The NFL season is underway and on Sunday, so too will be divisional play in the AFC North as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns open up their season in Cleveland (1pm ET).
As hard as it may be to believe, Cleveland’s season last year was actually an improvement. They won just one game, but the year prior, they became the second team in NFL history to go winless in a 16-game season and first since the Detroit Lions did it back in 2008. Over the past two years, the Browns are just 1-31, the worst two season stretch of any team in NFL history.
So knowing that, it might seem absolutely crazy for someone to say “don’t sleep on the Browns.” But here’s the thing. The team that will be taking the field in 2018 is a far cry from the ones of those woeful last two seasons. Over the offseason the Browns have improved quite drastically, so much so that they could finish this year with a .500 record.
From offense to defense, the Browns have made some huge improvements on both sides of the ball. The most important of which is finally finding (hopefully) a franchise quarterback in Baker Mayfield and a second competent signal caller in veteran Tyrod Taylor. With the Buffalo Bills in 2017, Taylor had a good year, throwing for just shy of 2,800 yards, 14 touchdowns and just four interceptions. His completion percentage was 62.6. To put those numbers into perspective, Taylor would have been the best quarterback on the Browns’ roster last year and it wouldn’t have even been close.
For much of the year, the Browns had the worst QB play in all of the NFL and among the worst in history as well. But this wasn’t an isolated problem as Cleveland has had an insanely high 28 starting quarterbacks since 1999. That’s an average of over two quarterbacks per season. Some teams across the league have used that many quarterbacks over the last almost two decades.
Point being, the Browns have not been good or even average at that position for years and that is a large part of the reason why the team has struggled as much as they have. Cleveland hasn’t had a winning record since 2007, which is the longest such stretch for any team. The outlook is finally looking positive as Taylor is a solid QB and the eventual face of the franchise, Baker Mayfield, has huge expectations behind him as well. Both guys will be aided with a much-improved receiving corps which features the return of Josh Gordon, who when he is on the field, is one of the most explosive playmakers in all of football. The 27-year-old, who has dealt with some legal problems / suspensions that have left him off the field in two of the last four seasons and having only played 10 games when he has been on the field, was lethal during his last full season in 2013. Five years removed from that, the Browns are hopeful that Gordon can return to being that guy this year.
Le’Veon Bell Watch
For as much as the Browns look to be trending upward, it seems the opposite is the case for their opponents on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Much like it sounds weird to say the Browns will win eight games, it also sounds off to say the Steelers might not, despite the team coming off their second straight divisional title and third in the last four years.
There are a couple of factors as to why the Steelers might struggle in 2018. Longtime QB Ben Roethlisberger is about to enter his 16th season as a pro, all of which have been with the Steelers, who drafted him in 2004. Roethlisberger immediately took over the starter’s role and in the ensuing years, has been one of the most consistently good quarterbacks in the NFL. Fifteen years is a long time to deal with the rigors of the position, most notably the constant sacks as Roethlisberger is not much of a mobile quarterback. The Steelers line hasn’t been good especially as of late and as a result, Big Ben has taken some big hits. To that extent, last year was an off year for the 36-year-old. Roethlisberger had his worst completion percentage since 2013 and lowest touchdown totals since 2015.
There were times last year when Roethlisberger noticeably struggled but fortunately for him, he has the best wide receiver in all of football in Antonio Brown, who has helped bolster Roethlisberger’s stat lines on more than one occasion. Brown is a huge piece to Pittsburgh’s offense and their success and he could be even more important this year. That’s because as of early Saturday morning, stud running back Le’Veon Bell hadn’t reported to the team, an unsigned contract lingering between the two parties.
Without Bell, the Steelers are a much less dangerous team. With Bell, they have one of the most balanced offenses with two of the best at their position. It’s hard to game plan against a team that can kill you both with the long ball and in the running game, which is something Pittsburgh’s opponents have learned the hard way over the past few seasons. It’s the main reason why the Steelers have been the class of the AFC North as the Browns, Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals haven’t been able to stop the dual threat attack.
If Bell doesn’t play – and the fact that he hasn’t reported a day prior to the game indicates he won’t – the Browns will have a great shot to open the season with a win, something they haven’t done in years.
Our Preview’s Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns Picks & Betting Predictions
Entering this game, the Steelers are 4.5 point favorites with a total set at 41.5. It really all hinges on Bell. Even if he does play, it’s likely he will be on a snap count due to his missing out on preseason and training camp. It also hinges on Gordon and just how much rust he will have after missing much of preseason himself. The Browns look poised to do big things this year but that won’t start in week one. So the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cleveland Browns predictions and picks for this preview are: