1:00 PM ET, September 7, 2014
Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA
The NFL's leading receiver from 2013 has begun a year-long suspension, there's a third coach in three years on the sidelines and the team owner is two months removed from being hit with a $92 million fine.
Yet somehow, the biggest storyline of the Cleveland Browns' offseason will begin Week 1 holding a clipboard.
Brian Hoyer will get the start but all eyes will be on Johnny Manziel on Sunday at Heinz Field, where Cleveland begins yet another new era against a Pittsburgh Steelers team hoping an injection of speed and youth can help it emerge from mediocrity.
Winning four or five games for six straight seasons has left the Browns hitting the reset button quite often, but it still registered as a bit of a surprise when they fired first-year coach Rob Chudzinski hours after concluding a 4-12 season with a 20-7 loss in Pittsburgh.
That set in motion what even by Cleveland's standards was a tumultuous offseason. It took nearly a month for owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner to settle on Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine as the new coach. Haslam agreed in July to pay a $92 million penalty for cheating customers out of promised rebates with his truck-stop company, the culmination of a 14-month federal inquiry. And Josh Gordon, who led the NFL with 1,646 receiving yards in 2013 despite a two-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, was handed a one-year ban for his latest violation just 10 days before the start of the season.
In the midst of all that, the Browns selected Manziel with their second first-round pick -- their latest attempt to unearth a franchise passer for a team that's used 11 opening-day starters since 1999.
But it'll be Hoyer, not the Heisman Trophy winner, who will be No. 12 after a preseason in which both struggled to distinguish themselves.
"This is Brian's job," Pettine said. "I never think of it whether it's a leash or we want a guy to be a game manager. We want him to be confident and go out and play."
Hoyer showed flashes in two starts last season before injuring his knee in the third, yet it figures to be only a matter of time before the calls for the rookie begin. But Manziel completed just 50.8 percent of his passes in the preseason, was fined $12,000 for flipping his middle finger at the Redskins' sideline and was ripped by Haslam after photos of his nightclub escapades in Austin and Las Vegas surfaced in July.
The Steelers, in fact, expect to see Manziel in some capacity Sunday.
"They didn't draft him in the first round to watch," coach Mike Tomlin said.
With Tomlin back for an eighth season and Ben Roethlisberger entering his second decade as Pittsburgh's quarterback, there's again a sense of stability for the Steelers.
For the past two years, though, that hasn't meant much. After going 12-4 and making it to two Super Bowls from 2008-11, Pittsburgh has been out of the playoffs the last two seasons after a pair of 8-8 finishes.
"There is a sense of urgency," receiver Lance Moore said. "We know 8-8 is not what this organization is all about. This organization is about competing for championships and we're going to be willing to do whatever it takes to get back to that."
Moore is one of a few new targets for Roethlisberger and the Steelers, who lost receiver Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery in free agency. Fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant is questionable for Week 1, but he'll add some height to group that includes the 5-foot-9 Moore, 5-10 Antonio Brown and 5-11 Markus Wheaton.
There's another rookie weapon in the 5-8 Dri Archer, a running back who clocked a 4.26-second 40 at the NFL combine. Archer will split punt returns with Brown and also figures to split out wide in an offense that plans to go no-huddle more frequently.
"We have some young people who are capable of infusing some speed, but we're not going to hang our hats on that, and we're not going to talk too much about it," Tomlin said.
The Steelers had their own bit of preseason controversy when top-two running backs Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount were arrested -- and Bell charged with a DUI -- after their car was stopped and a bag of marijuana was found a day before their preseason game against Philadelphia.
Tomlin said the team chose to handle their discipline internally.
Pettine brings a blitz-heavy style over from Buffalo to a defense that was an impressive ninth overall (332.4 yards per game) last season, and his new team will be facing a unit that's no stranger to blitzing in Dick LeBeau's defense.
It just might look a bit different. Speedy rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier will start in the middle, second-round pick Stephon Tuitt will see plenty of time on the defensive line, Mike Mitchell will replace veteran safety Ryan Clark and pricey linebacker LaMarr Woodley was released.
The Browns are also counting on former Texan Ben Tate to step up in his first chance as a full-time back, though that won't be easy Sunday. Cleveland has scored three rushing touchdowns while losing 19 of 21 to Pittsburgh.
It's lost 10 straight at Heinz Field by an average of more than two touchdowns and hasn't won a season opener since 2004.
Just don't tell Pettine that the odds are against him.
"Browns at Steelers in Week 1, in your first game as an NFL head coach?" he told the Browns' official website. "It doesn't get any better than that."
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|Avg Points Allowed||30.0||27.0|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
|TEAM OFFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||CLE|
|Rush Yds Allowed||CLE|
Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|Pittsburgh leads 25-4|
|Dec 29, 2013||CLE 7, @PIT 20|
|Nov 24, 2013||CLE 11, PIT 27|
|Dec 30, 2012||CLE 10, @PIT 24|
|Nov 25, 2012||CLE 20, PIT 14|
|Jan 1, 2012||CLE 9, PIT 13|
|Dec 8, 2011||CLE 3, @PIT 14|
|Jan 2, 2011||CLE 9, PIT 41|
|Oct 17, 2010||CLE 10, @PIT 28|
|Dec 10, 2009||CLE 13, PIT 6|
|Oct 18, 2009||CLE 14, @PIT 27|
|Dec 28, 2008||CLE 0, @PIT 31|
|Sep 14, 2008||CLE 6, PIT 10|
|Nov 11, 2007||CLE 28, @PIT 31|
|Sep 9, 2007||CLE 7, PIT 34|
|Dec 7, 2006||CLE 7, @PIT 27|
|Nov 19, 2006||CLE 20, PIT 24|
|Dec 24, 2005||CLE 0, PIT 41|
|Nov 13, 2005||CLE 21, @PIT 34|
|Nov 14, 2004||CLE 10, PIT 24|
|Oct 10, 2004||CLE 23, @PIT 34|
|Nov 23, 2003||CLE 6, PIT 13|
|Oct 5, 2003||CLE 33, @PIT 13|
|Jan 5, 2003||CLE 33, @PIT 36|
|Nov 3, 2002||CLE 20, PIT 23|
|Sep 29, 2002||CLE 13, @PIT 16|
|Jan 6, 2002||CLE 7, @PIT 28|
|Nov 11, 2001||CLE 12, PIT 15|
Ben Roethlisberger was 15-of-17 for 251 yards and a touchdown targeting wide receivers Sunday. Antonio Brown (five catches, 116 yards and a TD) was his typically productive self, but Markus Wheaton (six catches for 97 yards) gave Pittsburgh the secondary threat it lacked last year.[+]
Ben Roethlisberger Targeting WRs
Ben Roethlisberger threw for 278 yards in the 1st half against the Browns Sunday. That's the most for Roethlisberger in a 1st half in his career.
ESPN Stats & Information