Last week, in the hours following the Pittsburgh Steelers’ frustrating last-minute loss to the Cowboys, I wrote about how the team had victimized themselves late by committing some crucial, yet highly avoidable, penalties, both of which helped Dallas further what proved to be a pair of touchdown drives that provided the margin of victory.
It was simply building off a rash of not just frequent penalties—they were penalized 23 games over a span of two games—but extremely untimely penalties, which is no doubt part of what Head Coach Mike Tomlin was referring to when he described the Steelers’ issues as “popcorn”—that is, popping up here and there, at the worst times.
Sunday’s game was, unfortunately, no different in terms of the untimely penalties. The only difference was the level of competition, which allowed them to keep the end result in check. And again, the majority of the mistakes came on the defensive side of the ball.
The Steelers’ opening drive did end with a killer false start penalty, however, that came on second and one from the Browns’ nine-yard line. If there was any consolation on that one, it would be that it was Le’Veon Bell who false started, the man who accounted for nearly all the yardage on the drive that began from the four-yard line.
On the Browns’ subsequent possession, the Steelers looked to have forced an easy three-and-out. Cleveland was facing a third down with 12 yards to go from the 20-yard line when Lawrence Timmons buried Cody Kessler into the ground on a blitz, which forced him to ground the ball, though intentional grounding was not called.
But it was an incomplete pass either way that was going to set up a fourth and long and a more or less inevitable punt, only for Artie Burns to have been flagged for illegal use of hands—a five-yard penalty, but an automatic first down. Cleveland hit on a 20-yard pass the next play, but soon after punted.
On the first play of the third quarter, a holding penalty on Jesse James wiped out a 10-yard run from Bell and set Pittsburgh up with a first and 20 from the 15. They went three-and-out for the first time after three extended drives in the first half.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Timmons was flagged for illegal use of hands on a five-yard completion on third and 17. He did come back with a sack on the next play and the Browns punted three plays later.
On the Browns’ final possession, the Steelers were looking to finish back-to-back defensive drives with a defensive touchdown. Timmons put a big hit on the running back after a reception that knocked the ball loose, and Sean Davis picked it up, taking it into the end zone.
The only problem is that Daniel McCullers swatted Josh McCown right on the top of his helmet after he threw the ball, drawing a roughing the passer penalty. The play also occurred on fourth and 10. Pittsburgh survived these self-inflicted wounds against the Browns, but they already showed that they will not against a higher level of competition.