Telling Ben Roethlisberger the Browns are a rival to the Pittsburgh Steelers goes about as far as inviting a Cleveland resident to hop in the lake in January.
Roethlisberger has more wins in Cleveland’s First Energy Stadium than any Browns quarterback and is 22-2 all-time against the Browns.
So when the Steelers make the short trek Sunday amidst renewed optimism from the Dawg Pound, there is plenty of ground for the Browns to make up before the “rivalry” can be redefined.
However, both teams are dealing with their own drama heading into Sunday’s regular-season opener.
For Cleveland, just winning a game has been a challenge. The Browns were 0-16 in 2017 and won one game in 2016.
The status of Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell is a major issue. It’s growing more likely that Pittsburgh’s talented but disgruntled running back will be a no-show for the opener and well beyond. As of Thursday morning, he had neither reported nor signed his $14.54 million franchise tender from the team and will forgo $855,000 for each game he misses.
The Steelers, division champions last year at 13-3, remain stacked, starting with Roethlisberger, and appear ready to hand Bell’s spot to second-year player James Conner.
Still, the Bell situation has pervaded the locker room.
“What do you do?” guard Ramon Foster told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Here’s a guy who doesn’t give a damn, I guess, so we’ll treat it as such.
“I just hate it came to this. He’s making seven times what I make, twice as much as Al (Villanueva, offensive tackle) is making, and we’re the guys who do it for him.”
Center Maurkice Pouncey was equally bitter, calling Bell “selfish.”
“Obviously, it’s Le’Veon over the Steelers,” Pouncey said. “We are the Steelers. At this point, it’s bigger than business. Now that it’s game time and you have $14 million looming out there and your team really wants you here ... at this point we have Conner.”
Roethlisberger has been more diplomatic.
“He’s one of the best in the business, so anytime you have a guy like that you want him on the field with you,” the quarterback said. “I’ve got to prepare myself to be as ready as I can be to go up there on Sunday and face a really good defense.”
He’s got that last part right, if the preseason results are to be trusted. It starts with defensive end Myles Garrett, who has been a terror this summer.
Last season, Garrett said he wanted to “chop down” Roethlisberger, but Garrett missed the teams’ first meeting and Roethlisberger sat out the second.
“I want to get to the passer,’’ he said of his chance this season. “I want to make plays. I want to be dominant. I have to go out there and show that I’m actually a threat. Maybe after a couple rushes, me getting back there or us getting back there, they may have to turn to who really is getting there. But I plan to get back there a little bit.”
On offense, Browns coach Hue Jackson is creating a bit of intrigue at left tackle, where rookie Desmond Harrison could start, with Joel Bitonio moving to left guard. They’ll protect new quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who was acquired from the Buffalo Bills in the offseason.
And then there is the general push to beat Pittsburgh.
“That’s the equivalent of making the playoffs here, almost a Super Bowl win,” wide receiver Josh Gordon said. “But a win is a win. We just want one at a time.”
Or just one win, period.
The only Cleveland player who appears to be out because of injury is linebacker James Burgess (concussion). With the exception of Bell’s absence, no other Pittsburgh players are expected to be unavailable.
Gordon did not suit up in the preseason after missing training camp to enter a treatment facility at University of Florida. But Gordon is expected to be available Sunday, even if he’s not a starter. The Browns can feature another newcomer, wide receiver Jarvis Landry, opposite Gordon. Cleveland also added running back Carlos Hyde but no longer has left tackle mainstay Joe Thomas (retired).
The Browns made a late addition when they claimed defensive end Anthony Zettel off waivers from the Detroit Lions on Thursday, their sixth waiver claim since roster cuts were made final last week. They waived offensive lineman Aaron Neary to make room for Zettel, who had 6.5 sacks while starting all 16 games last season.
Jackson told reporters Thursday that cornerback E.J. Gaines, who arrived this offseason via free agency, will miss Sunday’s game as he recovers from a sprained knee.
Steelers tight end Vance McDonald was downgraded from a limited practice Wednesday to a DNP on Thursday. Wednesday was his first session back on the field since injuring his foot during preseason.
—Field Level Media