By David Todd
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
That, of course, is the opening of Charles Dickens’ The Tale of Two Cities and it perfectly describes what happened at Heinz Field on Sunday. In Pittsburgh it was the tale of two halves. The Steelers could do little wrong in a first half that saw Ben Roethlisberger throw for 278 yards, Le’Veon Bell rack up 127 total yards and Antonio Brown torch Joe Haden and the Cleveland secondary for five catches, 116 yards and a TD as they jumped out to 27-3 lead. It was the half of Light, belief and hope. The half of Super Bowl dreams. The second half was a completely different story as the Browns put together four straight scoring drives to open the half, tying the game at 27 early in the fourth quarter. The Steelers had trouble handling a Browns hurry-up offense that ran the ball successfully and gouged the Steelers for big gains on play action. It was the half of Darkness, despair and incredulity. The half of another season with no playoffs.
However, the Steelers defense made a big late stand, stopping the Browns deep in their own territory inside the two-minute warning and took possession on their own 43 with 47 seconds left. Three completions down to the Browns 24, the last a 20-yard gain to Markus Wheaton over the middle, led to Roethlisberger spiking the ball with five seconds left and Shaun Suisham coming on to drill a 41-yard field goal to win it 30-27.
It’s a win that raised a ton of questions about a Steelers defense in transition and left the home crowd wondering whether to celebrate or be terrified about what lies ahead. But a team that started 0-4 last year will certainly take a win on an opening weekend that saw next week’s opponent Baltimore lose at home and New England lose on the road. Dickens closed A Tale of Two Cities thusly, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” For this one, I think “A win is a win is a win,” is more appropriate.
The Steelers third round pick Dri Archer left with knee and ankle injuries. While the extent of the injuries wasn’t discussed, I wouldn’t expect to see Archer on Thursday as the Steelers have a quick turnaround in Baltimore. Shamarko Thomas suffered an injury to his left achilles. Steve McLendon had a stinger in the second half but returned to the game.
*Ben Roethlisberger had a career-best first half throwing for 278 yards including a 35-yard TD to Antonio Brown that was Ben at his very best, eluding the rush and delivering an on-the-money throw on the run. Roethlisberger finished 23-of-34 for 365 yards with one TD and one INT for a passer rating of 100.7. On the game-winning drive he hit Markus Wheaton twice to quickly move the Steelers into field goal range, setting up the winning score. It wasn’t a fourth-quarter comeback win, but it was a huge game-winning drive. Ben is now 18-1 vs the Browns in his career, 10-0 at home.
*Antonio Brown picked up right where he left off last year, scorching the Browns for 5 catches, 116 yards and a TD along with two defensive holding calls. It’s the 17th consecutive game of at least 5 catches and 50 yards for Brown, two short of the NFL record set by Laveraneus Coles and the ninth 100-yeard receiving game of his career. On the second play of the game AB took a short screen from Roethlisberger and turned it into a 41-yard gain, again demonstrating the quickness and elusiveness that has made him on of the game’s elite wideouts. And Brown did his work against Joe Haden, one of the best corners in the league.
*Le’Veon Bell had a career-best 197 total yards, rushing for 109, the second 100-yard game of his career. His 38-yard TD in the second quarter was the one thing that seemed to be missing from the arsenal last year. Was he a legitimate home run threat with the speed to outrun defenders? He showed it Sunday as he ripped off the TD with a nice cut back and burst over the right side, going the final 20-or-so yards with just one shoe. It was the second-longest run of Bell’s career. 27 touches would put Bell on pace for 432 over a 16-game season, so it will be something to watch going forward.
*Markus Wheaton and Justin Brown made the most of their opportunities. Wheaton, stepping into the starter’s role vacated by Manny Sanders, had 6 catches, doubling his career total, for 97 yards. In the first half he beat Browns’ number one pick Justin Gilbert for 40 yards down the right sideline doing a nice toe-drag to get his second foot in and in the final minute he set up the Steelers winning FG with two catches for 31 yards. Brown, filling in in the slot for the injured Lance Moore, had 3 catches for 38 yards and looked legit in his professional debut.
*Offensive line. It was not a great effort from the unit as a whole even though the Steelers rushed for 127 yards on 28 carries, 4.5 yd/att. On the opening drive David DeCastro incurred a false start penalty and Kelvin Beachum got called for holding which nullified a Bell touchdown run, costing the offense four points as they settled for a 36-yard Sushiam FG two plays later. The line also gave up four sacks and Ben was under pressure on numerous other occasions including his 35-yard TD to Antonio Brown. Expectations are extremely high for this group under new coach Mike Munchak, but it clearly is still a work in progress for unit that has consistently underperformed the last five seasons.
*2nd half. The Steelers offense went to sleep in the 2nd half. They had a three-and-out their first possession of both quarters, were 0-for-6 on third downs, were penalized five times for 39 yards and Ben was sacked three times. Not good.
*Roethlisberger was picked on a sideline pass to Le’Veon Bell. The game’s only turnover was a terrible decision by Ben who had time to scan the field. It was a nice play by Karlos Dansby who undercut Bell much the way Alterraun Verner did in last year’s opener against the Steelers. Ben also fumbled a snap in the third quarter that led to a drive-killing sack near midfield.
*After a monster first half, Antonio Brown was hardly targeted in the second half. Give the Browns some credit for that, but the Steelers have to find a way to get their best offense weapon the ball.
