With still a few months to go until the first kickoff of the NFL season, we continue our weekly previews of matchups we can’t wait to see in 2014.
Browns vs. Steelers (Week 1, Week 6)
Based on the lopsided record in favor of the Steelers since the Browns returned in 1999 — Pittsburgh has won 26 of the last 31 meetings — it’s easy to see why they may be right.
But the Browns are quietly becoming a team Pittsburgh and other opponents can’t chalk up as a guaranteed victory before they take the field.
OK, maybe quiet isn’t the right adverb.
Drafting Johnny Manziel won’t exactly keep a team from attracting attention, but look no further than Cleveland’s first selection in the 2014 draft to uncover the franchise’s true focus: defense. Following an approach made popular by Pittsburgh and other successful franchises — most recently, Seattle — Cleveland’s front office stuck to its scouting and selected Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert with the eighth overall pick.
Gilbert joins a defense that finished 2013 as the ninth-best unit in the NFL — impressive for a team that finished 4-12. But as those who watched this team each week will tell you, Cleveland was just a few plays away from having a much better record.
Much of that falls on an offense that was again forced to deal with a revolving door at quarterback due to injury and ineffectiveness. Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden and Brian Hoyer all lined up under center for the Browns last season; only one remains on the roster heading into 2014.
Taking the quarterback situation into consideration, it truly is impressive that wide receiver Josh Gordon led the league in receiving yards with 1,646 (18.9 yards per catch) to go along with 9 touchdowns. Gordon is one of the league’s brightest young stars, and despite a possible suspension looming, he’s a reason for outsiders to take a closer look at Cleveland’s offense in the future.
It presents an interesting dichotomy: Cleveland remains one of the league’s younger franchises and has budding stars on its roster in Gordon, cornerback Joe Haden and tight end Jordan Cameron. Pittsburgh’s longtime stalwarts (Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller, Ike Taylor) are, for the most part, still anchoring the starting lineup on both sides of the ball. The Steelers are aging at some of their most important positions, but are also known for meticulously restocking their roster through the draft. Speaking of which, as a Kent State alum, keep an eye or two on running back/wide receiver/return man Dri Archer, a third-round pick of the Steelers who grabbed the attention of the league with a 4.26-second 40-yard dash at the combine.
Pittsburgh is also battling the slide many aging teams face, which at times may seem inevitable. They battled to finish 8-8 last season, but plenty of work needs to be done to improve and get back to the playoffs in 2014. Having a seasoned, franchise quarterback in Roethlisberger will help accelerate that process.
Could we see a changing of the guard between these two teams in 2014? With all of the above accounted for, it’s possible, starting with their Week 1 matchup in Pittsburgh.
Hoyer is coming off surgery to repair a torn ACL, an injury that is still one of the toughest to overcome within a calendar year (unless you’re Adrian Peterson). He could be the one taking first-team snaps at Heinz Field on Sept. 7. Or…it could be Manziel.
Even if Manziel doesn’t get the starting job out of training camp, it’s safe to say he’ll likely get a shot by Week 6. It’s the way of the world in Cleveland; any struggles from an incumbent starter are met with showers of boos and calls for the backup, often the most popular guy in town on a Sunday afternoon.
Manziel’s possible first start — followed by all of the buzz he has already attracted — and it comes at FirstEnergy Stadium against Pittsburgh?
We can’t wait.