The biggest difference about the regular season? The Cleveland Browns are now getting game plan specific on the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Partly because they were running brand new offensive and defensive systems in the preseason, the Browns left open their entire catalog of plays. While play calling in August is clearly vanilla, players aren't able to focus on a few specific play designs that might be able to bust a game wide open. Instead, the team went into games like they were cumulative final exams. That strategy would help the Browns their core beliefs in a game setting, while not revealing too much.
Pettine is a big believer in it being much easier for a football team to focus in on things in small chunks. And that's how the Browns are game planning for the Steelers. Instead of studying 70-80 concepts like they did in the preseason, Browns players have been given 30-40 specific plays for the Steelers.
"It's been nice to be able to finally take that huge inventory, that volume of installation in that thick playbook and be able to trim it down to specifically match an opponent's defense," said Pettine. "Guys can just dial in and know, 'Hey these are the three or four coverages we could get. This is the guy that I have to beat.' It's so much more opponent-specific."
Part of Pettine's process was putting stress on players throughout the offseason. Voluntary offseason workouts under new strength and conditioning coach Paul Ricci were grueling. The famed conditioning test was performed in front of the media, for possibly the first time in NFL history. And at the end of each training camp practice, Pettine made the offense go against the defense in intense goal line drills to create and practice in a competitive atmosphere.
Browns Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas has seen his fair share of coaches – he almost lost track the other day during an interview. The offensive lineman has never gone into a season so confident in how things are being handled from a preparation standpoint.
"That's the first thing that comes across is he knows how he wants to get things done," said Thomas. "He's going to do a great job communicating his message, and he's done a great job putting the assistants in place that he wants. I think everybody's on the same page, which is the number one most important thing that you're going to have on an NFL team."
What's my age again?
A common misconception about the Pittsburgh Steelers: they are old. False. Their prominent players might be, but the core of Pittsburgh's roster has been refurbished in the last few years. The Steelers will walk into Heinz Field on Sunday with only four starters over the age of 30: Ben Roethlisberger (32), tight end Heath Miller (31), cornerback Ike Taylor (34) and safety Troy Polamalu (33). The Steelers are going to heavily lean on quite a younger array of players: running back Le'Veon Bell (22) linebackers Ryan Shazier (21) and Jarvis Jones (24).
The opposite can be said about the Browns, which is actually a reason why the franchise will compete this season. Cleveland has boasted a young roster for several seasons, but now many of the starters are starting to hit their sweet spot. A whopping 15 of the Browns 22 starters on defense are between the ages 25-29. And that excludes 24-year-olds Armonty Bryant and Tashaun Gipson, possibly the two most underrated players on the defense.
Age of players won't have the same affect during Week One as it does Week 17. But keep into account how much experience the Browns' roster has gotten over the last couple of seasons. Many players are entering the prime of their careers.
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