Here we are, at the regular-season finale. The Pittsburgh Steelers have already accomplished everything that they can as far as the postseason is concerned, so more than a third of their starting offense will be taking a seat for this one. And this one is coming against the one-win Cleveland Browns, at Heinz Field.
Even though the lineup is going to be filled with reserves, most still expect the Steelers to win, but, of course, crazier things have happened. With Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and Maurkice Pouncey all healthy scratches, we are going to be seeing a lot of Landry Jones, Demarcus Ayers, DeAngelo Williams, and B.J. Finney. And frankly, I’d like to get a look at all four of them.
The Browns started things off with the ball, and Robert Griffin III immediately took a deep shot, overthrowing Terrelle Pryor down the right sideline. It appears that Jarvis Jones started the game, but all other expected defensive starters are in. After a false start, Corey Coleman took an end-around nine yards. On third and six, the bubble screen to the right was bobbled and subsequently nearly intercepted by William Gay. The punt was fielded by Eli Rogers at the 21 and returned to the 26.
As predicted for the season finale at the start of the season, the Steelers got things started with a pass from Landry Jones to Roosevelt Nix for three yards. DeAngelo Williams got his first touch in a good long while, but was tackled in the backfield at the original line of scrimmage. On third and 10, Demario Davis sacked Jones blitzing up the middle, the first sack the Steelers have allowed in a few weeks, and just the 18th on the season.
Following a punt, Griffin started his second drive from his own 45, hitting Pryor for seven yards on first down. Off play action, Griffin threw left to Andrew Hawkins, but the defense was prepared and held them to just a yard. On third and two, Duke Johnson knifed his way through the middle of the defense to move the chains.
Isaiah Crowell added six up the middle off an option read. With time to throw, Griffin connected with Gary Barnidge for nine yards. Down to the 28, Crowell got free for 13 yards. A short pass to Pryor began their first foray into the red zone. On second and seven, the play-action bootleg rollout to the right yielded a short pass to Seth DeValve, who had a clear path to the end zone for Griffin’s first touchdown pass of the year. The Steelers trail early 7-0.
Cobi Hamilton returned the ensuing kickoff to the 22. To start the drive, Jones dumped a short pass off to Eli Rogers for 12 yards for a positive play. Jones took a deep shot to Darrius Heyward-Bey on the following play, but the ball was underthrown. It is good to see Heyward-Bey back on offense, either way. On second and 10, Williams was stuffed after a gain of just a yard. For the second time in two third-down plays, Jones was sacked, with Christian Kirksey coming in free through the right-side B Gap and Fitzgerald Toussaint in the backfield.
A hold on the return pushed the Browns back to the 20 after the punt. On first down, Griffin connected with Pryor on a quick screen for six. Ricardo Mathews remained down on the play. He of course entered the game already injured. Griffin tried for a keeper on second down, but the defense, including Johnny Maxey, stayed disciplined, with Ross Cockrell making the tackle for a loss of two. On third and six, he scrambled under pressure, finding an open rushing lane for a sizable gain near midfield.
L.T. Walton roped Crowell down after a short gain around right end. Facing pressure off the edge, Griffin turtled a pass short to the left on a screen that hopped in front of his intended target. On third and eight, the Steelers sent a pair of blitzers, with Sean Davis finding Griffin for his first full sack of his career. He was previously credited with two, but it ultimately got whittled down by just half a sack. Rogers bobbled the punt, but fell on it.
A hold on the return pushed the offense back to the seven. Out of a run-heavy set, Williams was limited to just a yard. The rushing offense so far has done nothing, playing with only one reserve. Of course, Bell is not playing. Jones threw a bit high and beyond, but Demarcus Ayers made the catch for a short gain, the second reception of his career. On third and three, Toussaint got the carry on a delayed draw and was stopped after just a yard. But at least Jones wasn’t sacked. Jordan Berry’s punt was fielded at the 35 and returned past the 40, but another hold on the Browns backed them up again.
The first half ended with a rollout pass to Barnidge for a first down. From the 45, Crowell started to lose his feet, limiting him to two yards off the left side. On second down, a screen to the right was limited to three. On third and five, Ricardo Lewis escaped from William Gay over the middle for 17 to the 34-yard line.
Maxey made the tackle on Crowell in the backfield. On second and 11, the Steelers did a nice job of collapsing the pocket, but Griffin was able to roll out and find Crowell for 13. Loss of containment is a killer.
After a short gain from Crowell up the middle, Griffin hit Pryor for six, with Artie Burns making the tackle. On third and two, Pryor got in front of Burns for eight to set up first and goal. George Atkinson added two up the middle. On second down from the four, with five wide, it was an easy pitch-and-catch to Barnidge from the right slot for a 14-0 lead and Griffin’s second touchdown of the year through the air. The Steelers at the moment are not doing anything particularly well–not exactly the finale they were looking for, especially considering the number of starters on defense playing.
Another short kickoff meant another return from Hamilton, who made it to just the 16-yard line before being tackled. Ayers took a direct snap from the shotgun, running to the right edge for no gain. Jones found Rogers again for just the second first-down of the game, both to Rogers. With good pass protection, Jones aired one out down the left sideline, but there was no receiver in the area on an apparent miscommunication. On second down, Williams was wrestled down after just a yard to the right. On third and nine, the pass to Heyward-Bey was broken up in front of him. Yet another punt died at the 33.
Good pursuit on the run defense to the right made another tackle for loss. A blitz created space up the middle for about four. On third and long, Griffin found Louis for just enough yardage to move the chains. With Arthur Moats now in, Griffin took advantage, connecting with Barnidge for another first-down across midfield. The late draw to Atkinson picked up 11, to the 33.
Crowell nearly got the rest of the yardage on the next play, ripping one up the middle, but Gay was able to make the saving tackle after 16. Ryan Shazier picked off his third pass of the season on the next play in front of the goal line to save yet another embarrassing defensive drive, though Maxey added an unnecessary roughness penalty, putting the offense on just the one.
On first down, Williams was just barely able to get the ball out of the end zone to avoid a safety as the rushing offense continues to be horrible. He once again only just barely avoided a safety on second down. On third and long, Jones made a great throw to the left sideline and Ayers made a great catch for 20 yards to move the chains. But Hue Jackson threw the challenge flag. The review concluded that Ayers only got one foot inbounds, reversing the ruling on the field, so Berry punted from the very back of his end zone. He got it off for around 47 yards or so.
From the 47, a bad snap flew into the backfield and was recovered by Davis, who now has an interception, a recovered fumble, and a sack and a half as a rookie. Perhaps this field position will spark some life into the offense.
From the 37 or so, the Steelers got their first positive run of the entire day, with Williams scraping his way for four yards to hit the two-minute warning. Off play-action, Jones’ throw to the end zone for Heyward-Bey was out of bounds. Now on third down, with Williams flexed out, Jones found Rogers, who picked up his third first down of the game, which I believe is still their only three.
From the 28, Williams gained about three. From the 25, Jones found Jesse James for 14. From the 11, Jones threw one up for Ayers…out of bounds. Ayers had no shot at the ball even in perfect position. On second down, Jones checked down to Williams, who avoided a tackler at the line of scrimmage and was able to break the plane for his second receiving touchdown of the season, and the Steelers show some life, finally, just before the half. They do start the third quarter with the ball as well, but there are 31 seconds yet to play here. Just a quick running play ended the half.