CLEVELAND – On paper, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns would appear to be a mismatch.
After all, the Browns are coming off a 1-15 season. The Steelers went 11-5 and advanced to the AFC Championship.
And the Steelers have added some key players, including wide receiver Martavis Bryant, while the Browns are continuing their rebuild and have a roster that includes 18 players who are rookies.
But, as the New England Patriots learned Thursday night in the NFL’s season opener, games aren’t played on paper.
And if the Kansas City Chiefs can go to New England and win as 9-point underdogs, then the Browns can beat the Steelers at home as 9-point underdogs.
At least that is what Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin will have to convince his team of before the teams meet today in the regular-season opener at FirstEnergy Stadium.
After all, opening the season with an AFC North game makes this game one with greater importance.
“We understand it’s AFC North football. I’m excited about that,” Tomlin said. “I believe our guys will be excited about that.”
The game will be a warmup of sorts for Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell.
Bell skipped the offseason workouts and preseason, signing his franchise tag contract Monday. He’ll make $12.12 million this season but has practiced for only four days.
Tomlin plans on giving Bell his normal workload, which could be a significant amount of touches. Bell averaged 28 per game last season.
“I want as many carries as I need to get to win games,” said Bell, who had offseason surgery to repair a torn groin injury that forced him out early in last season’s AFC Championship loss at New England. “The biggest thing for me is, I do not care if I have nine carries. If I come out the game and we win that’s all that matter to me. If I have 39 carries and we win that’s all that matters to me.
“I have to be prepared for 40 carries or be prepared for 10. Whatever it is they may use me, I have to prepare for everything and I think I did my best in the offseason to prepare for that.”
If Bell isn’t ready, the Steelers did select running back James Conner in the third round of the draft to serve as his backup.
They also selected T.J. Watt in the first round and he will be the first rookie outside linebacker to start in the season opener since Aaron Jones in 1988.
“He doesn’t make mistakes. You tell him one time and that’s all you need to tell him,” said defensive coordinator Keith Butler of Watt, the younger brother of three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt of Houston.
“I’ve always thought pro football players never made the same mistake twice. They learn from their mistakes and they don’t repeat them, and I think he’s one of those types.”
The Browns hope they can say the same thing about rookie quarterback Deshone Kizer.
A second-round draft pick, Kizer will be the 27th starting quarterback for the Browns since they returned to the NFL in 1999.
Kizer (6-4, 235 pounds) has a big arm and moves well in the pocket, but the Steelers have plans for him.
“He’s a young quarterback and you know what we have to do to young quarterbacks – we have to destroy them,” said Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt. “That’s my mentality.”
The game will be a homecoming for new Steelers cornerback Joe Haden, who spent his first seven NFL seasons with the Browns before being released last week when he refused to take a pay cut.
The Steelers signed the former first-round draft pick just hours later and he’ll start his first game for his new team in his old home.
Haden has been able to give the Steelers some insight into Kizer’s capabilities.
“They go deep all the time,” Haden said. “So, especially with me being there, I expect them to try it.”
The Steelers have a deep threat back of their own in Bryant, who will be playing in his first regular-season opener. He wasn’t active for the opener in his rookie season in 2014 and sat out the openers in both 2015 and 2016 while suspended for violation of the league’s substance abuse policy.
After missing all of last season, With Bell, Bryant, wide receiver Antonio Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back on the football field together, the Steelers are excited about the possibilities they have on offense.
“The sky is the limit,” said Bryant. “We just have to work hard and trust in each other and trust in each other’s capability, and have fun doing it. If we do it, we will be fine.”
Odds and end zones
The Steelers put Bell on their 53-man roster Saturday and released linebacker Steven Johnson. ... The Steelers have won the past four games against the Browns and eight of nine. … Outside linebacker Bud Dupree suffered a shoulder injury in practice Thursday and is questionable to play. … Rookie defensive end Myles Garrett, the top pick in this year’s draft, suffered a sprained ankle in practice this week and won’t play for Cleveland. … Brown needs one touchdown to tie Lynn Swann (51) for third on the Steelers’ all-time list. A 100-yard game by Brown would break a tie with Hines Ward (29) for the most in team history.