Saturday, September 8, 2018

Close, but not quite yet

Britton Colquitt has punted for eight seasons in the National Football League. He has booted the football 635 times, 472 times with the Denver Broncos for six seasons and 163 times in two seasons with the Browns.

Over that period, the youngest member of the punting Colquitt family has had only one of those punts blocked. It was not your ordinary block.

It happened exactly one year ago Sunday in Cleveland on the very first series of the 2017 season, against, yep, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the club’s season-opening opponent again Sunday, and again in Cleveland.

Colquitt dropped back to punt a yard from the end zone, accepted Charley Hughlett’s snap and had no chance as Steelers linebacker Anthony Chickillo beat the snap and recovered the blocked punt in the end zone in the 21-18 victory.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest the blocked kick set the tone for the Browns for the rest of the lamentably dreadful and embarrassing 0-16 season.

But you can’t blame Colquitt, whose older brother Dustin has logged 12 seasons with Kansas City and daddy Craig spent six seasons with Pittsburgh, because he had no chance on the play. There were too many other overall weaknesses elsewhere to overcome. Punting was not one of them.

Now we come to the kickoff of the 2018 seasons. Colquitt is still around, but he is surrounded this time by a much better team with 32 new faces, a new attitude and a whole new approach.

The optimism emerging from training camp and the revamped – and decidedly improved – roster hasn’t been seen in these parts for a long, long time. A lot of it is warranted.

The defense is markedly better with a healthy Myles Garrett anchoring the defensive line and a rookie cornerback in Denzel Ward, who is being counted on, fairly or unfairly, to be the shutdown corner the Browns haven’t had since the days of a young Joe Haden, now patrolling the secondary for the Steelers.

The Steelers, meanwhile, arrive amid a swirling controversy as Le’Veon Bell, their All-Star running back, is balking at contract differences and has yet to report. He is already out $850,000 for missing this game.

In the process, he has been vilified by a significant number of his teammates, a distraction many Browns fans hope will factor into the outcome of the game. A year ago, though, a similar scenario unfolded.

Bell reported to camp the week of the Browns game and played, but was a non-factor. He touched the ball 13 times and gained only 47 yards. A pair of short touchdown passes from Ben Roethlisberger to tight end Jesse James – and the blocked punt that became a touchdown – was all the Steelers needed.

This season, Roethlisberger is back for his 15th season and the Browns’ killer still has a terrific receiving corps to target against the young Cleveland secondary. The big guy from Findlay loves playing the Browns, his 22-2 record against them solid proof of that fact

Antonio Brown, who has absolutely tortured – and torched – the Browns over the years, was joined last season by rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster to give other secondaries reason to worry.

James Conner, a second-year man, replaces Bell in the backfield. The Pittsburgh area native, who has a similar running style as Bell, has the luxury of running behind one of the best offensive lines in the AFC, if not all of the NFL.

The challenge for the Cleveland defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will be to try and keep Roethlisberger off balance with a variety of different looks that can be effective if disguised properly. 

The Browns’ offense, which staggered in the exhibition season with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback, needs to find an element of the game that has been missing – consistency. That will be offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s biggest challenge.

The motivation will be there for the volatile Haley, having served as the Steelers’’ offensive coordinator the past six seasons. But there is a large talent gap between the dynamic Roethlisberger and the careful Taylor.

Coach Hue Jackson promised the Browns would run the ball more this season – they ran it just 34% of the time last season – and that promise was kept in the exhibition season to the tune of nearly 130 yards a game.

One caveat: The offensive line, especially the left side, is a work in progress. After playing Joel Bitonio at left tackle in the exhibitions, Jackson pulled a last-minute switch and named rookie Desmond Harrison to replace the retired Joe Thomas, bumping Bitonio back to his natural position at left guard.

It is a gamble Jackson, operating with a very short leash, obviously is comfortable with considering the slippery handle he has on his job.

Rookie Austin Corbett, the club’s initial selection in the second round of the last draft who played just about every snap at left guard in the exhibitions, will now watch games from the sideline.

That means two of the Browns’ first four picks in that draft will be spectators (quarterback Baker Mayfield and Corbett) and a third, running back Nick Chubb, backs up Carlos Hyde but is expected to play. Ward is the only starter among that quartet.

Taylor becomes the 29th different quarterback since the return in 1999 to start a game. In order for the Browns to have a chance at winning this game, he must perform as he did last season when he led the Buffalo Bills to the postseason.

He has a much better receiving corps to work with than his predecessors with wide receivers, Jarvis Landry, rookie Antonio Callaway, Rashard Higgins and Josh Gordon, and tight end David Njoku.

He needs to be mistake-free, but that will not be an easy task against a very aggressive and opportunistic Steelers defense.

The weather forecast for the game calls for a steady rain and winds gusting up to 30 miles per hour. If that is correct, it might have a significant impact on the game plans on offense.

Several media prognosticators look for the Browns to end their current six-game losing streak to the Steelers, who own a 33-6 record against them since 1999. Now factor in Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin’s 19-3 record against Cleveland, all three losses by the lakefront.

It is very tempting to join those who see an upset, but I think it’s a bit too early for this team to jell to the point where they shock an opponent. It will come, but it will take another few games to reach that point. For that reason, make it:

Steelers 21, Browns 18

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