The Steelers enter tonight’s game riding a four-game winning streak, sitting just over .500 at 5-4 on the year. Four of their wins, however, have come at home, and now they’re being asked to take their winning performance on the road in five of their final seven games.
Their first host is the Cleveland Browns, who just snapped a four-game winning streak themselves with a road win over the currently 6-3 Buffalo Bills. They may be 3-6 on the year, but two of their wins have come against quality opponents, the other seeing take take down the 7-2 Baltimore Ravens.
Following wins against the Indianapolis Colts and the Los Angeles Rams, the Steelers have some quality wins under their belts as well, and tonight they get back the services of James Conner and Ramon Foster, who should be an aid to their efforts, particularly on the ground.
Also inactive are Anthony Chickillo, Paxton Lynch, Benny Snell, Zach Gentry, Chukwuma Okorafor, L.T. Walton, and Justin Layne. Olivier Vernon is out for the Browns.
The Steelers lost the coin toss, but the Browns deferred. Tony Brooks-James, with Ryan Switzer on IR, was back to return the kick. Conner was tackled for a loss on first down. After a stop and a throwaway on third down, it’s a quick three-and-out. Jordan Berry got off a 54-yard punt, but Ola Adeniyi was injured in coverage. Jayrone Elliott is the only other outside linebacker on the roster behind the starters.
Baker Mayfield’s first pass was batted by Cameron Heyward. For some reason, right guard Wyatt Toller fielded it and was tackled for a loss of five. Off play action, it was a quick pass to Odell Beckham for seven yards. Now third and eight, Mayfield was able to escape pressure following good coverage early to find Kareem Hunt down the field, beating Mark Barron with his back to the ball down to the Steelers’ 43. And then the Steelers allowed their first play of 40-plus yards with Beckham beating Steven Nelson for the touchdown. One-on-one coverage.
Upon review, it was determined that Beckham’s knee was down early. They failed to get in from the three-yard line on first and goal last week.This time, Mayfield scored on a keeper with Nick Chubb helping push him over the pile. Browns 7-0 with four minutes gone.
Brooks-James’ second kick return got about to where his first did: the 21. With room to run over the middle, Rudolph found JuJu Smith-Schuster for a catch-and-run of 16 to start the drive, their first positive play. At the 37, Rudolph had to field a low snap and then threw low and wide to Conner, incomplete. A short pass to Vance McDonald was negated by a holding penalty on Villanueva, who had two last week working against Myles Garrett.
Now second and 20, Jaylen Samuels got a draw run to pick up eight, setting up third and 12 from the 35. A deep shot to James Washington was incomplete in tight coverage, but the ball was placed pretty well. Multiple penalties on the play, both on the Browns. Pass interference was picked up against Denzel Ward, covering Washington, putting the ball on Cleveland’s 33.
Conner spun his way for seven out of a three-tight end set, running away from the heavy side of the formation. On second and three, Conner got the carry again but was stuffed for no gain, setting up third down. Rudolph was hit as he threw, incomplete. Trey Edmunds couldn’t comfortably pick up the blitz of Joe Schobert, even though Rudolph motioned him into the right position. Jordan Berry botched the handling of the field goal snap, which led to Chris Boswell pushing the ball wide left for his second miss of the season from 44.
Taking over at the 34, Chubb quickly ripped off a 10-yard run on first down. This time he was hit for a loss, Barron the primary tackler. Nelson did a great job of beating the screen block to bring Beckham down for a loss. On third down, Mayfield was able to beat pressure and get the ball out to Hunt, who broke a tackle on Barron to just get the first. That’s two big third-down conversions for the Browns already.
Mayfield was forced out of the pocket to throw the ball away under pressure on the following play. Good pressure so far, but it’s not getting home. Hunt picked up three or four out of the slot on second down. Now third and seven, Mayfield got the ball out, but his receiver couldn’t stay inbounds at the right sideline. T.J. Watt limped off the field following the play. Again, Elliott is the only other outside linebacker. The punt ended up being a touchback.
One drive number three, from the 20, Rudolph’s first play is a checkdown to Conner, picking up about six. He hit Washington for the first down for about seven toward the left sideline. Standing in pressure, Rudolph eventually threw short to Smith-Schuster, who got about five before being hit hard over the middle. Diontae Johnson tried to break tackles on a pass short of the sticks, but could only get four, setting up third and one. Short-yardage down, 11 personnel, Rudolph threw incomplete to Smith-Schuster on play action, the throw wide of the mark. He needs to hit that one. Berry’s punt was fielded at the 20 and returned to the 23. Artie Burns came up lame down the left sideline, injured.
Watt was back on the field and batted a ball down on second and four. Now third down, Mayfield’s pass was wide of the mark, looking for Beckham. Johnson returned the punt past the 20.
Conner picked up about three yards on first down as the first quarter ended. Villanueva was docked for his second holding penalty against Watt, four in the past…five-plus quarters. The second-and-17 play was an underneath throw to McDonald for five. Very aggressive there. Now third and 12, Johnny Holton was unable to get over Morgan Burnett on a deep shot. The ball was in his hands. That’s a drop. Berry’s punt went for 57 yards as the returner backed his way out of bounds at the left sideline.
