It wasn’t pretty by any stretch, but the Pittsburgh Steelers took care of business, Sunday, defeating the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium, 28-12.
Early on, it looked like another lackluster showing under Mike Tomlin against teams below .500, but it was the Pittsburgh defense that stepped up in a big way time after time against the Browns to lead the Steelers to victory.
Ben Roethlisberger started out strong throwing the ball as he led the Steelers down the field on their second drive, going 10-for-11 through two early drives after the first offensive drive ended after five plays due to an Antonio Brown fumble.
From there, Roethlisberger went 7-for-7 on the second offensive drive that was capped off by a 2-yard touchdown to Heath Miller in the back of the end zone.
Following the 10-for-11 start, Roethlisberger went 14-for-25 down the stretch while throwing touchdowns to Markus Wheaton and Brown and turning the ball over twice on interceptions to Jordan Poyer and Craig Robertson.
Heading into the playoffs Roethlisberger has to be much better and cut down on the turnovers. Sunday’s two-interception game marked the third straight game — and fifth all season — with at least two interceptions.
Running Back: C-
DeAngelo Williams came into this game needed 101 yards to reach 1,000 yards in a single season for the first time since 2009, but his day ended early with an ankle injury that saw him placed into a walking boot on the sideline.
Williams rushed for just eight yards on five carries and added 13 yards on two receptions through the air.
Replacing Williams, second-year running back Fitzgerald Toussaint stepped in and rushed for 24 yards on 12 carries, adding a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter to put the Steelers up by 13 points.
The extent of Williams’ injury is unknown, but it could mark the second straight year that the franchise heads into the playoffs without their No. 1 running back.
Wide Receiver: A-
Much like he did against the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos earlier in the year, Antonio Brown had a huge day against the decimated Cleveland secondary, hauling in 13 passes for 187 yards and one touchdown.
The veteran receiver had his way against K’Waun Williams, Tashaun Gipson (who moved up to corner from safety to help the secondary) and Pierre Desir.
Outside of Brown, Wheaton had a strong day, hauling in three passes for 57 yards and a score, including a huge 40-yard catch in the second quarter to lead the Steelers to another touchdown before halftime.
Darrius Heyward-Bey added a big 66-yard catch in the third quarter to get the Steelers out of the shadow of their own end zone. Roethlisberger took multiple deep shots to Heyward-Bey in the game. He finished with two catches for 74 yards.
Unfortunately, Martavis Bryant continued his struggles, hauling in just one catch for zero yards on a screen pass before leaving with a reported neck strain.
Prior to exiting, Bryant and Roethlisberger appeared to be on different pages, which led to Roethlisberger’s first interception, giving Cleveland possession deep in Steelers territory.
Bryant later dropped a wide-open crossing route and had another ball go throw his hands on a curl route.
Over the last eight quarters of play, Bryant has hauled in just two catches for six yards on six targets.
Tight End: B
Miller found the end zone this week and finished with three catches for 18 yards on four targets.
After hauling in 10 passes just three weeks ago against Cincinnati, Miller has gone quiet in the passing game, hauling in just 11 passes since that game.
Fortunately for Miller, much of that has to do with the fact that he’s being asked to stay in and block a majority of the time as the Steelers have struggled with pass protection recently.
Jesse James and Matt Spaeth served as extra blockers in the run game, which proved to be a moot point this week as the Steelers rushed for just 30 yards on 19 carries.
Offensive Line: B
This unit struggled in the run game, took some stupid pre-snap penalties and gave up significant pressure at times, but the unit allowed just one quarterback hit and kept Roethlisberger clean on the sack sheet.
One week after having great success against the Ravens on the ground, the Steelers failed to open lanes for Williams and Toussaint as the Steelers turned in their second-worst rushing performance of the season.
Defensive Line: A
Over the last few weeks this unit has struggled in both facets of the game, but against Cleveland the trio of Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Steve McLendon took over at times, generating a pass rush and shutting down the running game.
Tuitt led all defenders with two sacks in the game and played very well against the run. He finished with four tackles, two sacks, two tackles for loss and two quarterback hits.
Although Heyward and McLendon don’t show up on the stat sheet other than for one tackle each, they were able to disrupt the Browns game plan by getting ample penetration, forcing running backs to cut back or try and stretch out the run, allowing other defenders to make the plays.
McLendon added a tackle for loss.
What a performance by this unit.
Lawrence Timmons led the Steelers with 10 tackles, 1.5 sacks, one quarterback hit and one forced fumble. Ryan Shazier added seven tackles, half a sack and one quarterback hit, while Arthur Moats added six tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss, one quarterback hit and one fumble recovery.
Timmons and Shazier were all over the place in this game, making plays sideline-to-sideline, while each showed plenty of prowess as blitzers. Want to see a great play by Timmons? Check out the spin move he put on Cameron Erving on his sack that forced a fumble.
Outside of those three, Vince Williams added three tackles, Bud Dupree added two tackles and repeatedly put pressure on Austin Davis off the edge, and James Harrison two tackles, two pass deflections, one quarterback hit and one huge interception in the end zone that kept the Browns off the board.
Jarvis Jones was held off of the stat sheet, while rookie Anthony Chickillo turned in a strong special teams showing, recording two tackles and forcing a huge fumble in the second half that led to a field goal.
William Gay picked off his second pass of the year, capping off a strong 2015 regular season in which he became the only starting cornerback to not allow a touchdown all year, per Pro Football Focus.
Ross Cockrell had a strong game covering some of the no-name Browns receivers, while Brandon Boykin came up big for the secondary, recording four tackles and recovering the forced fumble by Chickillo.
Mike Mitchell and Will Allen had big days in the secondary as well, as Allen recorded seven tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss, one quarterback hit and one pass breakup.
Mitchell recorded five tackles and looked relatively healthy for much of the game, but he did drop a gift-wrapped interception on Cleveland’s first drive of the game following Antonio Brown’s fumble.
Antwon Blake once again had a rough day, highlighted by quarterback-turned-receiver Terrelle Pryor’s 42-yard catch along the left sideline towards the end of the first half that put the Browns in field goal position.
Special Teams: B-
Chris Boswell nailed two of three field goals in the win, but did miss a 48-yard field goal early in the second quarter.
Boswell did connect on a 21-yarder and a 39-yarder and hit both of his extra points.
In the punting game, Jordan Berry punted the ball three times and averaged 52 yards per punt, including a long of 57 yards.
The kick-off unit did force the fumble as Chickillo laid a big hit on Raheem Mostert, which gave the Steelers great field position.