Crennel is in the third season at the helm of the Browns, and it could be his last if he can't bring them out of the cellar of the AFC North. Tomlin replaces a Super Bowl-winning coach in a city not used to missing the playoffs. The first game of the year for both coaches is critical to set the tone for two passionate fan bases.
Tomlin worked with Crennel during his month-long internship with Cleveland, where Crennel was the defensive coordinator. Both are from Virginia, and Tomlin noted his respect for Crennel. But it's Tomlin and Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau who will be throwing the 2007 version of "Big Nasty D" at the Browns, and Crennel will have to figure a way around it with rookie Joe Thomas at LT, and Charlie Frye under center.
TE Kellen Winslow II vs. Steelers nickel package
Pittsburgh had a problem covering the tight end in the pre-season, and while that may also reflect the performances of some players who won't participate in Sunday's game, the fact their opponents were 86-for-219 (39 percent) on third downs last season will be something of concern for the Steelers.
Reports out of Cleveland are that Winslow is fully recovered from the microfracture surgery he had on his right knee this off-season, and if he's able to regain that explosive speed that made him the sixth overall pick in 2004, he'll be an effective weapon for QB Charlie Frye. Winslow tore his ACL in a motorcycle accident in 2005, and it was still showing ill-effects last season. Winslow - the Browns top receiving option - only averaged 9.8 yards a catch.
It's not likely the Steelers have forgotten the incident at the end of last year's game against Pittsburgh, when Winslow gave Steelers ILB James Farrior a cheap shot, leading to an infamous post-game tirade by former Steelers OLB Joey Porter.
ROLB James Harrison vs. LT Joe Thomas
Both are new starters to their perspective team, and it's likely Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will bring the noise on Thomas's side, led by Harrison. He replaces Porter, and the combination of he and RE Brett Keisel will be geared toward overloading Thomas. If he can't handle it, Cleveland will be forced to slide protection from LG Eric Steinbach to that side. Thomas was the third overall pick out of Wisconsin in the 2007 draft, and the Browns are looking for him to be the cornerstone of a maligned offensive line. Along with him, the Browns gave Steinbach $49.5 million over seven years to leave Cincinnati. How well they can contain a fierce Steelers blitz will be a major part in determining whether they can pull off a Week 1 upset.
Wright, a rookie from UNLV, will get his first start Sunday at LCB. Holmes will get the nod at split end, giving Wright one of the most explosive AFC North WRs in his first assignment. What's worse for Wright, Holmes, an Ohio State product, has three touchdowns as a professional, all in the state of Ohio - one in Cleveland, one in Cincinnati, and one in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.
Holmes averaged 19.9 yards per catch in December of 2006, and 24.2 ypc through five pre-season games in 2007. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger will look for Holmes as the legitimate deep threat the Steelers haven't had since Plaxico Burress.
RB Willie Parker vs. Cleveland's linebackers
Parker ran all over Cleveland in their Week 14 27-7 win in Pittsburgh, netting a franchise-record 223 yards. Frenchy Fuqua's record stood for 36 years, but it took Parker three quarters and one play to break it. Crennel's 3-4 defense is going to have to focus on stopping Parker at the line, considering his big-play ability.
With the Steelers likely to run more 4-WR sets than they have in the past, it's going to be difficult for the Browns to stack the box in an effort to stop Parker. The linebackers who have run responsibility are going to have to hem Parker in the middle of the field, and close any cut-back lanes that would let Parker accelerate to the outside.
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