Todd Haley traded his Black and Yellow for Orange and Brown earlier this year, but the Browns' offensive coordinator is adamant this weekend's game against the Steelers is business as usual.
"Every week is the biggest game of the year," he said Thursday. "This just so happens to be against the team I worked for for the last six years."
Indeed, things come full circle for Haley when Cleveland hosts Pittsburgh in Sunday's season opener. And to be clear, the veteran assistant understands the magnitude of the rivalry between the two teams. A native of Western Pennsylvania, he grew up the son of longtime Steelers personnel director Dick Haley and would occasionally join his father for games up at old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland.
"The history or this series goes back a long way. As a young kid in Municipal Stadium, I remember feeling it shake and wondering if it was going to fall down," Haley said. "There's been a lot of great games played between these teams. I think that just adds to it and what just makes the NFL great. Our focus has to be on having our guys ready to go and play their best game."
From 2012-17, Haley helped make the Steelers one of the NFL's preeminent offenses thanks in part to the trio of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell (who still hasn't reported to the team's facility). While Haley's connections in Pittsburgh run deep, he made clear this weekend is one of 16 games on the schedule.
"If every week is not the biggest game of the year to us as coaches and to the players," he said, "then it's probably not going to go the way that we want it to go, week in and week out."
— Speaking of Bell, the Browns are preparing to face the Steelers with or without the All-Pro running back. "Whatever comes out of Pittsburgh is in Pittsburgh. We know what the focus is for us," head coach Hue Jackson said. "It's not about Le'Veon not being there or what their team feels or thinks. It is about what we do on Sunday. To me, we just have to go play. We are not going to worry about them in that way." Bell, one of the league's top offensive playmakers, could hold out for at least part of the 2018 season.
— The Browns welcomed cornerback E.J. Gaines back to practice Thursday but don't expect the veteran to play this weekend. Gaines was a limited participant, only partaking in individual drills after suffering a knee injury last month. "He probably still won't make it this week, but it was good to have him back out there," Jackson said. Gaines signed with the team in free agency.
— Myles Garrett is expected to be a difference-maker for the Browns this season. Jackson, asked to compare the second-year defensive end former first-overall NFL Draft pick, likened Garrett to Hall-of-Famer Bruce Smith. "Being around him, just Bruce's work ethic every day. He was always competitive. Myles is like that in practice," he said. "Bruce could still at his age wreck a practice if he wanted to. Sometimes we have to temper Myles back because he could do that. I hope Myles has the career that Bruce Smith had. Myles is just starting out, he has to go do it week in and week out."
— In an offseason of change, the 2018 Browns feature 31 new players — including Tyrod Taylor, Jarvis Landry, Damarious Randall, Denzel Ward and Carlos Hyde — who weren't on the roster a year ago. Jackson said it'll be important for Cleveland to "handle the emotion of the game early."
"I kind of knew what the emotion of the game would be a year ago because I understood it all. I knew the players. A lot of these guys are new," he said. "We have to handle that and I will harp on that as we go through the week. It is going to be exciting to see. Whatever that is, it is going to show itself on Sunday. I think that it is going to be for the best. These guys are chomping at the bit to play."
— Believe it or not, Northeast Ohio is often ripe for less-than-ideal weather. That could be the case Sunday with the forecast calling for heavy rain. So it goes, Jackson said.
"I heard that there may be rain," he said. "It was supposed to be raining out there today and it didn't. I know the weather is kind of tricky here. It probably is going to rain on Sunday so hopefully none of that will affect what we're trying to accomplish."
— Earlier this year, Antonio Brown took Browns rookie receiver Antonio Callaway under his wing, guiding him both on and off the field. The pair of Miami natives will be reunited Sunday as Callaway prepares for his regular-season debut. Brown's advice? "He was just telling me basically for all the work we put in, just come in and show your talent."