Friday, September 8, 2017

It won’t be pretty

There is nothing quite like winning the first game on the schedule for a football team. The fan base is excited. The team is unbeaten.

It immediately eliminates the remote possibility of losing every game. It also establishes an attitude that takes on a life of its own, albeit temporarily, until the next game on the schedule. Sort of sets a tone.

Such a feeling has existed only once in Cleveland for its professional football team since the resurrection of the franchise known as the Browns in 1999. Winning the first game on the schedule is totally foreign to them.

Eighteen times since ’99, the Browns have diligently played the first game on the regular-season schedule. And only once did they eliminate the possibility of losing every game. Only once did they take a bounce-in-your-step attitude into game two.

That was in 2004, a 20-3 home victory over the Baltimore Ravens in a season that saw coach Butch Davis quit after 11 games and the Browns wind up with a 4-12 record. Winning the season opener turned out to be a portent for disaster.

The litany of losing has traveled along a path that has seen the schedule makers seemingly attempt to give the Browns some emotional help by scheduling a preponderance of openers in Cleveland. After all, how much negativity can be given a team that hasn’t lost a game yet?

That has been tried 14 times, including the first 11 seasons, with the one victory. Just to be different, five of the Browns’ last seven seasons have begun on the road, including the last three in a row. Time to try the home field thing again.

Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh marks the Steelers’ third opening-game visit to Cleveland. The first one back in ’99, a 43-0 thumping in the first game back from National Football League purgatory, exists forever in the annals of extremely forgettable football games. The second resulted in a 34-7 thumping in 2007.

The Browns have been so bad on opening day – how bad have they been? – it has taken eight head coaches to compile the remarkable 1-17 march into opening-game oblivion. Think about it. Eight coaches in 18 seasons. From Chris Palmer to Hue Jackson, only the faces change. The results maddeningly remain the same.

They have come close to winning other openers with a couple of one-point losses, including the 40-39 devastating loss to Kansas City in 2002 when linebacker Dwayne Rudd’s helmet toss gave the Chiefs an extra play and Morten Andersen kicked a 30-yard field goal with no time left.

The Browns finished 9-7 that season under Davis – one of only two winning seasons since ’99 – and lost to the Steelers in the wild-card game when they blew a 33-21 fourth-quarter lead in their lone playoff appearance since the return.

Ten of the Browns’ opening-game 17 losses have been by at least 10 points. They have been outscored, 447-246, along the way.  That’s an average loss of more than 11 points a game.

Those numbers very well could take another severe hit Sunday with the Steelers’ powerful offensive troika of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown.

This trio loves playing against the Browns no matter when or where. Roethlisberger, getting a little long in the tooth now at 35, is 21-2 against them, throwing for nearly 5,500 yards and 35 touchdowns.

Brown, who has lost to the Browns once in 11 games, has caught 75 passes for 1,130 yards and seven touchdowns. Bell, who sat out the exhibition season in a contract squabble, signed his franchise tender this week and will play. He has run for 507 yards in five Cleveland games – sitting out a few games due to injury or suspension – and scored thrice.

Along with an improved offensive line, this is what the young Cleveland defense will face Sunday. It will be a stern challenge for new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who lost prized defensive end Myles Garrett to a high ankle sprain in midweek.

Williams tinkered liberally with a variety of exotic blitzes during the unbeaten exhibition season with positive results. The team that had only 26 sacks last season racked up 16 during the fake games. Whether that carries over into the regular season is a different story. Advantage Steelers.

Another advantage the Steelers own is on defense against the very young and very inexperienced Cleveland offense. DeShone Kizer makes his NFL debut at quarterback for the Browns after a very average exhibition season, during which he completed 51% of his passes for 351 yards, a touchdown and two picks.

As has been stated here before, the kid from Toledo and Notre Dame is a raw rookie and won the starting job pretty much by default since no one else stepped up. The Steelers will provide a painful lesson as he quickly learns how much different the regular season is from exhibitions.

Kizer is figuratively playing with one arm tied behind his back because the Cleveland front office has failed to provide him a reasonable assemblage of wide receivers. One has trouble staying healthy. Another has flirted with mediocrity practically his entire career. A third is still taking baby steps in the NFL.

To make matters worse (if that’s possible), the other three wideouts joined the club after all the exhibitions had been played and can’t be expected to have any kind of aerial rhythm with the rookie quarterback. That is patently unfair to Kizer and you can bet the Steelers will take advantage.

Experience is the biggest dictator in this one. The Steelers, especially after picking up ex-Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden, have it in abundance on both sides of the ball. The Browns do not.

It is entirely possible the Browns will stay with the Steelers for as long as a quarter and a half before the Steelers figure out what’s going on and adjust. They will try to run the ball per Jackson’s commitment to that aspect of the offense, but will eventually have to put the ball up once the Steelers start pulling away.

The good news? Kizer will still be vertical at the end of the game, somewhat bruised but a lot wiser. The bad news? Make it:

Steelers 31, Browns 10

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