The Pittsburgh Steelers opened their 2017 campaign Sunday on a beautiful late summer afternoon at First Energy Stadium in Cleveland against the Browns. The weather was about the only thing that was beautiful as the Steelers struggled mightily on offense, were heavily penalized on both sides of the ball and gave up a late touchdown, but still came away with a 21-18 victory. Antonio Brown was the star, catching all 11 passes thrown his way for 182 yards. A blocked punt for a touchdown on the fifth play of the game and two short touchdown catches by Jesse James accounted for the 21 points. Defensively the Steelers were able to get consistent pressure on Browns rookie QB DeShone Kizer, sacking him seven times and limiting Cleveland to 237 total yards. But the Browns were able to stay in it until the end. They drove 73 yards in seven plays, scoring on a fourth down and converting the ensuing two-point play, to get within a field goal late in the fourth quarter, but the Steelers were able to run out the last 3:36 to secure the win.
In one of the more remarkable stats you will see, with the win Ben Roethlisberger became the winningest QB in First Energy Stadium history. It was his 11th win since the stadium opened in 1999. No Browns starter has won more than 10 games at home during that time. Roethlisberger raised his career regular season record to 21-2 vs Cleveland. While the Browns do look like an improved team, they dropped their 13th consecutive opener. Ouch.
*Stephon Tuitt left with an injury to his left biceps during the Steelers first series and did not return. A torn biceps would likely be a season-ending injury for the Steelers defensive end who signed a 6-year, $61 million contract the day before the game.
UPDATE: Indications Monday afternoon are that the injury is not severe and Tuitt will not be out for the season, though he will miss time.
The inactive list was relatively straight forward. Bud Dupree did not practice on Friday and wasn’t active. He was joined by quarterback Joshua Dobbs, wide receiver Justin Hunter, offensive linemen Jerald Hawkins and Matt Feiler, defensive lineman Daniel McCullers and cornerback Brian Allen.
It was not an impressive offensive performance. The Steelers struggled with their execution and repeatedly found themselves playing behind the chains because of penalties. On their first four possessions the Steelers ran 18 plays gaining a total of 50 yards while being penalized three times for 25 yards. They didn’t register their first first down until the first play of the second quarter. They did have touchdown drives of 91 and 75 yards and converted both opportunities in the red zone, but it was not a strong start to the season. Since Martavis Bryant was drafted in 2014, Sunday’s game was just the 12th of a possible 55 games that he, Ben, Bell and Brown have played together. In the first 11 games they averaged more than 29 points and 400+ total yards of offense. Needless to say, on this day, they weren’t anywhere close to those numbers.
*Of course, you can exclude Antonio Brown when talking about not living up to expectations. He was fantastic. Of his 11 catches, three were varying levels of spectacular and they were all different which defines the brilliance of AB. Late in the second quarter, the offense faced a 2nd-and-8 from its own 11, having done nothing to that point. AB was able to catch a tipped ball and turn it into a 50-yard gain up the middle of the field to set up the first touchdown. For me, his most impressive catch occurred early in the fourth quarter on a 2nd-and-6. Brown ran a quick slant from the right side. The Cleveland corner grabbed his left arm as Roethlisberger delivered a bullet right on the numbers. Brown caught the ball one-handed, in-stride, shook free of the defender and gained 16 yards. It all happened so fast the refs didn’t even throw a flag. It was a catch I’ve watched Brown spend countless hours practicing with the Juggs machine during training camp. He made it look simple. The third occurred with under three minutes to go with the offense facing a 2nd-and-12 from its own 18—behind the chains once again. Brown was flanked right. Roethlisberger scrambled as AB crossed the field and basically lofted a pass into a crowd of AB and three Browns defenders who obviously just need to deflect the ball to get an incompletion. Instead Brown, all 5’11” of him, went up and made the play. First down. Game over. Is 150 catches and 2,000 yards receiving a possibility? Unlikely, but…
Just to finish the numbers on Brown, his 182 receiving yards included 95 yards after the catch. He also had a 15-yard catch nullified due to a penalty and drew a 41-yard pass interference penalty. Quite a day.
*Jesse James tied a career-high with six catches and had his first-ever two touchdown game. The second TD catch was impressive as Ben delivered the ball into a very tight window and James was able to hold on with a defender immediately all over him. However my favorite James play occurred on 1st-and-10 with 3:33 remaining and the Steelers looking to close things out. Ben hit James with a short pass in the right flat. He had a linebacker right in front of him. James took a hard step inside. The linebacker followed and James stopped and cut back out for and 8-yard gain as the LB stumbled to the ground. Le’Veon Bell eat your heart out. I’m guessing that will be the first and last time James jukes a defender out of his shoes.
*Last year, at 54.2%, the Steelers were 16th in the NFL converting red zone opportunities into touchdowns. They went 2-for-2 on Sunday.
