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Week 1 Preview: Joe Haden, Martavis Bryant highlight Steelers season opener

SteelerNation.com contributor Chris Mueller offers a preview of the Steelers’ 2017 regular season opener against the Browns. 

WHEN: Sunday, Sept. 10 (1 p.m. ET)

WHERE: FirstEnergy Stadium (Cleveland, OH)

HOW TO WATCH: CBS (KDKA-TV, Channel 2)

THE SKINNY

Ah, regular season football is back.

The Steelers will kick off their 2017 campaign against the Browns in Cleveland on Sunday in what was supposed to be the debut of No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett. Fortunately for the Steelers, that won’t be the case as news broke this week that Garrett suffered a high ankle sprain in practice that will sideline him for the immediate future.

Mark Garrett’s loss as the second major alteration in the last 10 days to a Cleveland defensive unit that already ranked 31st in total defense last season. The first, of course, was the sudden release of veteran cornerback Joe Haden, who will make his debut with the Steelers on Sunday.

Haden will return to Cleveland and FirstEnergy Stadium on the opposite sideline and, admittedly, it will be pretty weird seeing Haden dawning the No. 21 jersey in black and gold as opposed to his typical No. 23 in burnt orange and brown. Surprisingly, Haden was listed as a starter on the team’s official depth chart for Week 1 despite limited practice time with his new team. He played in a similar defensive scheme in Cleveland under former Steelers defensive backs coach Ray Horton, however, which should ease his transition into defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s concepts.

The Steelers hope the addition of Haden will help bolster the secondary and provide a viable option at cornerback opposite Artie Burns. It was obviously much needed.

Though will it? That remains to be seen, as does how much Haden actually has left in the tank. We’ll start to find out this week.

SCOUTING THE CLEVELAND OFFENSE 

Rookie DeShone Kizer earned the starting nod from Hue Jackson out of the preseason, beating out the likes of Brock Osweiler and Cody Kessler. Not the most impressive competition, albeit Kizer did flash some good things in preseason action with his poise inside the pocket, arm strength and ability to throw on the run.

Though alike any rookie QB about to make his NFL debut, Kizer still needs a lot of work with his decision making. He’s due for some early growing pains in the form of unwarranted sacks and turnovers.

The Steelers pass rush will look to get after him early in order to knock him out of rhythm and force some arrant throws. Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt will get have first chance to display what they can do as a pass rushing tandem.

At running back, the Browns feature a two-back system with Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson; however neither impose much of a threat behind a sub-par Cleveland offensive line.The Steelers will look to stuff the run early in order to dial in a number of disguised blitzes and twists to get after Kizer. Third and long situations don’t mix well with rookie quarterbacks.

The Browns lost their best receiving target in the offseason when Terrelle Pryor left for Washington in free agency. His presence will be missed. Pryor caught a combined 12 passes for 191 yards in two games against the Steelers last season, but Cleveland signed veteran Kenny Britt in his place, who comes off a 1,000 yard receiving season with the Los Angeles Rams a year ago. Corey Coleman, Ricardo Louis and Sammie Coates (ring a bell?) round out the rest of the receiving group.

A slow adjustment in training camp and the preseason has caused tight end David Njoku, Cleveland’s 2017 29th overall pick, to be listed as the third TE on the Browns depth chart behind Randall Telfer and Seth DeValve. The Miami (FL) product was considered by many as a potential first round target for the Steelers.

SCOUTING THE CLEVELAND DEFENSE

The Browns hired former Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in the offseason, who brings along a new 4-3 base scheme different from traditional Cleveland defenses of the past.

Williams inherits a defense that finished 31st in the NFL last season and no better than 30th in stopping the run since 2015. But based off his track record, Williams now running the show means the Browns should slightly (key word slightly) improve defensively this season. In addition to Garrett, they added former Michigan standout Jabril Peppers in the draft. Emerging pieces in linebackers Christian Kirksey and Jamie Collins, along with former first round picks Ray Shelton (2015) and Emmanuel Ogbah (2016) on the line are others to watch.

Williams places high emphasis on aggressively controlling the line of scrimmage and pressuring the quarterback in order to create opportunities in the secondary. So far, it’s worked. The Browns totaled 16 sacks and six turnovers in four preseason games, and didn’t allow a touchdown in the final three games against the Giants, Buccaneers and Bears. Though Williams’ style can leave defensive secondaries exposed for big plays over the top, which Ben Roethlisberger should likely exploit.

The Steelers offense shouldn’t have too much trouble at eclipsing the 30-point plateau on Sunday. There’s no way Cleveland can match up with Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell AND now Martavis Bryant, who will play in his first regular season game in over a year after his reinstatement from an indefinite suspension for repeated violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

That leads into our next segment.

MARQUEE MATCHUP: Martavis Bryant vs. Browns secondary

Bryant’s return is the obvious matchup to watch.

Just how much will he be incorporated into Todd Haley’s gameplan? Is there still rust in his timing with Roethlisberger? Is this new version of Bryant, appearing to be in peak physical condition, better than the one of old who tallied 1,314 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns in his first two NFL seasons?

All fair questions.

But Bryant’s presence will impact the Steelers offense in several areas outside of his own personal production.

Opposing defenses will no longer be able to frequently double and triple team Brown. Bell will have more room to operate in the in receiving game; whether it be outside of the backfield in the flat, the screen game or lined up as a traditional receiver. Slot targets like Eli Rogers and JuJu Smith-Schuster will have more space inside. Everybody benefits.

WHAT ELSE TO WATCH FOR

  • How much will Bell play after his training camp hiatus? Will he receive close to 25-plus touches like last year, or will Mike Tomlin elect to incorporate him into the offense at a slower place and feed James Conner the ball. Remember, Bell’s services shouldn’t be needed too much against the Browns.
  • How high of a percentage will the Steelers defense utilize man coverage? They’ve said it all summer, and the Haden acquisition indicates a further commitment to man considering that was his strong suit in Cleveland.
  • Has Haden experienced a veteran drop off? Jackson will likely test him deep with Coleman and Coates.
  • After a strong preseason showing, can Watt build on his previous performance? And this time, against a perennial Pro Bowler? He’ll be facing a future Hall of Fame tackle in Joe Thomas. We’ll get an extended look at Watt for all four quarters. Also, with Watt as the starter, how much, if at all, will the Steelers use James Harrison?
  • Will training camp darling Mike Hilton completely take over the slot cornerback position from Will Gay? Multiple reports surfaced this week that Hilton was taking first-team slot reps in practice, and Gay working in with dime packages.
  • How much will we see of newly acquired TE Vance McDonald? Jesse James should likely take most of the first-team reps considering McDonald is still getting acquainted to Haley’s system.
  • Who will return kicks? Smith-Schuster is listed as the team’s No. 1 kick returner, but could Terrell Watson receive a shot after what he showed in the preseason?

BY THE NUMBERS

21: With a win, Roethlisberger would improve to 21-2 all-time against the Browns during the regular season.

26: No. 26 is 26 yards from scrimmage away from tying Willie Parker (6,075) for eighth most in franchise history. A 100-yard rushing performance from Bell would mark the 15th of his career.

PREDICTION

Steelers 31 Browns 13 

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