Browns try to turn things around vs. Steelers
Head coach Hue Jackson of the Cleveland Browns has vowed to make his team and one of the oldest, most bitter rivalries in the NFL more competitive, and he already has had a little success at the latter heading into Sunday's opener against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers at 1 p.m. (ET) at FirstEnergy Stadium.
The Steelers have won the last six games between the AFC Central rivals, including all four with Jackson leading the Browns, but the last three have been by scores of 27-24 in Pittsburgh in the final game of the 2016 season, 21-18 at Cleveland in the 2017 opener and 28-24 in Pittsburgh to end last season.
Of course, close doesn't mean a thing in the NFL and Cleveland is 1-15 and 0-16 the last two seasons, which is why the Browns have 31 players on their roster who weren't there last year.
That has led to some new optimism, although wide receiver Jarvis Landry's claim that, "If we get everyone playing to their potential, we can win the Super Bowl this year," seems to be going a little overboard.
Landry brings more from Miami than optimistic talk. Last season, he led the NFL with 112 receptions for 987 yards and nine touchdowns, and has averaged 100 catches a year in four seasons with the Dolphins
Of course, beating the hated Steelers, who lead the all-time series, 72-58, would be a promising start.
Some of Cleveland's optimism stems from the acquisition of quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who last season helped end a 17-year playoff drought in Buffalo. He is confident, but more restrained than Landry.
"Yes, I have seen those steps (that the Bills made last year in the Browns), but it's also still early," Taylor said. "Right now we're molding and shaping a team to be able to go out this year and do those things. But I think this team is headed in the right direction, for sure.
"The attitude is right, the energy is right in the locker room. We just have to remain focused throughout the full season and be able to withstand the ups and downs of the season."
Taylor might be on a short leash if things don't start well, because No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield, the Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma, is his backup.
The Browns should get a good idea right away against the Steelers, a perennial contender coached by Mike Tomlin, who has a 19-3 record against Cleveland.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers got good news this week when wide receiver Antonio Brown, who led the NFL with 1,533 receiving yards on 101 receptions last season, was cleared to play after being slowed by a nagging groin/hip injury.
Roethlisberger, who has a 21-2 record in starts against the Browns, passed for 4,251 yards and 28 touchdowns last season, but it appears the Steelers will be without running back Le'Veon Bell.
Bell, who last season led NFL running backs with 85 catches, was second with 1,946 scrimmage yards and third with 1,291 rushing yards last season, has yet to report and sign his $14.54 million franchise tag tender.
Without him, the Steelers will go with James Conner, who rushed for 144 yards in limited playing time behind Bell as a rookie last season.
Preparing for the revamped Browns might pose a problem for the Steelers, and there is the added element of Todd Haley being the Browns' new offensive coordinator after holding the same job with the Steelers for the last six years.
Cleveland also has added running back Carlos Hyde, who had a career-high 1,288 scrimmage yards and eight rushing touchdowns with the San Francisco 49ers last season.
Hyde and Landry will give Taylor, or Mayfield, a potent offensive attack that also includes running back Duke Johnson Jr., who had 74 catches for 693 yards last season, and tight end David Njoku, who had 32 receptions and four touchdowns last season.
One concern for the Browns' offense is that Joel Bitonio is making his first start at left tackle after four seasons at left guard and must keep linebacker T.J. Watt off Taylor's back while protecting his blind side.
Watt had three sacks and an interception in the last two games against the Browns, and if Bitonio can contain him without help, Cleveland will be able to pay more attention to defensive tackle Cameron Heyward, who led the Steelers with a career-high 12 sacks last season.
When you add it all up, even though the Browns probably can't help but be better, the Steelers figure to improve on their lead in the all-time series.
Updated September 5, 2018