*With the 30-points-a-game marker still hanging out there, the offense only putting up 14 is a huge disappointment.
*Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant were non-factors Sunday. Bell finished with 10 carries for 32 yards and 3 catches for 15 yards. I wouldn’t be surprised if those are his season-lows in all four categories. Bryant had 2 catches for 14 yards and a drop.
*The offensive line did a decent job protecting Ben, but had trouble opening up holes for the run game. This unit is viewed as one of the the 5 best in the game. More is expected.
*Not the way Steelers second-round pick Juju Smith-Schuster wanted to start his career. He wasn’t targeted in the passing game and was called for two holding penalties. Newly-acquired TE Vance McDonald also got flagged for holding (more like tackling) and couldn’t hold onto his only target.
The defense was solid overall, but allowing a rookie QB to drive his team 73 yards for a TD with under seven minutes to go is a bit disconcerting. The seven sacks certainly stand out, but it is worth noting that a more-experienced quarterback probably gets rid of the ball on at least four or five of those plays.
*First-round pick T.J. Watt had quite the debut with two sacks and a tremendously-athletic interception. Watt is the rare player who has been able to come in and start for the Steelers on defense on day one. Watt only raised already sky-high expectations with his showing. In fact, Steelers coaches thought so much of Watt that James Harrison only saw the field for four plays.
*Javon Hargrave looked dominant on the defensive line, although he only played 25 of a possible 66 snaps. It will be interesting to see if he gets more time with Stephon Tuitt expected to miss at least a couple weeks.
*Anthony Chickillo made the most of his opportunity with Bud Dupree out, registering two sacks and looking like the guy we have seen during his three preseasons.
*The defense held the Browns to 3-for-12 on 3rd down. Last year, opponents converted 42% of third downs against the Steelers which ranked a lowly 24th in the league. A better start yesterday.
*The Steelers defense committed four 15-yard personal foul penalties which is unacceptable. Along with a pass interference call on Sean Davis and a defensive holding call on Artie Burns, the fouls accounted for 6 of the Browns 20 first downs. Ryan Shazier was flagged for a late hit on Kizer. I have serious concerns for Shazier and the way he continually leads with his helmet. We saw it last year with his hit on Gio Bernard and again yesterday. It’s always difficult for a defensive player to know if and when a QB is going to slide, so I don’t fault Shazier much for that. My concern is that he is going to seriously injury himself with the way he uses his helmet. Something to watch going forward. I expect all four players, Shazier, Watt, Gay and Wilcox to be fined.
*The defense has to come up with a stop on that last TD drive. Poor tackling was an issue there.
A special teams touchdown is always a big deal and to get one five plays into the season was a great way to start.
*Excellent play design by Danny Smith and a very good job by Tyler Matakevich to squeeze through the line and perfectly lay out for the block. The Steelers seemed to be more aggressive with their punt-block approach in the preseason (or maybe I’m just imagining it) and it paid off right away. Also a nice job by Chickillo to fall down next to the ball and cradle it in the end zone rather than falling on top if it and risk having it squirt out the back for a safety. (Rosie Nix just missed a second block on the Browns next punt.)
*In a bit of a surprise Eli Rogers was the return man for all five Browns’ punts, returning 3 for 32 yards. I like Rogers in that role, but was surprised Antonio Brown was not used at all. Something to watch.
*Jordan Berry and Chris Boswell did their typical excellent work.
*Jabril Peppers returned one punt for 25 yards. You never like to see that.
Steelers fans reflexively reach for the undisciplined, unprepared meme any time anything goes wrong for the Steelers. There are times when that is a legitimate line of questioning to pursue and this week is one of those. 13 penalties for 144 yards is ridiculous.
*I don’t think there is a lot of praise to be handed out to the coaching staff on this one. They got a win on the road. Ok.
*Regular readers know I pay close attention to clock management. With 1:53 left in the first half the Steelers had a first down at the Browns 28 and all three timeouts left. That is a ton of time. On the next play Ben completed a 19-yard pass to AB to the Cleveland 9. The Steelers called their first timeout. That was absolutely the wrong decision. Yes, these are minor details, but there is no reason to call timeout there. After an incompletion used eight seconds, Le’Veon Bell ran the ball down to the 4-yard line. The Steelers took their time, lined up and Ben then found Jesse James for the touchdown. They left 45 seconds on the clock. Kizer was unlikely to do much with 45 seconds, but that is plenty of time for Tom Brady or Aaron Rogers who the Steelers will face later in the season. The Steelers repeatedly make these types of mistakes and sooner or later it’s going to hurt them.
Big Officiating Calls:
*I think the officials generally had a pretty good day and didn’t have an impact on the outcome.
Up Next: The Steelers will take on the Minnesota Vikings Sunday, September 17, the home opener at Heinz Field. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:00 EST.
Reminder: You can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.