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NFL Preview - Cleveland (0-0) at Pittsburgh (0-0)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin doesn't want to see a repeat of last year's start to the season, one that contributed to a second straight absence from the playoffs.
He might not have to given his club's current winning streak over its Week 1 opponent, the Cleveland Browns.
The Steelers look to defeat their AFC North rivals for an 11th straight time in the Steel City on Sunday in a matchup at Heinz Field.
Despite some notable highlights -- among them a healthy campaign for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a break out year from wide receiver Antonio Brown -- an 0-4 start to the year doomed the Steelers to a second straight 8-8 finish.
Pittsburgh has not missed the postseason in three straight years since 1998-2000 and Tomlin is embracing the challenge of getting his team on track.
"I'm trying to get better each and every year and, for me, it's about that," said Tomlin, who is 3-1 on Kickoff Weekend at Heinz Field. "I like the urgency of now. I embrace that. It's a motivator for me. Obviously I'd rather have high expectations than low expectations."
The expectations of this game should be a win as the Steelers' 10-game home winning streak over the Browns is tied for the sixth longest active home winning streak against an opponent in the NFL.
Challenging Pittsburgh will be the fact that as many as seven players with two or fewer years of experience could be in the starting lineup on Sunday.
For the Browns, they open with yet another new head coach in Mike Pettine, named as the 15th full-time head coach in team history after replacing Rob Chudzinski following his one-year stint as head coach.
Under Chudzinski, Cleveland missed the playoffs for an 11th straight campaign and ended the year on a seven-game losing streak to go 4-12.
The Browns have 24 new players on the active roster from a year ago, none bigger in name alone than possibly Johnny Manziel.
Cleveland selected Manziel in the first round of the most recent draft out of Texas A&M, but he will begin the season as the backup to Brian Hoyer, who is returning from an injury that derailed his promising 2013 start.
"(Hoyer) was the clear leader from the beginning," Pettine admitted when naming him the starter. "We've maintained all along that if it was close, I would prefer to go with the more experienced player. Brian has done a great job in the meeting rooms and with his teammates on the practice field and in the locker room."
Those meeting rooms and practice fields will be absence star wide receiver Josh Gordon, who was suspended for a year by the NFL for a second failed drug test. That robbed Cleveland of last year's leading receiver as Gordon topped the NFL with 1,646 receiving yards.
Cleveland has lost each of its last nine season openers since a win over Baltimore in 2004 and Pettine is aiming to become the first Browns head coach to win his coaching debut since Bud Carson in 1989.
The Browns and Steelers are meeting in a season opener for the sixth time and for the first time since 2007. Cleveland is beginning a season on the road for only the second time since the club returned to the NFL in 1999.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Steelers are slowly turning to youth on the defensive side of things, with four-year pros Steve McLendon and Cam Thomas joining Cameron Heyward, himself going into his fourth season on the front line and rookie Ryan Shazier slated to start at inside linebacker next to Lawrence Timmons.
Cornerback Cortez Allen is another player with limited experience, but the defense does still contain veterans Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor in the secondary and Lawrence Timmons at linebacker.
On the other side, Roethlisberger is coming off a 2013 season in which he passed for more than 4,200 yards and had 28 touchdowns to 14 interceptions, while Brown posted the most receiving yards (1,499) and second-most receptions (110) by a Steelers player in team history.
Pittsburgh countered the free agency losses of Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery by signing Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey, but should feature 2013 second-round pick Markus Wheaton a lot at receiver.
Another player from that draft class, second-round pick Le'Veon Bell, comes into the season as the starting running back despite his reported arrest along with fellow running back LeGarrette Blunt in late August on charges of marijuana possession. Bell also faces an additional charge of DUI.
Still, Bell should be in action after a solid rookie campaign and Tomlin will count on his young players getting better, especially Shazier.
"I think that's one of the points that you continue to re-iterate to young players ... (is) that yeah it's a significant point in the journey when we move from preseason to regular season but (Shazier's) by no means a finished product. We're by no means a finished product," said the coach.
Hoyer is hoping that the offense is a finished product, at least on paper with him as the starter, though he will have Manziel looking over his shoulder all season.
After beginning his career backing up Tom Brady in New England and then having short and uneventful stints in Pittsburgh (2 games in 2012) and Arizona, Hoyer showed a brief flash of being a capable quarterback with the Browns last season before suffering a season-ending ACL injury in his third start.
Hoyer threw for 615 yards with five touchdown passes to three interceptions in three wins and should be motivated to prove the quick success wasn't a fluke.
"It's been my mentality this whole offseason to come out here and act like the starter and be the starter," said Hoyer, who added he cracked a smile when told he would be the starter. "You realize all the work I put in, now here's my shot. Now just go out, and run with it. All you can do is ask for an opportunity and to go out and try and seize it. Now that it's here, it's time to work harder."
He'll have to work hard without Gordon, with expected starters Andrew Hawkins and Miles Austin brought in during the offseason to help fill the void along with talented tight end Jordan Cameron.
Free agent running back Ben Tate will carry the load in the backfield and former Towson Tiger back Terrance West was drafted in the third round.
Pettine is high on Tate and could be set to give him a heavy workload.
"He's definitely excited," said Pettine of Tate. "You can tell he's got a confidence about him. He does have a chip on his shoulder. He's out to prove something."
Cleveland's other first-round pick of the most recent draft, cornerback Justin Gilbert, will have a better chance to have an impact in Week 1 even if he enters as the backup to Buster Skrine.
Skrine will start opposite the talented Joe Haden, while hard-hitting safety Donte Whitner was added to replace free agent departee T.J. Ward.
Plenty of players and coaches enter this game with something to prove, though expectations will be much lower for one side.
For the Browns, Pettine is hoping he made the right decision by going with Hoyer, but he'll need Tate and West to take some pressure off the quarterback. That will be hard without Gordon, but Cameron is as good as they come at tight end.
The Steelers, meanwhile, are on a quest to return to the playoffs and have enough veterans around to kick start the urgency needed for a good start. Getting a favorable matchup, one that should see Bell have a pretty good outing, at home will help too.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 27, Browns 13
09/04 12:07:54 ET