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David Todd: Quick Thoughts On Week 11: Steelers Versus Browns

The Pittsburgh Steelers went to First Energy Stadium in Cleveland on Sunday and did something they haven’t done since the opening game of the season. They won on the road. The Steelers raised their record to 5-5 and moved back into a first place tie in the AFC North defeating the Cleveland Browns, and the weather, 24-9. The offense was completely in control in the first half scoring on long, time-consuming drives on all three possessions, but red zone difficulties limited the halftime score just 14-0. The defense played well all game getting eight sacks and an interception, but the outcome was still in doubt until a late fourth quarter strip-sack and fumble recovery for a touchdown sealed the deal. It wasn’t the blowout many Steelers fans were hoping for, but it was a win on the road and did put the Steelers in a position where they control their playoff fate.

Mike Tomlin? Well a lot on him below. Both good and bad.

And how about this, the Bengals have one win since September 29, over the Browns. The Ravens have two wins since September 25, over the Steelers and the Browns. The Steelers have one win since October 9, yep, Sunday over the Browns. And of course, the Browns are winless on the season. A pillow fight in the AFC North to this point.

Injuries:

*It appeared the Steelers came out of this game more or less unscathed.

On Saturday the the team again made some roster moves putting DE Cameron Heyward and WR Markus Wheaton on the injured reserve list ending their seasons and likely ending Wheaton’s Steelers career. They activated LB Bud Dupree from the IR-designated-to-return list and promoted RB Daryl Richardson from the practice squad.

The inactive list was again straightforward. RB DeAngelo Williams, WR Darrius Hayward-Bey, TE Xavier Grimble and safeties Shamarko Thomas and Jordan Dangerfield didn’t dress due to injury. Also not dressing were third-string QB Zach Mettenberger and OL Brian Mihalik.

Offense:

The Steelers came into the game fourth in the NFL in red zone touchdown efficiency at 68%, but struggled in that area Sunday going only 1-4, which left this one in doubt much longer than it had any right to be.

The Good:

*Le’Veon Bell was outstanding finishing with 201 yards from scrimmage, the fourth time he’s done that, most in Steelers history. His rushing line was pretty unique. He carried 28 times for 146 yards, but did’t have any single carry longer than 12 yards. The last time a back had fewer than 30 carries, more than 145 yards and no run longer than 12 yards was 1992, so yes, check the box for unusual.

*The Steelers offensive line was better. This was a unit that was supposed to be one of the best in the league but has been far too erratic to be considered such. They were able to dominate the Browns Sunday creating holes for Bell and keeping Ben upright.

The Bad:

*Plenty of Steelers fans think I’m too hard on Ben Roethlisberger. Against Cleveland he was exceedingly average in difficult conditions. He did enough for the Steelers to win, but wasn’t able to deliver many big plays which have been largely missing from the Steelers offense the last five weeks. Certainly that isn’t solely his fault as the pass-catching targets not named Antonio Brown and Bell have done virtually nothing, but the Steelers will need more from Ben down the stretch.

The reason I put Ben in the bad category really comes down to one play at the end of the first half. The Steelers again mismanaged the clock (more on that later) and Ben found himself with a 1st-and-goal from the Cleveland 3 with 00:10 left in the half. He threw incomplete. That left him with 00:05. I liked the Steelers decision to run another play, but Ben absolutely has to get the play off in less than five seconds. Get the snap, make the first read, maybe a second, but if neither is open, zing the ball five feet over everyone’s head. Then kick the field goal from the 3 yard line. Ben ended up rolling right when his first option wasn’t open. At that point there was zero chance the play would take less than five seconds. It all worked out in the end (again, more below), but it was a poor decisions from a veteran quarterback.

*Red zone penalties are killers. As good as Le’Veon Bell was, particularly on the opening drive when he accounted for almost all 82 yards, his false start penalty on 2nd-and-1 from the 9 was inexcusable. Bell also fumbled for the third time in four games, but the Steelers retained possession all three times. After fumbling just once in the first 867 touches of his career, Bell his fumbled three times in his last 113 touches.

*The Steelers need more out of the group of Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, Sammie Coates, Ladarius Green, Jesse James, et al.

Defense:

The Steelers defense had a really good game against a not very good offense limiting the Browns to 50 yards in the first half and just over 200 total, with 60+ coming in the last three minutes with the outcome already decided. Over the last four weeks the Steelers have played two of the NFL’s best offenses in New England and Dallas and not looked good and they have played two of the worst in Baltimore and Cleveland and looked very good. Penalties and allowing fourth down conversions kept this from being an elite performance.

The Good:

*The Steelers got to the Cleveland quarterbacks in a big way registering eight sacks, the most in a game since 2005 and for the second week in a row they recorded a strip-sack and fumble recovery, this one going for a Javon Hargrave touchdown. Ryan Shazier again was in the middle of it causing the fumble and had another big game with a sack, 3 tackles for loss, 2 QB hits and a pass defensed. When healthy he is showing that he can be the Steelers best playmaker since Troy Polamalu.

