Tough Trip To Cleveland Kicks Off 2007 Season For Steelers

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

Sunday, September 09, 2007
By Eddie Griffin
Steelers Fever Columnist

Well, we're finally here. After months and months of anticipation, and replaying last season over and over in our minds, it's finally time to turn our attention to the 2007 season.

James HarrisonPittsburgh's quest to recapture the AFC North and return to the playoffs begins on Sunday with a matchup at division rival Cleveland.

The Browns are looking for improvement in Romeo Crennel's third year at the helm, while success is expected in Pittsburgh, even with a new man in charge.

Will the Browns get their season off to the perfect start by holding down the fort at home, or will the official start of the Mike Tomlin era be a winning one for the Steelers?

Looking at the Browns

We all know how bad the Browns have been in the last several years. Crennel is 10-22 in two seasons in Cleveland, including a 4-12 record in 2006.

Browns fans do have a little reason to feel optimistic about the future, as several needs were addressed in the offseason. The Browns drafted tackle Joe Thomas third overall, and traded their 2008 first-rounder to the Cowboys for the chance to get Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. Through the free agent market, Cleveland picked up former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis, who's just a few years removed from a 2,066-yard season, former Cincinnati left guard Eric Steinbach, and another proven veteran lineman in Seth McKinney, who will line up at right guard for the Browns.

Even though Quinn had an excellent preseason after signing a couple of weeks into training camp, it wasn't enough for him to be named the starter. Charlie Frye, who just a couple of seasons ago was looked at as being the future for the Browns at quarterback, gets another chance to prove himself. He had 17 interceptions, compared to only 10 touchdowns, in 2006 before being yanked in favor of Derek Anderson late in the season.

Whoever is at quarterback, he can throw to a few good targets. When Kellen Winslow, Jr. isn't busy running off at the mouth, he's a pretty good tight end. Braylon Edwards had 61 catches, 884 yards and six touchdowns last season and will push for a 1,000-yard season, if he can get the ball enough.

But if the new-look offensive line does indeed lead to a much better and consistent offense, what will be the case on defense? The defense had actually been the strong point while the offense struggled mightily in recent seasons, but last year it was ranked in the 20s in both total yards and points allowed. The defense is going to have to step it up so that the offense improvement isn't negated.

Keys to Victory

Getting in the backfield on a regular basis will not only test the Browns' new offensive line, but it'll also help rattle Frye, which can bring out his proneness to making mistakes.

The run defense is going to need to be as good as ever, in order to prevent Lewis from having a big debut in a Browns uniform.

On offense, a big day from running back Willie Parker might carry the Steelers to a win. The Browns' run defense was one of the league's worst last season, and they're going to have their hands full with Parker.

Cleveland actually has a pretty respectable pass defense, so quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's focus doesn't need to be on trying to carve up the Cleveland D through the air. Rather, he can mix it up, spread it around, and minimize the amount of risks. Efficiency is more important than big numbers.

And the offensive line is going to have to keep the Browns out of the backfield. The O-line has been a point of much discussion in the preseason, and the hope is that the combination that Coach Tomlin has decided to go with is able to hold their own against the Browns' pressure, otherwise there'll be quite a few uneasy people.

Key Matchups

Browns' offensive line vs. Steelers front seven

One of the keys to who wins this game is who wins this battle.

If the Browns O-line can keep the Steelers at bay, that will open the way for Frye and Lewis to be productive, and while Pittsburgh's offense can more than hold its own, you'd much rather avoid a shootout.

WR Santonio Holmes vs. CB Eric Wright

You can be assured that Big Ben's going to try to pick on the rookie cornerback at least a couple of times early.

If he gets burned, then Holmes could have a huge day. But Wright is no amateur, as he was one of the nation's best corners at USC and UNLV. Wright had the good fortune of going up against the likes of Mike Williams (he used to be good, remember?), Keary Colbert, Dwayne Jarrett, and Steve Smith in practice, so he'll be prepared.

ROLB James Harrison vs. LT Joe Thomas

Harrison has said he's shooting for twelve sacks this season. Can he get a couple on Sunday? That might be easier said than done against a guy who's pretty agile for an offensive lineman.

If Harrison can at least disrupt the rookie, that might wear him down as the game goes on, and he could find his path to Charlie Frye a little bit easier.

RB Willie Parker vs. Cleveland's linebackers

Last season against the Browns, Parker set a Steelers' single-game record with 223 yards in a 27-7 Pittsburgh win at Heinz Field.

But when the teams had played weeks earlier in Cleveland, Parker was limited to 46 yards on 16 carries.

Which will it be on Sunday? If Cleveland's two young linebackers, D'Qwell Jackson and Kamerion Wimbley, have to chase Parker around, it could be a long way. But, if they can out hustle the O-line and get into the backfield on a regular basis, they might be able to shut him down, and that could be the key to an 'upset'.

What We'll See

The Browns have been the butt of a lot of jokes and likely will continue to be until they turn things around.

But that time might be closer than anyone thinks. They were a highly competitive team last season, and with all of the improvements on offense and a good collection of young talent on defense, the Browns won't be a pushover for anyone in 2007.

It's not New England, but it's definitely a tough test for the Steelers to open their season against a team with a lot to prove, and an early chance to do so against a team many expect to be in the playoffs.

It won't be a surprise if the Browns come out on top on Sunday, but the Steelers will be favored to win because they are the better team, without a doubt.

But Pittsburgh does have question marks of its own and can't afford to stumble out of the gate if they want to make a run in the AFC North.

If the offenses get going early, then we might be in store for a high-scoring game. If it ends up being a defensive battle, you would have to favor the Steelers. If the scoreboard starts getting lit up, then it's a toss-up.

Last year's game at Cleveland was a 24-20 Steelers win, and you can expect this one to be every bit as competitive.

In the end, the Steelers should win. But, if they don't, don't start pressing the panic button just yet, because at the end of the season, a loss at Cleveland may not look as bad as it might feel at the beginning.