The Browns will likely host a Steelers team playing without star running back Le'Veon Bell this weekend.
Bell, the three-time Pro Bowler who has yet to report to the team's facility over an ongoing contract dispute, is not expected to play in Sunday's season opener.
Cleveland will still have to account for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown, who form arguably the NFL's best pass-and-catch combo. In the 2017 opener, Brown hauled in a wild deep pass late in the game that sealed a 21-18 loss.
"He's a really, really, really good receiver. He's someone that Ben looks to," defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said. "The big thing is that you will never, ever, ever take him away. You just try to minimize. We did a pretty good job of that last year. Had quite a few catches but minimized the effect, except for a couple of plays. He makes those two plays on you, and it puts points on the board. You are always in that dilemma of trying to minimize."
Roethlisberger and Brown will face off against a Browns defense that overhauled its defensive secondary in the offseason. Cleveland's run defense, meanwhile, is ready for plenty of second-year Steelers running back James Conner, who is expected to receive the starting nod in place of Bell this weekend.
"I think Conner has really done well in the preseason," Williams said. "(I've) taken a look at that and you take a look at the other times that they had their other backs coming in there. And it may be a two-headed or three-headed monster where whoever the backs dress instead of Le'Veon just taking all of them. But we're used to doing that. We're used to seeing that so just got to adapt to wherever they play."
Conner, the former Pitt standout who overcame Hodgkin's Lymphoma, is part of a Steelers backfield that includes rookie Jaylen Samuels and Stevan Ridley.
— The Browns named rookie Desmond Harrison their starting left tackle Friday, filling the massive void left by perennial Pro Bowler Joe Thomas, who retired in March after 11 seasons. Jackson expressed confidence in the talented but unproven undrafted free agent.
"When he came here, we were very excited about him. There were some things that he did at OTAs. You could see it," Jackson said. "Then it got be to how bad did he want to be the left tackle. He just kept working. Just put his head down and worked. It's one heck of a story, but it doesn't matter until game day. He has to go do it."
Harrison emerged as the starting left tackle after missing most of training camp with a toe injury. He joins a new-look offensive line that returns starters in left guard Joel Bitonio, center JC Tretter and right guard Kevin Zeitler. The Browns signed former right tackle Chris Hubbard in free agency last spring.
— Jackson said star receiver Josh Gordon is "ias close to being totally back as I have seen in a while." Gordon, who returned last month after an unexpected leave of absence, is expected to play significant time Sunday but won't start. "He's made some really good plays in practice," Jackson said. "We want to see him do it on Sunday. That's what it's all about."
— Second-year defensive end Myles Garrett was voted one of five captains Thursday, the youngest member of a group full of veterans. Williams said Garrett, the first overall pick in 2017, has been "outstanding" heading into what could be a breakout season. "You don't become a captain because of what you're saying; it's because of what you're doing. It's your everyday focus, everyday habits, everyday work."
— Harrison's move to the starting lineup means fellow rookie Austin Corbett heads to the bench, at least for now. Corbett, the 33rd overall pick, showed promise in the preseason as Cleveland's starting left guard when the Browns briefly moved Joel Bitonio over to left tackle last month. Corbett, who played tackle all four years at Nevada, said he's still growing as a member of the interior line.
"I just have to keep improving. It's a position I've never played. You have Joel, who's Pro Bowl caliber," he said. "I'm nowhere near that level and so just keep getting better and working every day to get to that level."
— Rookie receiver Antonio Callaway will be the team's primary punt returner, special teams coordinator Amos Jones said. Cleveland will also keep second-year safety Jabrill Peppers ready in a "split-time situation with those guys based on hot hand or who is playing the most side on that side of the ball, as well," Jones said.