*William Gay, the Steelers nickel corner made a bunch of plays in the second half for a Steelers defense that was desperate to get off the field. With 1:08 left in the game and the Browns pinned deep in their own territory, Gay broke up a 2nd down pass and on the next play tackled Andrew Hawkins for a 5-yard loss forcing the Browns to punt which led to the game-winning FG.
*The defense registered three sacks and all three had a big impact. Jarvis Jones got one in the second quarter, the second of his career, that took the Browns out of field range and forced them to punt. Give Troy Polamalu some credit on that one as well as he dropped off his blitz to cover a receiver in the flat taking away Hoyer’s checkdown. Jason Worilds also got one in the second quarter that eventually led to the Browns punting and the Steelers getting a FG to end the half. The third was the biggest. With the Browns taking over possession on their own 20 with the score tied at 27 and 1:53 remaining, Cameron Heyward got to Hoyer for a six-yard loss, putting the Browns behind the chains and ultimately setting the stage for Sushi’s game-winner.
*The defense held the Browns to 101 total yards in the first half.
*The defense gave up scoring drives of 80-yards in 1:33, 59-yards in 2:31, 75-yards in 4:45, and 51-yards in 2:35 to start the second half and saw their 27-3 halftime lead evaporate early in the fourth quarter. They had no answer to the Browns no-huddle offense, committed costly penalties, couldn’t stop the run and bit hard on play action. The Browns embarrassed the Steelers defense in the second half.
*The run defense continues to be a major problem. The Browns rushed for 183 yards, averaging 6.1 yards/att. Dick LeBeau’s defense is predicated on three things and #1 is stopping the run. The Steelers had no answer to the Browns outside zone run game in the second half.
*Tackling the catch and not allowing the big play are the other two pillars of Dick LeBeau’s defense. Big plays killed them last year and again yesterday. The Steelers defense gave up 18 plays of 10 yards or more, 12 plays of 15+ yards, 6 of 20+ yards and 4 of 25+ yards including a 47-yard pass to TE Jordan Cameron who was inexplicably being covered downfield by Lawrence Timmons.
*Poor tackling was another unfortunate trademark of the defense last year and it was evident again on Sunday.
*It’s easy to joke about and laugh at Ike Taylor not being able to catch the ball, but it is a massive liability. With the Steelers up 27-20 and needing the defense to make a play, Taylor had what appeared to be an easy pick go through his hands. Four plays later he got beat on a Hoyer-to-Benjamin TD pass that tied the game.
*Shaun Suisham and Brad Wing were both solid in the opener. Sushi’s 41-yarder wasn’t a thing of beauty, but another clutch game-winning FG further demonstrates while the Steelers locked him up long-term in the offseason. Wing had a 40.3 yard net on six punts including a 56-yarder on his first professional effort.
*The Steelers coverage units were also solid marked by big hits from Sean Spence, Willie Gay and outstanding coverage by Ryan Shazier and Antwon Blake among others.
*While it didn’t lead to points Mike Tomlin’s fake punt call in the fourth quarter was daring and successful. Credit Tomlin for recognize what the Browns were doing and taking advantage and Robert Golden and Antwon Blake for executing it perfectly.
*Antonio Brown is incredibly dangerous as a returner as he demonstrated multiple times.
*Yes, Brown is dangerous, but he is also at times confounding. On a second quarter return he had five blockers out front and only Browns punter Spencer Lanning to beat for what seemed like an easy TD. Instead Brown ran at Lanning, attempted to hurdle him, appeared to mistime his leap and then clearly kicked Lanning in the head resulting in a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty. It was the right call and I’m still wondering what AB was thinking. Expect a big fine.
*Up 27-10 Dri Archer chose to return a kickoff from deep in his own end zone. He only got out to the 12 and combined with an illegal blocking penalty, the Steelers started the drive on their own 6. After a three-and-out, the Browns set up shop near midfield and quickly scored again. Dri probably would like a mulligan on this decision to bring that one out.
*The offensive game plan was flawless in the first half. The Steelers mixed no-huddle and a ton of different formations and personnel to put up 364 yards and 27 points.
*Mike Tomlin’s fake punt call was bold and tactically astute. It was a big risk and, as with most fakes or gadget plays, the coach looks brilliant when it works and foolish when it doesn’t. I’m on record as saying coaches should do this more often. I applaud Mike on this one and I’ll say the same when it doesn’t work as well.
*Preparation for Browns no-huddle. The Steelers defense had no answer and was particularly undisciplined after the Browns gouged them with the run and went with play-action. The defense bit seemingly every time. That falls on the coaching staff as well as the players.
*I don’t often comment on play-calling decisions because there are so many variables that go into them. But two play calls involving LeGarrette Blount stand out. On 2nd-and-goal from the 14 on the Steelers opening drive, Ben threw to Blount on a wheel route near the goal line on the right sideline. Not a play that suits Blount’s skill set. On 3rd-and-1 from the Cleveland 41 and 2:22 left in a tie game the Steelers ran a wrap around draw to Blount that lost four yards and led to them punting. This time it’s not so much Blount being used, it’s the play design which the Steelers OLine failed to execute.
Big Officiating Calls:
*Not many questionable calls from the officials in this one. In total, 19 penalties accepted with 11 of them going against the Steelers.
Up Next: The Steelers will take on the 0-1 Baltimore Ravens Thursday, September 11 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Kick-off is scheduled for 8:30 EST.
Reminder: You can hear me on the pregame show on WDVE & 970 ESPN before every Steelers game and on weekdays on 970 ESPN from 3-6 pm. You can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.