We're just about three weeks out from the start of the 2011 NFL season for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Perhaps randomly, or perhaps to get the immediate attention of fans after a long, ugly lockout, the rival Steelers and Baltimore Ravens will meet in Week 1 in Baltimore. Some fans have expressed their disappointment and bewilderment that the NFL wouldn't schedule both Steelers-Ravens games later in the season once the rust is gone and the stakes are high. I hear that, but I also don't mind getting one of the two heavyweight bouts out of the way right out of the gate.
We'll get to Baltimore a bit later, though, as we begin a series of preview of each of the Steelers' three AFC North foes. Let's begin with the Cleveland Browns. then turn our attention to the Cincinnati Bengals around the first of September. To conclude, we'll get amped up for the opener against Baltimore the week of.
Optimism is in the air along Lake Erie. Despite winning just five games in 2011, the Cleveland Browns took several important steps forward in year one of the Mike Holmgren era. The biggest development was the emergence of rookie quarterback Colt McCoy. After drafting the former Texas Longhorn, Holmgren made it clear last offseason that McCoy would spend the 2010 season on the bench learning under Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace. After both went down with injuries, the Browns had little choice but to throw McCoy into the fire. His debut came in Week 6 against none other than the Steelers.
McCoy made plenty of rookie mistakes in his first NFL season, but he more than earned the trust of his teammates and coaches despite leading his team to victory in just two of the eight games he started. McCoy, the all-time winningest quarterback in NCAA history, followed up with an impressive display of leadership during the lockout, organizing players-only workouts throughout the spring and summer. To his credit, Delhomme attended many of these sessions to help McCoy and others get up to speed with the new West Coast offense that Pat Shurmur would be implementing for 2011.
The hard work seems to be paying off so far this preseason. McCoy threw three touchdown passes in the first half of Cleveland's second preseason game, a 30-28 loss to the Detroit Lions. Though probably not too significant, the Browns' defensive reserves blew a 15-point second-half lead to drop the team's record to 1-1 so far in the preseason. In Cleveland's preseason opener, McCoy was 9-for-10 for 135 yards and one touchdown. Browns' fans are justifiably excited about what McCoy and the offense might be able to accomplish when the lights go on for real beginning September 11.
Peyton Hillis, a bruising, old-school running back cast aside by the Broncos, was the biggest surprise for the Browns last season. Hillis rushed for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns, and proved equally valuable in the passing game with 61 receptions for 477 yards and two more scores. He'll try to avoid the Madden Curse in 2011 after winning a fan vote to determine who would be on the cover of this year's popular video game franchise.
The Browns are probably a year away from being a real threat to the AFC North crown, but they positioned themselves well for the long haul in this year's draft. Cleveland traded their No. 6 pick to the Atlanta Falcons in exchange for Atlanta's No. 27, 59 (second-round) and 124 (fourth-round) picks, as well as the Falcons’ first- and fourth-round picks in the 2012 NFL Draft. Talk about a nice haul. The Browns then moved up to No. 21 to select Phil Taylor, a hulking nose tackle out of Baylor who could be a beast if he stays out of trouble and in shape. The Taylor selection clearly indicated how important Holmgren believes it is to match the Steelers and Ravens' physicality in the trenches. New defensive coordinator Dick Jauron has his hands full rebuilding a Browns defense that will be introducing multiple new players and a new attacking scheme that will take some time to implement. Improving their 29th-ranked rushing defense would certainly give Jauron more options.
McCoy also got a new weapon in Greg Little, the Browns' second-round selection from North Carolina. Little was suspended for his senior season, but there's not really much reason to be concerned about his character. The suspension hurt his draft stock, but that just means the Browns maybe got a first-round talent on Day 2. Little has caught two passes in both preseason games, including a touchdown reception in the loss to Detroit.
The Browns appear to have a favorable schedule to begin the year. They play three of their first four at home before their bye week, with a Week 2 road tilt against Indianapolis representing the biggest challenge. Then Cleveland plays at Oakland, Seattle and at San Francisco. A 6-2 or 5-3 start is certainly a possibility. Cleveland doesn't square off against the Steelers until Week 14 at Heinz Field. The two old rivals play again to conclude the season in Week 17.
Again, it might not be for another year or two that the Steelers-Browns rivalry is completely renewed, but it sure looks like the once-proud Browns franchise is well on its way back towards respectability.