Ben Tate and Terrance West
Here are the five areas to which I will be paying the closest attention in the Cleveland Browns' regular-season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at Heinz Field:
The Browns' ability to run the ball effectively. The running game is supposed to be the foundation of the outside-zone-blocking scheme of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. There must be immediate evidence of that if the Browns are to have any chance of winning this game. Ben Tate has to have a huge debut in brown and orange, doing his part to help keep Ben Roethlisberger and the rest of the Steelers' potentially potent passing game off the field and allowing the Browns' defense to get as much rest as possible. Rookie Terrance West also needs to step up and show more of the dynamic explosiveness he displayed during offseason and training-camp practices and less of the hesitation he showed in preseason games.
Brian Hoyer being efficient and making plays when they're needed. It wasn't the best of preseasons for Hoyer, but that could largely be attributed to his challenges in handling the competition with Johnny Manziel for the starting quarterback job. Hoyer also wasn't helped by the absence of a game plan specifically designed to exploit the opponent's weaknesses. He finished the preseason on a high note against Chicago, but that was one series against the Bears' backups. Now, Hoyer gets his first chance to show why he is the Browns' starter. His strength is his decision-making, and he will be strongly tested by the complex zone-blitzing scheme of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Hoyer also excels with his accuracy, but needs to find his groove in terms of his ball placement, an occasional problem in training camp and the preseason.
The defensive front's ability to generate a strong pass rush and get Ben Roethlisberger on the ground. Getting to the quarterback is supposed to be the signature of Mike Pettine's defense. That needs to show up in a big way on Sunday. The Browns' defensive line and linebackers should have an edge over what has been leaky pass protection by the Steelers. Outside linebackers Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo, and Jabaal Sheard look as if they will thrive in a new scheme that asks pass-rushers to play the run on the way to the quarterback. Second-year end Armonty Bryant was a pass-rushing terror during the preseason. Can he carry it into the regular season? And if Bryant and others get to Roethlisberger, can they get one of the most difficult quarterbacks to tackle to the ground?
The offensive line's comfort level with a new scheme. The outside-zone-blocking scheme has been a big adjustment for the line. It is a long, challenging learning process and it would be reasonable to assume that more learning is needed even with the season upon us. Along the way, the group also has to be able to hold up against consistent pressure from a Steelers pass rush that is going to especially look to exploit the inexperience of rookie guard Joel Bitonio and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who has had his struggles during the preseason.
The defense's ability to cope with the Steelers' hurry-up offense. The Browns have a good deal of youth and highly athletic players on defense. And that's a good thing, given the fact the Steelers' offense is expected to move at a rapid pace from a no-huddle scheme. The Browns will likely have issues trying to make substitutions, which could be problematic when the Steelers – who will probably come out in a three-receiver set that requires the Browns to have more pass defenders on the field – run the ball. >>Be sure to tune in Monday through Friday, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. ET, for "Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford" on ESPN 850 WKNR or catch the live stream right here on ClevelandBrowns.com. We take your questions at 216-578-0850 and via Twitter @Browns_Daily.