Mark Madden: Hype around Steelers vs. Browns is excessive but warranted |
Mark Madden, Columnist

Mark Madden: Hype around Steelers vs. Browns is excessive but warranted

Mark Madden
Talented-but-volatile Baker Mayfield gives the Browns a legitimate shot to finally make the playoffs.

With the start of the NFL season less than a week away, here’s the verdict on the upcoming battle in the AFC North between the Steelers and Cleveland: It’s a dead heat.

The Steelers either added by subtraction or just subtracted re: Antonio Brown. The former seems more likely, but it’s got to play out.

But the Steelers definitely added on defense by trading up to get inside linebacker Devin Bush with the 10th pick of this year’s draft. The ripple effect is a much quicker unit that can explode from a variety of directions.

Is that defense quick enough to take a chunk out of Tom Brady and his instant release? That’s a good first test.

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The Browns either added or subtracted by addition re: Odell Beckham Jr. There’s no doubting Beckham’s talent, but there also is no denying the New York Giants and Eli Manning fell apart on his watch.

Is Beckham a winner, or just another one of “those” wide receivers? So far, it’s the latter.

Beckham is one of several potential malcontents in Cleveland. That could spread like a disease under a rookie coach. Maybe the Browns give birth to a new set of Toxic Twins, or even Toxic Triplets.

Unless the Browns win, and everybody gets his numbers. Even that might not be enough indefinitely.

The Browns’ hype is insufferable. That doesn’t mean it’s unwarranted, but star power and success aren’t mutually inclusive. How heavy will expectations weigh?

The biggest leap of faith taken by the Cleveland faithful concerns the Browns’ defense. It ranked 30th in the NFL last season.

The Browns don’t have any defensive backs who excel at inside coverage, which could be costly when JuJu Smith-Schuster lines up in the slot. Cleveland led the NFL in missed tackles last year. The Browns did add quite a bit on defense during the offseason and should be better on that side of the ball.

But seeing is believing. That should be the team motto given the reckless assumption the Browns will just keep improving exponentially after going 0-16 just two seasons ago.

Their front seven is more than legit. Defensive end Myles Garrett has 20 1/2 sacks and four forced fumbles in his two NFL seasons and actually has the talent to continue improving exponentially.

But Cleveland will concede points.

The Steelers offense will mirror the team’s training camp: organized and professional, as opposed to explosive and haphazard. That constant, selfish drone has been removed from the huddle. The costly policy of appeasement (and the forced throws it produced) no longer exists.

Can balance gained make up for talent departed?

Here’s predicting it will. The Steelers will score more points this year than last, and have a healthier run-pass balance than 2018 when they threw 67 percent of the time.

Cleveland has a cornucopia of receivers led by Beckham and Jarvis Landry but well-complemented by Rashard Higgins, Antonio Callaway and tight end David Njoku.

But don’t sleep on the Steelers’ pass-catchers. The varied skills of the group speak well, though tight end is a disaster beyond Vance McDonald. But Donte Moncrief will be better in Pittsburgh than he has been anywhere else.

All receivers are only as good as the quarterback throwing them the ball. (Brown will figure that out quickly in Oakland.)

Ben Roethlisberger is better than Baker Mayfield, and any quarterback totem pole that has Mayfield listed above Roethlisberger is just hype dipped in insanity. Roethlisberger is a nailed-on Hall-of-Famer who threw for 5,129 yards last year and had a quarterback rating of 96.5. Mayfield threw for 3,725 yards and his rating was 93.7.

But it’s also nuts to pretend that Mayfield isn’t very good.

It was Mayfield’s play upon insertion into the lineup in Week 3 last season that energized the Browns and got them to 7-8-1. It’s hard to have faith in a quarterback that barely tops 6-feet. Mayfield has a bit of malcontent in him, and if Beckham and/or Landry get in Mayfield’s ear like Brown did Roethlisberger, Mayfield might not handle it as well.

But Mayfield wins. Well, he wins some. A 7-8-1 record isn’t 16-0, and Mayfield was 1-5 against teams with winning records. His protection seems in question. Cleveland just cut its starting left tackle.

But it’s easy to forgive Cleveland’s citizenry acting like it is. They’ve been down so long, it looks like up.

A key figure in the renewed rivalry between the Steelers and Browns is Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell.

After a terrible season in ‘18, Boswell kicked well enough at training camp to keep his job. But his errant booting kept the Steelers out of the playoffs, and kept the Steelers from winning at Cleveland in Week 1.

If Boswell makes his 43-yard field-goal attempt in overtime, the Steelers beat the Browns instead of tying them. The Steelers finish 10-6 and win the division. The Browns would have finished 7-9, which reads a bit worse than 7-8-1. The Steelers would now seem the better team by a bigger margin. That’s all down to one missed kick.

The funniest part: Everyone has forgotten about Baltimore, which actually won the division last season.

But the Ravens figure to be peripheral factors in ‘19. The AFC North championship will come down to Week 11 and Week 13. The Steelers and Browns play twice in three weeks, first at Browns Stadium, then at Heinz Field.

The hype will be unbearable by then. It will also be warranted.

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