By Matt Citak
After finishing as the worst team in the league last season with a 1-15 record, the Cleveland Browns figure to be much improved in 2017. However, it might be tough to determine just how much better during this week’s season opener, as Cleveland will welcome their division rival Pittsburgh Steelers to FirstEnergy Stadium.
The Steelers sport one of the NFL’s most dangerous offenses, led by their “Killer B’s” attack. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell, wide receiver Antonio Brown, and the newly reinstated wide receiver Martavis Bryant combine to form one of the strongest offensive cores. However, since Pittsburgh drafted Bryant in 2014, these four players have only been on the field together for one half of one game. While Roethlisberger has been practicing with his top two wide receivers all summer, he did not get his star running back back on the field until very recently. Bell had been waiting to sign his one-year franchise tender until right before the start of the regular season in order to help preserve his health, which has left some people worrying about the running back being ready for Sunday’s contest.
Cleveland will likely find it difficult to stop Pittsburgh and their lethal offensive attack. But one thing the Browns have going for them is the addition of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Williams has been working in the NFL since 1990, and has been a part of eight different NFL franchises before signing on with Cleveland in January. The veteran coordinator seems perfect to pair with Myles Garrett, as he is known for implementing attacking 4-3 schemes that apply heavy pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Williams represents just one of the many changes the Browns have undergone since the conclusion of the 2016 season, when their offense finished 31st in the league in points with 16.5 points per game, and the defense ended the year ranked 30th after allowing 28.3 points per game. Head coach Hue Jackson and general manager Sashi Brown did a complete overhaul of the Cleveland roster, with over one-third of the 53-man roster set to make their Browns debut on Sunday. New additions to the team can be found on both sides of the ball.
Trent Green, NFL on CBS game analyst who will call the game, looks at the Steelers-Browns and Raiders-Titans matchups that will help kick off the NFL season in Week 1.
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cleveland Browns – 1:00 PM ET – CBS
CBS Local Sports: How will Le’Veon Bell’s absence over the summer affect his performance on Sunday?
Trent Green: I don’t anticipate it being much of a problem at all. Le’Veon has proven that he’ll be in shape when he gets back. He dealt with some setbacks in previous years, and when he comes back, he’s ready to roll. The only thing you may see a little different is the way they utilize him in the different packages. He’s used in so many different ways, whether it’s running the ball from the backfield or catching the ball out of the backfield, or lining him out in the slot or out at wide receiver. Some of those may be limited, just because of the amount of times he’ll have to practice and get used to all those different packages and formations.
CBS Local Sports: Can you describe what Joe Haden is likely feeling heading into a matchup against his former team that cut him only a week ago?
Trent Green: It’s going to be emotional, that’s for sure. I’m sure he’ll put on a good face… I know deep down he’s going to want to prove a point. Number one, he’s going to want to try to get a win. But number two, he’s going to try to prove a point that he still feels like he’s the Pro Bowl player that he was a few years ago. It will be emotional, considering he lined up for Cleveland for so many years. But the fact that he has the opener in Cleveland makes it that much more special for him, I’m sure.
CBS Local Sports: What’s the most important matchup heading into Sunday’s game?
Trent Green: Cleveland needs to stop the run. A year ago they weren’t very good against the run. They gave up a lot of yards, and with Le’Veon back, that’s going to be a big factor. They do have Gregg Williams, their new defensive coordinator, and he’s going to bring an attitude and some adjustments based on what they did in previous seasons. But it all starts with stopping the run and trying to control things that way.
CBS Local Sports: In what area will the Browns see the biggest improvement in 2017?
Trent Green: I would think with changing defensive coordinators, they’re going to want to improve on that side of the ball. But also, offensively, they were 31st in the league in scoring. So they need to address both sides of the ball, and they’ve done that. They added 24 new players that weren’t on the roster a year ago through the draft, free agency, waiver claims and trades. They re-signed Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey, two guys they feel really good about in the middle there… the linebackers. They’ve put an emphasis on the defensive side.
Offensively, starting a rookie quarterback [DeShone Kizer], bringing in a couple of offensive linemen in [JC] Tretter and [Kevin] Zeitler, re-signed [Joel] Bitonio, and signing Kenny Britt… They’ve made changes to both sides of the ball. They’re trying to implement their system. Hue Jackson is just in his second year, so it’s going to take some growing pains. But they’re eventually going to get there, especially when you consider how many draft picks they’ve accumulated, especially next year but even going forward into the later years. They’ve accumulated quite a few draft picks.
Oakland Raiders vs. Tennessee Titans – 1:00 PM ET – CBS
The Steelers-Browns game isn’t the only exciting contest on CBS in Week 1. Over in Nashville, Jim Nantz, Tony Romo and Tracy Wolfson will be broadcasting the Raiders-Titans matchup that features two young quarterbacks coming off major injuries. Both Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and Titans QB Marcus Mariota broke their fibulas during Week 16 last season, but the two are now healthy and ready to go. Sunday will also serve as the debut for Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, who decided to return to the NFL after a one-year retirement.
CBS Local Sports: Does Marshawn Lynch have enough left in the tank to make a difference for the Raiders’ offense?
Trent Green: He definitely does. He’s got more than enough in the tank. The way they’re going to utilize him, he’s never been one to be a big pass-catcher coming out of the backfield. So I anticipate him more on first and second down, and utilize him in short yardage and goal line [situations]. They’re very strong in the passing game with Derek Carr and the weapons he’s got there with Amari Cooper and [Michael] Crabtree. He just continues to roll from a passing game standpoint. For Marshawn he definitely has enough in the tank for what they’re going to be asking him to do.
CBS Local Sports: Do you expect either of these teams to make a deep playoff run?
Trent Green: It’s too early to make that prediction for a deep playoff run. Both teams will make the playoffs. To say they’re going to make a deep playoff run, a lot of that depends on how healthy they can stay. That’s a major part of it, as the Raiders learned a year ago, as Tennessee learned a year ago. You have to be able to stay healthy. To make a deep run, you need to have your health. But both teams are in the position to make the playoffs.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to email@example.com.