It's been a long, cold, lonely offseason for fans of the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers, but at least the Steelers will start their next great hope at 1 o'clock today when those teams open their 2014 season at Heinz Field.
The Steelers will start a rookie -- inside linebacker Ryan Shazier -- on defense for the first time in coordinator Dick LeBeau's two terms with the team.
But the Browns will likely keep their next great hope -- petulant rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel -- on the bench, with only the hint of using him in packages against a defense that's being built to stop such shenanigans.
"He is a good football player," Mike Tomlin said of Brian Hoyer, the veteran quarterback who'll start the season for the Browns. "It doesn’t surprise me at all that he is the guy they chose to go with. With that being said, we have a great deal of respect for Johnny Manziel and his talents and what he did to get to this point in his career. We fully expect them to utilize him in some capacity in this football game. They didn’t draft him in the first round to watch."
In the preseason, Manziel played so poorly that he had a worse passer rating (76.7) than former Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden of the Dallas Cowboys (77.2). Manziel finished 54th in the NFL in preseason passer rating. His poor play prompted ESPN analyst Merril Hoge to rip him so mercilessly that ESPN -- which has promoted Manziel non-stop the last year and a half -- to call Hoge and express its disappointment.
But in spite of the longest running pre-game show in NFL history, Manziel will be on the bench. And the Steelers didn't even put a No. 2 pinney on a look-team player in order to maximize preparation for any type of hyped "package."
Instead, the Steelers prepared for Hoyer, who spent 18 days with them in 2012.
"What you don’t see on tape probably is what is most impressive about him," Tomlin said of Hoyer. "He is a consummate professional. He is an energy bringer. He is really intelligent. He is really football smart. He has great ideas. He understands how to fit his skill set into system football. He is not going to lose games above the neck. This guy is going to show up highly prepared. He is going to know his strengths. He is going to know what we are. He is going to work to play to his strengths and attack our perceived weaknesses."
The Steelers' perceived weakness was very real during the preseason. When opposing teams brought three wide receivers on the field, the Steelers' nickel was a sieve.
But can the Browns put three wide receivers on the field?
After all, this is a team that didn't draft a receiver the week they learned their star pass-catcher, Josh Gordon, had failed a drug test and would be suspended for the season.
Will the Browns forsake their own personnel in an attempt to out-scheme the Steelers and bring out their nickel?
"I'm not sure," said Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats, who played for Pettine last year in Buffalo. "The league is definitely more into passing and stuff. You can definitely expect that, but with them having Travis Benjamin and guys like Hawkins, smaller, quick guys, you definitely want to expect stuff like that."
Benjamin is the Browns' No. 3 receiver behind former Cincinnati Bengals nemesis Andrew Hawkins and ninth-year pro Miles Austin. Benjamin's quickness scares the Steelers as a return man, but he caught only one pass this preseason. The three of them combined for only 121 yards and one touchdown.
Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor was asked if he thinks the Browns will force the issue, even without much in the way of receiving threats. "I don't know," said Taylor. "I expect them to run a little bit, just to get their party started. They've got three good running backs, so I expect them to start out running and kind of work their way into passing."
At running back, the Browns feature Ben Tate, whom they acquired this past offseason in free agency from the Houston Texans. Running behind a veteran line that includes standouts Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, Tate averaged 4.0 yards per carry this preseason. He's backed up by rookie Terrance West and former Pitt star Dion Lewis.
"It''s easy to see why they acquired him," Tomlin said of Tate. "He is a terrific zone-scheme runner. He proved that in Houston and on his college tape. That is the running approach that they choose to employ, strong zone-scheme runs."
"He’s a slasher and a hard runner," said LeBeau. "Their offensive line is very good and their tight end is one of the best that we’ll play against. He may be their best offensive player."
Browns tight end Jordan Cameron ranked third at his position in the NFL last season with 80 catches and 917 receiving yards. He's their go-to third-down receiver and could be the wild-card in the Browns' attempt to get the Steelers' nickel on the field.
The Steelers, of course, have their own star tight end, and Heath Miller is "night and day from where he was last year at this time," said offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
Miller, who missed the first two games last season while recovering from a torn ACL, will be a key component in Ben Roethlisberger's no-huddle attack, which will no doubt be used in heaping portions against a stout Browns defense.
The Steelers will use last year's third-round draft pick, Markus Wheaton, in place of the departed Emmanuel Sanders and opposite Pro Bowler Antonio Brown. The slot receiver will be Justin Brown in place of injured veteran Lance Moore.
"Guys like Markus Wheaton and J Brown are night and day from their rookie years," Haley said. "I am excited about what we have across the board. There’s great continuity and communication, all the things that are important to have success in this league from a coaching staff standpoint and how you relate to your players. Le’Veon Bell at this time last year wasn’t ready to go. He is ready (now). (LeGarrette) Blount has toted the ball for a pretty nice average in this league. I know the guys up front, there is great cohesiveness. They are excited to hit somebody in a different colored uniform on a real Sunday."
Wouldn't it be fun if the Steelers actually did get a chance to hit the quarterback wearing No. 2 in the fecal-colored uniforms?
LeBeau is convinced it will happen.
"I’ll be very surprised if we don’t see (Manziel)," said LeBeau. "Let’s face it, he’s been one of the top football players in the nation not for one year, but for several years. You look at his offensive numbers (and) there’s not a magic wand he’s waving out there. He’s creating those situations and making plays. So they’re going to want to bring him along and give him game action. I’m sure of that."
And then we'll all see if the over-the-top hype was worth.