By David Todd
The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland Sunday to take on a resurgent Cleveland Browns team. After a dominating first quarter where they outgained the Browns 78 yards to -8, the Steelers got routed, losing 31-10 and looking like they didn’t even belong on the same field. In the second meeting of the season between these two, the Steelers again had no answer for the Browns outside zone running game or play-action passing game. The Browns gashed the Steelers for 158 yards on the ground and Brian Hoyer was able to turn just eight completions on 17 attempts into 210 yards,12.8 yd/att, as Cleveland continually burned the defense for big plays. While the Steelers defense clearly lacks talent, the coaching staff made no visible adjustments to counter a Browns offense that used the same formula so successfully in the second half of their first meeting.
Offensively the Steelers continue to be a massive disappointment with this being their worst performance to-date. This one is on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his stable of receivers not named Antonio Brown. The offensive line and Le’Veon Bell performed reasonably, but early failures in the red zone and a botched field goal attempt meant the Steelers had little to show for their first quarter dominance. After falling behind big, the Steelers were forced to abandon the run and found little success through the air. The lack of timing and coordination between Roethlisberger and Markus Wheaton was particularly troubling. Wheaton was targeted a game high 11 times, but had only 4 catches for 33 yards. Unlike the defense, the offense has plenty of talent so their terrible performances the past couple weeks are surprising and maybe even more concerning than what is happening on the other side of the ball.
NT Steve McLendon suffered a shoulder sprain and S Mike Mitchell and DE Brett Keisel both suffered knee sprains. The Steelers already lack depth at along the defensive line, particularly at nose tackle. Cam Thomas, who has had a poor season, filled in for McLendon. It will be interesting to see if 6th round pick Daniel McCullers is given an opportunity if McLendon is to miss any significant time.
Ryan Shazier, Ike Taylor and Shamarko Thomas were inactive due to injury.
For the Browns, starting center Alex Mack who had never missed a snap in his career, suffered an apparent broken leg in the second quarter. Interestingly the Browns didn’t miss a beat with him sidelined.
*Le’Veon Bell continues to impress. On the Steelers second drive with 1st-and-goal from the 7, Bell took the handoff and was immediately met behind the line of scrimmage. Bell kept his feet moving and was able to drive and fall forward, gaining two yards. In the big picture it turned out to be a meaningless play and the Steeler settled for a FG on the drive, but in a season where we’ve already seen plenty of big plays out of Bell, he consistently gains yards on carries where many backs wouldn’t.
*The Steelers offensive line is the one unit on the team that deserves a passing grade. After falling to convert a 3rd-and-1 on their opening drive, the Steelers faced their next third down on a 3rd-and-3 from the Browns 46 on their second drive. They again ran Le’Veon Bell to the left and Kelvin Beachum sealed the edge opening a huge hole and a 12-yard gain for Bell. They line wasn’t perfect, but they opened up holes for the running game and generally gave Ben time to throw.
*The Steelers offense has now put up 27 points in its last ten quarters against Tampa, Jacksonville and Cleveland three of the worst defensive teams in the league. There is plenty of blame to go around. Play-calling is an issue that always comes into question when an offense is struggling and this is no exception. But execution seems to be the primary issue. The Steelers offense is now doing exactly what their defense has long forced other teams to do. They are constantly faced with third downs because they aren’t able to hit on explosive plays meaning they have to put together long, sustained drives. One bad play will often mean the end of a drive. The Steelers faced a ridiculously high 16 3rd downs in this one, converting only six, two of which came late in the 4th quarter.
*The Steelers offense is going to go how its quarterback goes. Excellent early in the season, Ben and the offense have regressed. It was another pedestrian performance form Roethlisberger highlighted by his missing a wide-open Markus Wheaton for an easy touchdown. Roethlisberger and Wheaton were out-of-sync the entire game starting with a 3rd-and-3 on the Cleveland 17 early in the 2nd quarter. Wheaton ran a curl from the left side, but didn’t get turned around in time. Ben doesn’t generally throw receivers out of the break, so I’m guessing Wheaton ran the curl a little too deep. When he turned the ball was already there and he wasn’t able to react in time. On the would-be touchdown, Ben didn’t put enough air under the ball and Wheaton didn’t adjust his route accordingly. It’s a play that should have resulted in an easy six. Both players appeared at fault.
*After only passing in the red zone last week, the Steelers ran three straight times on their first red zone opportunity this week. On first down Bell gained two yards with the play discussed above. On second down Bell got the call again and safety Donte Whitner filled the hole and made an excellent form tackle stopping him for a two-yard gain. On third down it looked like Roethlisberger checked into a run play, this time calling LeGarrette Blount’s number. Linebacker Craig Robertson came free for the Browns filling the hole, stopping Blount well short of the goal line. The Steelers had been able to pound the ball on the ground all the way down the field but weren’t able to punch it in. Play-calling will always be questioned in those situations. Last week Ben took responsibility for the pass calls. I’m sure he got the message loud and clear that the coaching staff wanted to run more often near the goal. Different calls, same result.
*Markus Wheaton and Lance Moore were awful. We’ve discussed Wheaton. Moore added a couple drops and generally didn’t look the part. Lots of questions to this point in the season why Moore hasn’t seen more playing time. More of what we saw today and nobody will be asking questions.
