The Steelers’ biggest game of the season to date is set to take place in just a short time from now. It’s the rematch from two and a half weeks ago against the Cleveland Browns, their only loss in the past four games, a loss that put their playoff hopes in further jeopardy.
Much more, of course, took place in the final few seconds of that game, which the pre-game entrances have clearly shown will be an underlying theme. But the bigger story will be who’s not playing, and for the Steelers, that includes JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, and Mason Rudolph.
The former two are out with injuries, while the latter has been demoted, at least for now, in favor of rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges, who makes his second career start. For the Browns, while Myles Garrett is of course suspended, they do get Olivier Vernon back.
Along with Smith-Schuster and Conner, the Steelers’ other inactives are Artie Burns (injury), Chukwuma Okorafor, Zach Gentry, Tuzar Skipper, and Paxton Lynch.
The Steelers won the coin toss and deferred. The opening kickoff went for, what else, a touchback. On first down, it was Nick Chubb up the middle for three. Baker Mayfield was incomplete across the field for Jarvis Landry with Mike Hilton in coverage. On third and seven, this time he completed to Landry behind Hilton for a first down for about 19.
At the 47, Kareem Hunt was able to get seven on the ground. Now across midfield, Terrell Edmunds couldn’t finish the tackle before Chubb got a first down. A wide open reception for 20-plus yards to Carlson, the rookie tight end making his third catch. Down to the 22, Chubb was lucky to get anything with Bud Dupree hitting him in the backfield. Hilton hit Hunt in the backfield for a loss of a few on a screen pass…but it wasn’t spotted properly. Went instead for no gain. Karma struck with the left tackle flagged for a false start. Now third and 14, Mayfield flushed out of the pocket and nearly hit Landry at the right sideline for a first down, but he was ruled out of bounds. Freddie Kitchens challenged the ruling on the field.
It was decided that there was enough to overturn the ruling on the field, giving the Browns a first down inside the 15. Dupree was flagged for neutral zone infraction, pushing them now inside the 10. Chubb was hit for a loss on first down. T.J. Watt, who was in on the last play, recorded sack number 12.5 on the season on the next play. Now third and 12, Mayfield’s pass sailed out of the back of the end zone, as the Browns settled for a field goal to end a very promising drive.
Kerrith Whyte notched an honest to goodness kick return, rushing for 37 yards past the 40. With two short runs on the first two offensive plays from scrimmage, however, Hodges was quickly put in a third and six. On the play, from the 45, he was thrown down about a mile into the backfield by Chad Thomas. Once again, Hodges’ tendency to drift back into the pocket hurts the offense, widening the angle and allowing the rusher to beat Matt Feiler. He needs to learn to step up into the pocket.
For the second drive in a row, the Browns begin wit ha third-down conversion early, this on a quarterback keeper on third and one. Now at the 37, Hunt was taken down from behind after three by Hilton. Following another three up the gut, it was third and four. Vince Williams made a great play to bring Hunt down for a loss on the shovel pass with a lineman on him trying to block him. That’s why he’s in there.
Diontae Johnson back to return the punt, fielded at the 14 but couldn’t gain a thing. Following a four-yard pickup by Snell, Hodges threw a screen to Samuels for a first down to end the opening quarter.
Now at the 26, Whyte was bottled up after just two yards. A false start on Johnson made it second and 13. Whyte got about the penalty yardage back on the next play. Now third and long, once again, Hodges was forced out of the pocket and threw the ball away, even as Samuels did a great job of picking up the blitz. Olivier Vernon hobbled off the field at the end of that play, but it’s still another quick punt for Pittsburgh. Berry’s punt went out of bounds at the 30.
A short pass to Odell Beckham for four to start the Browns’ third drive. Mayfield found Landry working against Edmunds for the first down. At the 45, Chubb rushed for nine to quickly get across midfield. And he got the first down a play later.
And then he broke another run for a first down to the 32. Continuing with the run game, Chubb got another five on the next play. And then seven. The run defense suddenly looking quite porous on this drive, for sure.
Down to the 20, Hunt was dropped for a loss on the play by a number of Steelers, Cameron Heyward among them. Edmunds came in on the blitz to make initial contact. On second and 13, Watt hit Mayfield as he threw, but Landry still came up with the catch on the wobbly throw. On third and five, after the Browns took a timeout, Hunt scored on a 15-yard catch-and-run on a play that sure made the defense look soft, walking through Joe Haden, Cameron Sutton, and then Minkah Fitzpatrick as he was crossing the goal line. A quarter and a half into the game, the Steelers trail 10-0 in what is pretty close to a must-win.
White was tackled at the 17 on the kick return. On first and 10, Johnson dropped the ball on a short pass. Off play action, Vance McDonald took a big hit at the line of scrimmage for just a yard. Now third and nine, Hodges aired it out to James Washington on a free play due to an offside, making the catch for 31 yards. Johnson picked up 17 on an end around. Chad Thomas for the Browns was injured on the play. Sheldon Richardson hit his head on a sideline heater at the end of that play as well. A bit of a scary scene, as he is now going through the concussion protocol.
At the Browns’ 34, the Steelers ran their first wildcat play since Samuels threw an interception in Week Five, Samuels keeping the ball for about seven. He kept it for a first down a play later. Snell got the handoff from Hodges now for three yards, inside the 20. Hodges was flagged for a false start on the next play. It certainly looked like a bad call. Randy Fichtner called a conservative draw to Whyte for just a few yards as the crowd booed. Now third and nine, Hodges once again quickly drifted back into the pocket feeling pressure and threw the ball away. I’m currently seeing no reason to believe that Hodges gives the Steelers a better chance to win than Rudolph. Chris Boswell did get them on the board with three minutes to play in the half.
Kameron Kelly made a great tackle at the 19 on the ensuing kickoff. Dupree got a hand on the first-down pass for an incompletion. Hunt got four to make it third and six. Watt just missed his second sack of the game, but ultimately threw incomplete to force a punt. Watt called for a hold after the play, but of course didn’t get it. With two minutes left to work with in the first half, the Steelers also get the ball to start the second.
Johnson had a solid 13-yard punt return for a net punt of about 43 or so, returning the ball to around the 30.
A short pass to Washington got about six on the first play of the drive. Deon Cain fought for the first down on the next play as the Steelers used their first timeout with 1:19 to play, now at the 42. Hodges took a shot to Johnson down the field between two defenders, but the ball was underthrown, the defender making a nice play to break it up. This time he was able to connect with Tevin Jones for 28 to make a big catch, in traffic. He was actually bumped before the ball arrived. Should have had a flag for pass interference.
With 1:06 now, the Steelers down to the 30. Hodges once again took another shot down the field, and found Washington making a great concentration catch for the touchdown, in spite of the fact that he was interfered with by T.J. Carrie. Washington is really stepping into the number one role in Smith-Schuster’s absence. It’s now a tie game with a minute to play in the half.
After bobbling the kickoff, the Browns were stuck at the seven to start the ensuing drive. Hunt was wrestled down by Watt after a yard, but an illegal shift was called. Hunt got out to the 20 with 44 second left. Mayfield’s pass on the next play went out of bounds in Landry’s direction. Hunt ripped off another 16-yard run on the next play with 19 seconds left. At the 36, Mayfield’s deep shot to Beckham was well-defended, incomplete. He launched a long incompletion into double coverage to Beckham, Sutton the nearest. Mayfield was hit by Dupree at the end of the throw and went to the sideline, into the locker room. Garrett Gilbert came in for the last throw, incomplete.