When the Pittsburgh Steelers head to Ohio for Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns, they know what they’re getting into already. They’ve been here before. There’s a little bit of old, but a little bit of new as well. Cleveland is one of the teams that most consistently churns over its roster year after year, so they know the cast will be different. But the circumstances are quite similar to last year.
“We recognize the challenge that this is. Opening our season on the road in a hostile environment against a divisional opponent, a rival”, Head Coach Mike Tomlin said during his pre-game press conference. “We understand what that means. We understand how important this game is to the Cleveland Browns”.
The Browns are coming off just the second 0-16 season in NFL history, and that was on the back of a 1-15 season, giving them a 1-31 record over the course of the past two years, which is the worst record in NFL history. Both of the previous two teams that went at least 0-14 won at least two games in each of the two surrounding years.
“It probably was of similar importance 12 months ago when we opened up in Cleveland under similar circumstances”, Tomlin recalled of being hosted by the Browns a year ago in their opener after finishing 1-15 the previous season.
“So we have a frame of reference largely for those of us that had been here in terms of the importance of this game, the environmental aspect of our preparation, and ultimately what type of situation we’re going into”.
And within that frame of reference, they also might want to recall that they very nearly lost that game, and had it not been for a blocked punt that was recovered for a touchdown on the opening possession, things might have turned out differently.
The Steelers ended up winning that game by just three points, 21-18, the rare special-teams touchdown providing the margin of victory, though they did pull ahead to a score of 21-10 with 5:37 to go before the Browns came back to score and net a two-point conversion with 3:38 to play.
The offense was able to close out of game after Ben Roethlisberger completed a 38-yard pass to Antonio Brown on second and 12 following a holding call on the previous play. Le’Veon Bell ran for a 15-yard gain and a first down on the play after that, which led to the victory formation.
Still, with an offense that has barely played together—Brown and Bell have gotten no preseason work, Roethlisberger just four drives in a single game—there is a very real chance the offense starts out slow as it did a year ago.