While the Pittsburgh Steelers were ultimately able to come away with a blowout victory against the Cleveland Browns today by a final score of 33-18 that doesn’t actually do justice to how imbalanced it was, there was one worrying trend (two, actually) that they were not able to buck in the impressive effort.
That is, they have continued to look sluggish, if not anemic in the first quarter of games, and that has been a recurring them for a decade now coming out of bye weeks. While the slow first-quarter offense so far this year has been an issue, the fact of the matter is that they have only scored six points in the first quarter in games after the bye week since 2009.
That is part of the reason that they have gone 1-4 in their past five games after the bye leading into today’s game, a figure that includes the postseason bye of last season. They beat the Indianapolis Colts (after getting off to a terrible start in the first half) last season for their first win after a bye since 2013.
And today’s slow start was about as bad as it gets without giving up defensive touchdowns. They compiled a whopping 16 yards of offense over nine plays across three drives in the first quarter. Two of them resulted in three-and-outs, with the middle of the two only sparing that result because Ben Roethlisberger’s third-down pass was intercepted by safety Derrick Kindred off of a deflection.
The Steelers had more penalty yardage against them than offensive yardage by the time the first quarter came to a close, and were held without a first down. They looked to have one, with a one-yard James Conner run on third and one, but it was negated by, of all things, an illegal block in the back by Xavier Grimble. So they ended up gaining 13 yards on their opening possession without registering a first down.
They would go on to score at least seven points in each of the three succeeding quarters, including two touchdowns on two possessions in the second quarter, the second of the two drives spanning more than two minutes and leaving just eight seconds on the clock.
After going three-and-out on their first three drives, they would do so only once for the remainder of the game, recording two more touchdowns and a field goal in the second half. They also had an eight-play, 53-yard drive to open the first half spoiled by a fumble by running back Stevan Ridley inside the Browns’ 25, which resulted in him being benched for the remainder of the game.
Given how well the offense played after the first quarter, one can only hope that the slow start was more a product of coming off of a bye week, and that they will begin to play better early in the games, but that’s a hard thing to count on, considering that no team has scored fewer points than them in the first frame in the NFL.