The Pittsburgh Steelers are about to kick off their 2017 regular season schedule against the Browns, but they will be doing so without Bud Dupree, their starting left outside linebacker. He was a game-day decision dealing with a shoulder injury. Anthony Chickillo will likely start in his place, but also expect to see rookie T.J. Watt playing on that side with James Harrison logging time on the right.
The Browns will also be without the player who is supposed to be their top pass-rusher, as first-overall draft pick Myles Garrett will miss a few weeks with an ankle injury. But they will certainly not be lacking a rookie presence, as Jabrill Peppers will start at safety and returner, David Njoku will start at tight end, and DeShone Kizer will be under center. The Steelers will be starting T.J. Watt at outside linebacker, and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster may line up as the kick returner and the slot receiver.
The Steelers won the coin toss and deferred, with Chris Boswell kicking the ball deep into the end zone for a touchback. On first down, Kizer was flushed out of the pocket and forced to scramble for no gain by Tuitt. The newly-minted millionaire then showed Isaiah Crowell out of bounds on a sweep right for a loss of nine. On third and 18, a false start was called on Joe Thomas. Now third and 23, the Browns played it safe with a draw for just four yards.
Notably, it was Eli Rogers back to return the punt. Tyler Matakevich blocked the punt, however, and Anthony Chickillo recovered for the touchdown.
Boswell’s second kickoff in just a few minutes was fielded for a touchback. Crowell this time picked up five yards on first down. It looked like he got a first down on the second play, but a hold was called on Njoku. Now second and 15, the back got back four yards to set up third and 11. Kizer’s first pass attempt was good to Njoku with William Gay in coverage for the first down.
Chickillo was the beneficiary of an eventual coverage sack for a loss of seven. A short pass to the left was stopped by Artie Burns after one yard. On third and 16, Mike Mitchell was sent in on a safety blitz and bought time for Cameron Heyward to get there for the second sack of the game. Rogers this time got a chance to return the punt for a short gain before stepping out of bounds.
The offense finally took the field with five wide, the first play of the season going to Rogers for an eight-yard gain, but it was called back due to a hold on JuJu Smith-Schuster. On second and 18, still five wide, Roethlisberger threw in the flat to Brown for a short gain. The next pass went to Martavis Bryant for a short gain but Vance McDonald was called for a hold. Bryant then dropped the flat pass on second and 25 to set up third and 25. Brown got some back on third down, but not nearly enough. Jordan Berry’s punt went out of bounds at the Browns’ 32-yard line. Darrius Heyward-Bey the nearside gunner.
Tuitt was declared questionable to return with a left arm injury. Crowell picked up three yards to the left on first down. Kizer overthrew Duke Johnson with Mike Hilton in coverage. Shazier’s blitz up the middle was picked up, with Johnson breaking a Chickillo tackle for a first down near midfield. Crowell with a full head of steam picked up six, and a quick short pass to Ricardo Louis added a couple more to set up third and one. Kizer snuck forward to get the first down.
Kizer flushed out to his right and threw a nice pass to his slot receiver in front of Sean Davis for eight. On second down, the third-string running back picked up first-down yardage near the 30-yard line. Davis came up on a run blitz to tackle Crowell near the line on first down. Johnson caught a short pass in front of Hilton for six. On third and three, Kizer looked down the field for Njoku, incomplete, but Davis was falgged for pass interference, setting up first and goal. Crowell got two yards to the one on first down. Kizer kept it to sneak in for the touchdown on second and goal, tying the game at seven near the end of the first quarter.
It was Smith-Schuster and Terrell Watson back to return the kickoff, with the back fielding it for a touchback. Roethlisberger looked for Bryant on a crossing route, a high throw off of Bryant’s hand that was nearly intercepted off the tip. On second down, Le’Veon Bell was tripped up for no gain on his first rushing attempt, the last play of the opening quarter. On third and 10, the Browns left Jesse James uncovered off the right sideline in an obvious blown coverage for an easy first down.
