The 2018 NFL season kicks off Sunday for the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers in the 132nd edition of the rivalry.
Some still call it a rivalry although it’s been lopsided since the Browns made their return to the NFL in 1999 with Pittsburgh winning 33 of the 39 matchups.
However, there is once again a sense of hope for the Cleveland Browns heading into 2018. General manager John Dorsey flipped the roster over with 31 new players on the roster including quarterbacks Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield, wide receiver Jarvis Landry and cornerback Denzel Ward.
Also with the addition of offensive coordinator Todd Haley who left Pittsburgh following the end of last season, there’s an excitement buzzing around the offense that is returning Duke Johnson, Josh Gordon and David Njoku in addition to Landry and running backs Carlos Hyde and rookie Nick Chubb giving Haley a lot to work with on offense.
In Pittsburgh, it seems as though business is normal but they’re missing one of their top two playmakers in running back Le’Veon Bell who is still holding out for a new contract. His teammates spoke out publicly during the week about Bell essentially thinking of his future instead of joining his team and trying to win a Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh will rely on second year running back James Conner while Bell remains away from the team. Conner saw little playing time last season as a rookie but performed well during the preseason.
Outside of the running game, the Steelers offense still has plenty of firepower in the passing game led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger who is 22-2 against Cleveland during his career.
The Browns secondary will have a tough matchup against Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Also keep an eye on rookie receiver James Washington who made some big plays during the preseason for the Steelers.
Out: CB E.J. Gaines (knee)
Doubtful: LB James Burgess Jr. (concussion)
Out: TE Vance McDonald (foot)
Matchups to Watch
Desmond Harrison vs Steelers Pass Rush
The Browns announced on Friday that undrafted rookie Desmond Harrison will start at left tackle, the first undrafted left tackle to start for the Browns since merger between the AFL-NFL in 1970.
After spending training camp and preseason with Joel Bitonio at tackle and rookie Austin Corbett at guard, the Browns decided to go in a different direction with the offensive line. Corbett is now the backup swing lineman while fifth year tackle Greg Robinson will backup the tackle positions.
Harrison will be thrown into the fire for his first start with a Steelers defense that had 56 sacks in the 2017 season and defensive coordinator Keith Butler will likely throw everything at the rookie in his first start.
Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, and Bud Dupree will be his most likely matchups and they combined for 25 of Pittsburgh’s 56 sacks. Harrison will likely lean on Bitonio to help him out while he gets adjusted to the NFL speed of the game.
Denzel Ward vs Antonio Brown
Another rookie that will be thrown into the fire for his first NFL game is cornerback Denzel Ward.
The fourth overall pick in April’s NFL Draft quickly rose to starter in the spring and never looked back throughout training camp and although he dealt with minor injuries during the preseason, he is all set to start in his first NFL game on Sunday.
His first matchup is against the NFL’s best wide receiver: Antonio Brown.
The future Hall of Famer is coming off a 101 catch, 1,533 yard and nine touchdown season that earned him his fourth consecutive first-team All-Pro selection. In the season opener against Cleveland last season, Brown had 11 catches for 182 yards.
The weather may limit the passing attack for both teams but Ward needs to bring his very best for his debut because one slip up could cost the Browns a victory if Brown gets separation.
It’s been a long time since the Cleveland Browns won a season opener. 2004 against the Baltimore Ravens was the last season opening victory for Cleveland.
They also haven’t won a regular season game since December 24, 2016, a 17 game losing streak.
They also haven’t won a division game since October 11, 2015 against the Baltimore Ravens, a 17 game losing streak against AFC North opponents.
All streaks are meant to end and I believe the losing streaks will come to an end on Sunday for the Cleveland Browns.
With the lasting effects of Hurricane Gordon hitting Northeast Ohio with heavy rain and 40 mile per hour wind gusts to effect game conditions, I believe this game will come down to who runs the ball better.
Cleveland has a three-headed monster in the backfield with Carlos Hyde, Duke Johnson and Nick Chubb and Todd Haley should use that to his advantage against a Pittsburgh run defense that gave up 4.4 yards per carry last season.
Pittsburgh will have to rely on James Conner and veteran Stevan Ridley against a Cleveland run defense that allowed 3.4 yards per carry (2nd best in NFL) and the seventh fewest yards in football last season.
With the weather conditions, I’d expect a low scoring contest with Cleveland getting the edge to start off the new era of Browns football the right way.
Browns 17 Steelers 13