Browns haven’t won an opener since 2004
CLEVELAND — For the Browns, winning the season opener over Pittsburgh could bring closure.
The end of a 17-game losing streak. The first opening-week victory since 2004. More relief from the haunting memories of an 0-16 season. A new beginning for a franchise and fan base that has suffered far too long.
Rarely has a first game felt some important. Beyond big.
“Whew,” Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon said as he considered the multi-layered impact of beating the Steelers. “That’s the equivalent of making the playoffs here, almost a Super Bowl win. It’s something we’ve been wanting for a long time.”
It’s been five years since Gordon played in an opener, and his return after being sidelined for years by personal demons may best symbolize Cleveland’s rebirth.
The Browns believe they’re back.
When they take the field at FirstEnergy Stadium to face their hated rival, the Browns will have 31 new players — including new quarterback Tyrod Taylor and Pro Bowl wide receiver Jarvis Landry — on a roster demolished over the past few months by general manager John Dorsey and his staff. Dorsey was the mastermind of a similar rebuilding project in Kansas City, and he’s in the early stages of pushing Cleveland back to relevance.
The Browns, so accustomed to drama, seem to be coming together. The Steelers, one of the NFL’s standards of consistency, aren’t themselves.
Pittsburgh will likely be without star running back Le’Veon Bell, holding out in a contract dispute that triggered teammates to turn on him earlier this week.
“Honestly it’s a little selfish,” said center Maurkice Pouncey.
“I’m kind of (ticked) right now. It sucks that he’s not here. We’ll move on as a team.”
Bell returned from a lengthy absence last season in time to play in the opener at Cleveland, but he was mostly ineffective and ran for 32 yards on 10 carries in Pittsburgh’s 21-18 win.
The Browns were without dynamic defensive end Myles Garrett that day because of injury, and the second-year defensive end is positive he would have made a difference in the outcome.
Garrett’s healthy and the 2017 No. 1 overall pick knows what a win for the Browns could bring.
“It’d be an eye opener for the rest of the league,” he said.
WEAK 1: The last time the Browns won an opener, Jeff Garcia was their starting quarterback, one of 29 for the team since 1999.
Cleveland’s last opening win came in 2004 over Baltimore, and the first-week losses since have set the tone for so many losing seasons. Coach Hue Jackson tried to downplay the magnitude of Sunday’s matchup while appreciating its enormity.
“I am not going to say it is the Super Bowl,” he said. “The Super Bowl is in February, but it is a huge game for us. It is our division rival. It is an AFC North game, so it really counts as two. We all recognize that, and we want to get to winning as fast as we can, but it is a 16-game season and we get that, too.”
THIS BUD’S FOR YOU: The Steelers got 16 of their franchise-record and NFL-leading 57 sacks last season against Cleveland. Still, that didn’t stop them from flipping outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree in the offseason hoping to produce more pressure off the edge. Pittsburgh picked up Dupree’s fifth-year option for 2019 and moved him to the quarterback’s blind side.
“What Bud did too much of last year, in my opinion, was he got past the quarterback,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “To me, you’re useless when you’re past the quarterback and trying to rush the quarterback. Now, he won’t be as useless behind the quarterback because he can work back a little bit, or he can go up and under where the quarterback won’t see him.”
TAYLOR’S TURN: Taylor helped Buffalo snap a 17-year playoff drought in Buffalo last season. His first goal in Cleveland? One win.
Despite drafting Baker Mayfield with No. 1 overall pick, the Browns are starting Taylor while the Heisman Trophy winner develops.
“He’s a capable quarterback,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “His mobility and decision making are excellent. Anytime that you have anybody under center who brings those two components of mobility, things that you are able to do schematically and things that he is able to create form an ad lib prospective, and you couple that with decision making, that it is a weapon.”
OLD FRIENDS: Todd Haley’s on the other side of the Steelers-Browns rivalry.
After six seasons with Pittsburgh, Haley is running Cleveland’s offense. Although he’s not making this matchup personal, the Browns know he wants to show the Steelers what they’re missing.
“It would mean the world to him,” Jackson said. “We all want it. We all want it for him.”
FICHTNER’S FLAVOR: Randy Fichtner spent more than a decade as the quarterbacks coach before being promoted to offensive coordinator when Pittsburgh opted to let Haley’s contract expire. The 54-year-old hasn’t altered the playbook much, but he’s expected to give quarterback Ben Roethlisberger more freedom to run the no-huddle offense.
“I think a lot of it depends on how the game is going, the flow of the game,” said Roethlisberger, who is 21-2 in starts against Cleveland. “We don’t want to force anything, but sometimes you have to try to mix it up and throw some different wrinkles at them.”