Vince Williams engulfed Chubb for no gain at the line of scrimmage. Then Mayfield found the rookie receiver Hodge, beating Mike HIlton for a huge gain of 59 yards, the defense showing bad downfield tackling on top of it. Mike Tomlin challenged to argue that he was down by contact. The challenge worked, and saves the Steelers a net 19 yards. Hilton was arguing for down by contact immediately, influencing his poor effort to finish the tackle on the play, but you have to make the play.
Now at the 34 following a two-yard rush, Mayfield found Landry for a big gain inside the 10, beating zone with Barron underneath. On first and goal from the nine, Tyson Alualu and Cameron Heyward made the stop on first down. There should have been a penalty on Isaiah Buggs for being offside, late getting onto the field. Now second down, Chubb made a mistake not cutting up, held to three. Third and goal from the seven, Joe Haden was flagged for pass interference on a pass in the end zone working against Hodge. It was the right call. Back to the one, Landry was left wide open for the incredibly easy score, an embarrassment for a defense that had been consistently trending upward as they continue to get embarrassed on the road.
From the 25 after a touchback, Rudolph threw high and hard to Smith-Schuster, incomplete, over the middle on first down. Samuels was able to get six to set up a manageable third and four, but then again, they don’t even convert from one yard out. Both Rudolph and Smith-Schuster were hit in the head on the third-down play, with roughing the passer called, but no flag on the head-to-head hit on the wide receiver, who remained down after the hit.
So now the offense is without Conner, Smith-Schuster, and Johnson for the time being. Things could hardly be worse right now. Washington, Holton, and Tevin Jones the receivers, Samuels and Edmunds, plus Brooks-James the backs.
After an eight-yard reception by Edmunds, a short run was negated by an illegal formation penalty for Zach Banner, covered up as an eligible. Johnson actually is in the game now. Rudolph found Nick Vannett about seven to set up another third and one. Edmunds the back in the game, he was dropped for a loss. Morgan Burnett made the tackle. Now fourth and two, Rudolph was very nearly sacked, only able to throw up a desperation pass to the sideline. The Steelers certainly don’t look like they’re about to threaten any time soon. 14 points by the Browns could be enough for the win already.
Taking over at the 46, Chubb couldn’t hold on to a Mayfield pass in the flat, incomplete. Then it’s Beckham unable to hold on to the ball, incomplete. Yawn. Now third and 10, the defense finally gets off the field, late pressure forcing a throw short of the chains, Hilton on the tackle for a gain of six. For the second time tonight, the punt rolled into the end zone for a touchback. But a hold gave the Steelers another 10 yards, out to the 30.
Samuels now the lead back again, he got the ball on a checkdown well behind the line and was thrown down for a loss of seven yards. Just ridiculous incompetence by the offense. Rudolph took a forearm to the head that wasn’t called on the play. Tevin Jones now in caught a 16-yard pass just short of the sticks to set up yet another third and one, which has been terrible for the Steelers all season. On the play, Rudolph ran a keeper for the first down. And he didn’t even die. Imagine that, Randy.
Off the flea flicker, Ward was able to pop the ball up looking for Jones down the field, picked out of the air by Burnett and returned inside the Steelers’ 30. The nightmare continues.
At the 30 exactly, Mayfield was flushed out to his right, gunning on the move, incomplete at the right sideline. Chubb did well to cut up for about three yards on second down. Nelson came up with the third-down pass defensed with the pocket collapsing on Mayfield. Actually, it was Landry who batted the pass down for his quarterback. Otherwise it could have been a pick six. And the Browns missed the field goal wide right, so now both teams have missed from the mid-40 range.
Smith-Schuster was ruled out of the game with a concussion, in the meantime. And yet there was no flag on the play after being hit in the head by multiple defenders.
The offense now at the 35, Samuels was held to two yards on first down as the two-minute warning ticks down. Finally, McDonald actually had a big catch with yards after the reception, down to the Browns’ 41. Then a quick pass for a first down to Johnson inside the 30. With 1:26 remaining (the Steelers have all three timeouts), Burnett limped off the field with trainers. Non-contact injury.
Rudolph was hit before his arm came forward for a sack and fumble, but the Steelers were fortunate to recover after Sheldon Richardson missed scooping it up. They left a free rusher, Rudolph not able to get the ball out quick enough. That’s his fourth fumble on the year. Now second and twenty four, back to the 42, Rudolph ran up to the line and fired incomplete with nobody in the vicinity of his pass. Not sure if he was looking for somebody and just couldn’t get it out to Johnson, but he could have scrambled for a short gain. Chad Thomas, starting for Vernon, brought him down for another sack, beating Matt Feiler, overset with Edmunds to his right as the rusher skips inside. It’s fourth and 34. Everything is terrible.
At least Berry is punting well, his latest rolling to the seven and downed. Following a short run on first down for six, the Browns were content to just run out the clock, and the Steelers were content to let it happen.