as the weeks progress. Protecting Ben Roethlisberger, who historically struggles in Cleveland, is vital.

Jarvis Landry vs. Mike Hilton – The Browns made a swift trade to get Landry in the offseason, adding arguably the best slot wide receiver in football to their lineup. It looks like Mike Hilton will be the third cornerback for Pittsburgh on defense. That means he could get slot duties against Landry. That looks like a mismatch on paper. Something Cleveland will try to exploit. Hilton hasn’t buckle up and play tough.

X-factors:

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James Conner – What a story. Not too long ago it looked like James Conner might never play football again after contracting Lymphoma. This after he tore his MCL in 2015. He battled back and was eventually drafted in the 3rd round by his hometown team. Now the dream is set to come true as he’ll start for them against the Browns. Whether he can replace what’s been lost in Bell? That much is still unknown.

David Njoku – The middle of the field could be vulnerable for the Steelers defense. Ryan Shazier is gone, leaving journeyman Jon Bostic to replace him. Vince Williams is also more of a blitzer than cover man. That might be a problem against David Njoku, who is emerging as a legitimate weapon at the tight end position. He had a strong preseason with six catches for 71 yards and two touchdowns. Pittsburgh better be ready to see the ball go his way a lot.

Prediction:  Browns win 16-13

That’s right. The winless team from 2017 pulls the shocking upset on their first game of 2017. Truth is this Browns club is a lot better than they were a year ago. Their defense is no joke and the offense has more weapons and a quarterback who knows what he’s doing. It will be an ugly game but Pittsburgh will struggle without the versatility of Bell in the backfield, no disrespect to Conner. Look for a touchdown to Njoku to put the game away late (but they miss the extra point).