*Stephon Tuitt showed up big with Heyward absent and was named the AFC Defensive Play of the Week for his performance. He finished with 2.5 sacks, 3 tackles for loss and 4 QB hits while playing a big role in stuffing the Browns run game.

*James Harrison only registered one sack, but it broke the Steelers all-time record and he was dominant on the right side.

*The Steelers defense registered a ton of big hits. Lawrence Timmons had his best game of the season, largely because his was able to attack the line of scrimmage for most of it. Mike Mitchell had a bunch of hard, clean hits in the secondary and Ricardo Mathews, Javon Hargrave and even Daniel McCullers made plays up front.

*Artie Burns got his second career interception on the opening drive.

The Bad:

*The Steelers allowed way too many conversions. The Browns were only 4-15 on third down, but they converted five of those failures on fourth down going 5-5, essentially 9-15 on series in the game. Teams have only gone 5-5 two other times in NFL history since 1940 (h/t Alex Kozora).

*The defense also gave up 4 first downs by penalty, may of the long variety.

*I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen by Burns and Sean Davis as the season has gone on, but there are certainly growing pains. Burns should have done better on the Browns lone TD and Davis has to do a better job of breaking down and tackling. His whiff on a clean look on a blitz was a huge mistake leading to the touchdown.

Special Teams:

The Good:

*Jordan Berry’s 57 yd punt with just over four minutes left in the game was a huge play and the Steelers got their defensive touchdown two plays later to seal the victory.

* Sammie Coates’ broken fingers are making him useless as a receiver, but he was excellent in special teams again, registering three tackles. Roosevelt Nix was also productive.

*A nice clean day from Chris Boswell with three field goals and an extra point on a weekend when NFL kickers missed a record 12 extra points.

The Bad:

*Antonio Brown was poorly positioned on a couple of his punt returns and allowed balls to bounce that shouldn’t have. That’s as much on Danny Smith as it is on Brown.

Coaching:

Mike Tomlin continues to perplex. I love his aggressiveness, but often don’t like the rationale behind it. I hate his clock management. He failed to optimize it again in the first half in Cleveland.

We don’t often hear Tomlin criticize the officials but he did so after the game Sunday and again in his press conference on Monday. He’s going to get fined and he knows it, so clearly he wanted to make a point.

The Good:

*We can debate the decisions at the end of the first half forever. I like the Steelers going for it from the 1 yard line once the ball was moved forward because of the penalty call. From the 3, I would have kicked a field goal. But, none of it should have evolved as it did. The Steelers mismanaged the clock. But to reiterate, I liked the running play from the one with no time left (and said so on Twitter before the down), but I didn’t like the things that led to that play.

The Bad:

*At the press conference on Monday I asked Tomlin what his first priority was on the play with 00:05 left in the first half from the Browns 3. Was it A) score a touchdown or B) run a play that takes less than five seconds. I was shocked when he said A. That is on both Mike and the quarterback and is terrible decision-making. You have to operate for the best possible outcomes. Run a quick play as I mentioned above and then re-evaluate your options.

*But again, if the Steelers had managed the clock better they would have had plenty of time to drive down the field without having clock stress. On 3rd-and-21 from their own 30 with 2:54 left in the half, the Browns ran a running play. The Steelers should have called a timeout immediately after the play. They had all three timeouts and would have given themselves about 2:40 with two timeouts and the two minute warning to use. Plenty of time.

As you might guess, Tomlin didn’t call the timeout. The Browns punted at 2:16. Antonio Brown mistakenly let the ball bounce and the play ended with 2:03 left in the half. There was a penalty on the Browns which the Steelers accepted and after the re-punt the Steelers started their drive with 1:51 left, after the two-minute warning timeout. A loss of about 50 seconds for NO purpose. If they used one of their three timeouts they would have gotten the two-minute timeout and still had two of their own, so three total. In this case they had three of their own, but 50 fewer seconds to operate.

There are a variety of ways to stop the clock on offense. There is only one when you are playing defense, use of a timeout. The Steelers just have to getter better at this.

Big Officiating Calls:

*Neither Hue Jackson nor Mike Tomlin liked the officiating. Plenty of obviously missed calls. Harrison getting tackled by Joe Thomas, Brown getting grabbed by Joe Haden from the Steelers side. The Browns didn’t like the two penalty calls at the end of the first half, particularly the one away from the ball. Take away from that what you will.

Up Next: The Steelers will take on the Indianapolis Colts (5-5) without Andrew Luck on Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium. It will be the eighth time the Steelers have played on Thanksgiving. The first time was in 1939 when the Steelers lost to the Philadelphia Eagles 17-14. The Steelers also lost the famous coin flip game in 1998 in Detroit and most recently lost to the Baltimore Ravens 22-20 in 2013. They are 1-6 in their history with the only win coming in 1950 when they beat the Chicago Cardinals 23-20. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:30 pm EST.

Reminder: You can hear me on the postgame show with Charlie Batch across the Steelers Football Network (WDVE, ESPN, steelers.com or the Steelers Gameday app) after every Steelers game and on weekdays on ESPN Pittsburgh 970 and 106.3 FM from 4-7 pm. You can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.

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