Can you imagine being the first team to lose to the organization that just went through an entire season without winning a game? That is very nearly how the Pittsburgh Steelers began their 2018 season, spared only by a fantastic play by T.J. Watt to block what would have been a game-winning field goal in overtime in the season opener against the Cleveland Browns.
So they didn’t lose to the (formerly?) most hapless team in the land. They merely tied. And that was before they fired Hue Jackson and Todd Haley, put Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, and Greg Robinson in the starting lineup, traded Josh Gordon, and a whole bunch of other things that helped lead to that team’s turnaround, to the point where they are actually beginning to be respected.
There were signs of this already last year. The Steelers only narrowly beat the Browns in the season opener of 2017, their offense struggling to score. Their victory was won only by the margin that a blocked punt recovered for a touchdown at the end of the opening drive provided. And it took a big third-down conversion to seal the game at the end.
Things are not great in September of 2018 either. They managed to put up 21 points, but the Browns got into the end zone twice in the fourth quarter to tie the game. The second touchdown came after Joe Haden was injured, Tyrod Taylor immediately going after Cameron Sutton, his replacement, throwing the game-tying touchdown to Gordon with just under two minutes left.
Of course the Steelers themselves kept the Browns in the game. Ben Roethlisberger threw three interceptions, two of them bad, the first picked off by rookie Denzel Ward in the red zone. Another was a deep pass with nobody in the vicinity from deep in Steelers territory. He also fumbled twice, once in overtime, and a costly James Conner fumble set up the first touchdown of the fourth quarter.
Chris Boswell had a chance to put the game to bed in overtime with just under two minutes to play, but he missed from 42 yards out, that becoming a theme throughout the year. He would miss seven of 20 field goal attempts, plus another five extra point attempts, in an inexplicable decline that apparently began in Cleveland.
Another theme from the game: starting slow, finishing slow. This is how many of their games would play out, particularly early in the year, and that also represented their entire season: slow start, strong middle, ugly finish.
The Steelers scored all their points in about a 20-minute span between the second and third quarters, the offense doing little before or after that. And naturally, the defense gave up the game-tying score late in the fourth quarter—even if it was the offense that allowed them to make it a one-possession game in the first place, as Conner’s fumble put the ball on the one-yard line for an easy rushing touchdown.