*Last week I wrote, “Once a narrative is established in the NFL it is difficult to change, good or bad. Heath Miller, once was of the best blocking tight ends in the game, is not that any longer.” Lather, rinse, repeat. On the game’s opening drive the Steelers had a 3rd-and-1 from their own 23. They ran a misdirection pitch to Bell around the left side. Miller missed his block sealing the end and Tashaun Gipson made and excellent open-field tackle on Bell for a yard loss forcing the Steelers to punt.
*Last week I wrote, “The defense finally played a full 60 minutes.” This week they played 15. They couldn’t have gotten off to a better start. After an opening incompletion, Troy Polamalu tackled Ben Tate for a 3-yard loss, then Cameron Heyward sacked Bryan Hoyer. It was the first time this season the opponent did not score on their opening drive. The D forced a 3-and-out on the Browns second possession as well. Of the Browns first six plays five were for a loss or no gain.
*I really hesitate to say anything good about Mike Mitchell’s performance as the Steelers safety play was generally terrible and has been two years running. However, Mitchell did make two big hits that led to incompletions and forced a fumble that Cortez Allen recovered. No one played well, but at least Mitchell finally made a couple plays.
*Lawrence Timmons maybe was above the line. He didn’t have company.
*The Browns gained 386 yards on 56 plays, 6.6 yd/play, while basically putting it on ice in the fourth quarter. The defense gave up 217 yards through the air on 8 completions an average of 27.1 yards/catch. The Browns ran 12 plays that gained 10+ yards and four plays that gained 30+ yards. Stop the run, tackle the catch, don’t allow the big play are the three tenets of Dick LeBeau’s defense. Didn’t happen. This isn’t anywhere close to being a good defense and I don’t have any expectation of things getting better any time soon.
*This was one of Troy Polamalu’s worst games as a Steeler. After an excellent play on the Browns second snap when he brought down Ben Tate for a 3-years loss, it was all downhill. On the Browns first touchdown drive it looked like Troy had responsibility for TE Jordan Cameron but broke off to help with a receiver crossing over the middle. Cameron was left wide-open down the right sideline for a 42-yard gain. On the Browns second TD drive, Cortez Allen had outside leverage on Cameron signaling he expected help in the middle of the field. Neither Troy nor Mitchell was anywhere near Cameron as he caught a 51-yard TD. On the Browns third TD Tate went in virtually untouched from 8-yards out. Unlike Dontae Winter who had made a perfect tackle on Bell when confronted with a similar situation, Polamalu didn’t fill the hole and whiffed on the tackle. (Cam Heyward got eaten up by Joe Thomas on the play as well.) Troy is useless in pass coverage at this point and his undisciplined play is really hurting the defense.
*The Steelers bit on play-action and misdirection the entire second half the first time they played the Browns. Nothing different on Sunday as the Browns repeatedly burned the defense by using play-action and misdirection throwing back across the field, “trick plays” as Mike Mitchell called them post game.
*Cortez Allen. Beaten. Repeatedly. It might not be fair to single-out Allen, but he had another poor game.
*Brad Wing had his best effort punting, but that will be overshadowed by his fumbled hold on the FG.
*Ross Ventrone was promoted from the practice squad to the 53-man roster on Saturday and saw his first action since the 2011 season. Ventrone is an easy guy to root for. He has persevered, in a different fashion, but much like Sean Spence. He made two special teams tackles including a big hit, perfectly-timed, in punt coverage in the second quarter.
*Brad Wing mishandled a FG snap in the second quarter that could have put the Steelers up 6-0. The Browns scored on the ensuing possession and the floodgates were open.
*Antwon Blake is on the team to help in special teams. On the Steelers first punt he ran out of bounds and ended up getting a 5-yard penalty. Later in the half, on another punt, Blake went in the end zone and was not able to re-establish himself in the field of play before touching the ball for an automatic touchback. It’s his job. He has to know where he is on the field. The second mistake in particular is inexcusable.
*The Steelers wanted to come out and run the ball against a banged up Browns front-seven. This would also keep their own defense off the field as they possessed the ball. It was effective in the first quarter though they couldn’t punch it in from the 7 on the ground. It had the potential to be an effective gameplan.
*This was a disastrous coaching performance. The players did a terrible job of executing after the first quarter, but the staff, particularly on the defensive side, should be embarrassed that they weren’t able to counter a Browns gameplan which was identical to what the Steelers saw in week one.
*Just for point of emphasis, this was a terrible coaching job across the board. I could take it apart point-by-point, but suffice it to say they failed in all aspects of preparation, game-planning and execution.
*At the end of the first half the Steelers got the ball on their own 19, down 21-3 with 2:22 on the clock and one timeout remaining. On first down Roethlisberger completed a 16-yard pass to Antonio Brown. Brown was down with 2:17 left. The Steelers did not get another play off before the two-minute warning. The week-in, week-out lack of urgency and ability to play quickly is mind-blowing. I understand there are times to make sure the Browns don’t get the ball back during the half. Down 21-3 with the Browns getting the second half kickoff, this was not one of them. The Steelers clock management continues to defy belief.
Big Officiating Calls
*Not much impactful in this area.
Up Next: The Steelers will take on the (3-3) Houston Texans, October 20 at Heinz Field. 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.