After a delay of game penalty, Roethlisberger couldn’t get a screen pass to Bell cleanly out of the backfield, resulting in an incompletion. On the draw, he was wrapped up after about three yards off the right side. Now third and 12, Roethlisberger looked for McDonald over the middle, who dropped the pass on his first target as a Steeler, but it would not have been a first down anyway. Berry’s punt was fielded at about the 12 and returned to near the 19.
Kizer eluded pressure from Javon Hargrave up the middle and took off running up the middle. Ryan Shazier hit the quarterback hard as he slid and was flagged for unnecessary roughness, moving the Browns to the 40.
Heyward stuffed Crowell at the line of scrimmage on the following play. Out of no huddle, Kizer looked deep for Seth DeValve, but the tight end could not reach it, and Joe Haden had a chance at a possible pick. Now third and 11, Kizer was able to avoid pressure from Watt and hit DeValve on the right side. He eluded Haden’s tackle attempt, but Davis cleaned it up before he got a first down. The Browns were able to down the ensuing punt at the five.
J.J. Wilcox was in for Mitchell on the previous drive. It’s unclear if Mitchell is injured or if they are rotating safeties, and if the latter, whether that is by design or because the veteran is returning from injury.
Out of 22 personnel, it was James Conner in the backfield, punching forward for about a yard. On second and nine, he was tripped up in the backfield, but a defensive hold gave the Steelers three yards and an automatic first down. Now from the 12, Roethlisberger connected with Rogers for about nine. Five wide on second and one, he fired quickly but wide for Bell incomplete. Now third and one, Bell was stuffed behind the line, forcing the Steelers to punt. Berry’s punt was a short one that still only got to about the Browns’ 40 after a friendly bounce.
From the 40, some confusion in the backfield as multiple playfakes and a lineman driven into the backfield forced Kizer to regather; but he reset and threw and hit Corey Coleman for 19. Crowell was driven wide for a short gain on the following play. Haden was beat down the right sideline, but the receiver’s foot was out of bounds before he caught the ball. On third and nine, Kizer threw incomplete out of bounds and the Browns were forced to punt after a promising start to the drive. Rogers back, the punt was downed at the 14…an upgrade from the last punt.
A quick hitter to Brown yielded a first down after he made a tackler miss. He fumbled, but out of bounds. Roethlisberger fired to James over the middle for a gain of five, a screen to Bryant on the right side only picked up one yard. Looking for James again, the safety was able to get there for the deflection to force a punt. Peppers got a chance to field a deep punt and returned it out past the 35.
After a couple of short runs for Crowell, Kizer on third and seven was hit as he threw by Shazier, with Hilton also blitzing, forcing a poor throw and a punt. Rogers again back to receive the punt, he returned it about seven yards from the nine to the 16, but a penalty on Heyward-Bey set them back deep once again.
Roethlisberger connected with Brown for a first down, but a peelback block on Bell negated it. A short pass to Bell on the following play added about seven to set up second and seven, Roethlisberger was able to find Brown with some space, creating a 50-yard gain to the 39. That space was created off of a deflection by Joe Schobert, the inside linebacker.
Ben to Brown on a drag route went for another easy first down for 11. Yet another pass to Brown off the right sideline as he made a defender miss for the first down and more. He has six receptions for 102 yards now.
On first and goal from the nine, Roethlisberger had plenty of time to throw, but nobody open, as he threw the ball out of the back of the end zone. Bell was able to shake one tackler to get five. On third down, Roethlisberger was able to stick one in to James for the score, the first offensive points of the year. The Browns had good coverage on the play, but the defender’s stabbing attempt missed the ball. The Steelers regain the lead at 14-7.
L.J. Fort buried Peppers at the 10-yard line on the ensuing kickoff. Mike Tomlin used his first timeout after a short run on first down. After a first down, Haden got home on the blitz and the Browns chose to wind it down to halftime.